Zagat logo

Stories

Eric See On Bringing New Mexico To New York

Giving in to the joys of roast chilies, sopapillas, and breakfast burritos.

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Eric See is a chef and pastry chef who opened and ran the critically acclaimed Awkward Scone in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in November 2019, shutting it down in July 2020. On September 30, he opened Ursula in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with a menu focused on New Mexican food.

I moved to New York 10 years ago, to intern at Locanda Verde, and at a now-shuttered place called Braeburn in the West Village. After that, I worked for Karen DeMasco, which was incredible. That was the best introduction to pastry for me. I had been in restaurants my whole life, but pastry was new to me.

I moved to New York from Vermont, where I was in culinary school. I had won this really weird competition. There’s this thing called Skills USA at community colleges and high schools around the country. I was in a culinary program in New Mexico, and they convinced me to compete. It’s all these trade competitions. Cosmetology has competitions, and welding. And they had culinary and service competitions, too. I had waited tables my whole life in Albuquerque, so they told me to do the table-waiting competition. It was so weird—I fake-waited tables and gave fake checks and filled fake waters. Because of that, I won a scholarship to New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, and I was going to go for food and beverage management. But on a whim I changed to pastry.

A year ago, I opened the Awkward Scone. I wanted the Awkward Scone to be an English tea-inspired concept. I still had things that were representative of my background, like the horchata tea latte. I used a lot of high desert herbs in the teas and in the food, and I was doing blue corn scones and green chili scones.

Turns out there were a lot of people in the neighborhood from New Mexico, and they were so excited to see green chili. And they kept pressuring me to make breakfast burritos. It’s a staple in New Mexico—it’s our bagel. And I was like, no, it doesn’t make sense at a place called the Awkward Scone, I don’t feel like explaining it to people. Because in New Mexico, it could be called New Life Tabernacle and you sell breakfast burritos, or King Wok and you sell breakfast burritos. Everybody sells breakfast burritos.

So I buckled. And it ended up being my claim to fame. I’ve been working in New York City as a pastry chef for 10 years, and it took me rolling a burrito to get recognition.

Eric See at his new restaurant Ursula. Photo: Courtesy Eric See.

So we got a bunch of press off of the breakfast burritos. The weekends were really busy, and people were coming from Queens and Manhattan. New Mexicans are so funny—they show up like it’s Comic-Con. They come in New Mexican shirts and New Mexican hats. I carry the pride too, but it’s so funny. We’d have tables of four or five that were all in New Mexican shirts, and I was like, “My baristas are gonna hate me and hate New Mexico,” because everybody says, “I’m from New Mexico!” and the baristas were like, “Yeah, you and everybody else that walks in.”

And then, when the pandemic hit, we had to let go of all of our staff, but obviously we still had bills to pay. I had a catering company, and that was decimated. We lost all the events for the entire year, which was hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue. And the catering was what was keeping the lights on and allowing us to grow more organically. We were doing delivery a few days a week on Caviar, and it was busy. But it was also incredibly overwhelming. It was a totally different ballgame.

At a restaurant, there’s a natural cadence as you take orders because people are waiting in line one by one—the orders come in one by one. On Caviar, you can get 10 orders at once. And there’s no way to really control that. So every day, I was going home just wasted. I was doing what I needed to do to keep my business alive. But it was taking so much out of me. And I was like, “This is not what I love about food. I don’t even get to engage with anybody.”

It didn’t really make sense anymore to try and operate in these new COVID regulations. And I was tired. I needed a break. I had been through a lot in the last couple years with that business. And so we closed it down. I took a little bit of time to reflect and think. But soon, I was working on reincarnating the Awkward Scone in Clinton Hill, just as it was. I was in the middle of negotiating a lease. It was not really what I wanted to spend. But there was an opportunity for no key money. I had gotten approved by the landlord, plus I also just needed a job, I needed to keep going. And I was going to do it.

The breakfast burrito at Ursula. Photo: Courtesy Eric See.

But I also took a trip to New Mexico. I went to go see my family for a hard reset. I was supposed to go back from my aunt’s 70th birthday for a surprise party in April, and that got canceled. But I was like, I’m not going to feel comfortable flying there for a while. And if I’m gonna reopen something by myself, I’m not going to have time for a long time to go back. So I decided I would take three weeks and drive out there, and take my time, and also do it in a way that was safe. So me and my dog were in national campgrounds in a tent the whole way.

I also saw along the way that everything was the same everywhere right now. I was thinking of leaving New York because I had had too many setbacks. But when I got back to New Mexico, I was like, “Well, what am I gonna do here?” The market in Albuquerque can only bear one or two nice pastry shops and cafes. And there’s already a woman there that has a really wonderful bakery that I love and I patronize every time I go home. I didn’t want to come and take a piece of her territory.

Coming back to Brooklyn after that, and seeing the outdoor dining—I was re-energized by that and by my food friends here, like Claire Sprouse at Hunky Dory and some of the people I had been working with on food relief efforts. Seeing people coming together, seeing the activism, seeing my friends that are still making things work with their restaurants—I was like, Brooklyn and New York still have it, you just have to figure it out.

And then the opportunity for this space came up, where my new restaurant Ursula is. I really think that there was some kind of cosmic intervention preventing me from that lease in Clinton Hill, because it was gonna be five years, and it was a lot of money. I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared for it, but I didn’t know what else to do. But the landlord was just really dragging his feet on all of it. And then this space opened up.

By then, I had also decided that I was not going to reopen the Awkward Scone. I was going to work with what was most successful at that space, and with stuff that was also more personal to me. Ursula is my grandma’s name. She has had a really rough life and is a beacon of resilience and ability to overcome. She raised 10 kids pretty much by herself. She’s still alive, she’s still in Albuquerque. This name makes sense for what’s going on in my own life right now.

Before Ursula opened, in September, we did some pop-ups where we roasted Hatch chilies outside. During harvest season in New Mexico—usually August through the end of September—those Hatch chili roasters are on every corner. And that smell permeates the city. It was something I really missed about Septembers in New Mexico.

When I decided I was going to go forward with the New Mexican thing, I thought roasting Hatch chilies is such a cool, unexpected thing to do in the middle of Brooklyn. I told Claire Sprouse and she was like, “Yes, my patio is perfect for you.” We sold so much food there. I didn’t expect that. I had an idea of what a successful day was gonna look like, and we doubled it. I was like, all right, I guess we’re doing this thing.

Ursula restaurant. Photo: Courtesy Eric See.

New Mexican cuisine is highly underrepresented in New York City. The Banty Rooster was doing some New Mexican and Southwestern foods right, but they closed after barely being open. So now this is kind of the last bastion of New Mexican cuisine in New York that I’m aware of.

New Mexicans are very protective of their cuisine, so I have to say “New Mexican inspired”—that gives me a little creative freedom to do some things that make sense for the New York market. Like, I have a lemon, turmeric, poppy seed loaf in there because it was one of my favorite pastries in my last spot. And the poblano relleno is not the way we would eat a relleno in New Mexico. The stuffed sopapillas are prepared a little bit differently here. They usually smother them back home, but that’s not how I do them. At home, they’re served on a plate with the filling underneath, and then it gets smothered in chili and cheese. It’s a plated thing, and you use a fork. Having a sopapilla that’s a little more portable works better in New York. That was one of my first jobs—frying sopapillas and working at a takeout counter in New Mexico—so this is bringing back a lot of memories. I never imagined I was going to be selling sopapillas and doing New Mexican food in New York.

I’ve been in the food industry since I was 11. I used to work in an airport diner. On the weekends, my dad managed a small private airport, and I would go with him to work. I’d go up to the diner, and I would help the chef prep the eggs in the morning. And then I would go wait tables. There were pilots from across the country converging there, and I was getting to hear their stories.

My dream job when I was a kid was to be a travel agent. Thank God I didn’t go that route. But I used to have my parents take me to the AAA offices to get all the guidebooks, and I would plan dream trips, and I’d have all the stops where we were going to eat. I was nurtured by being in an airport with all these people coming from other places, and hearing things about this place or that place. That connection to food and travel and cross-cultural transfer of traditions and stories—that’s what really got me engaged in food.

There’s so much history in a sopapilla or in a burrito. It’s storytelling. And I love that. Food is a way for you to tell your traditions and your history. And New Mexican food specifically is a huge pillar of New Mexican culture.

I was listening to a podcast, and this woman was talking about being from a small village in Ethiopia. And she was like, “I hate when people say, ‘oh, you’re African,’ or I hate when people say, ‘oh, you’re Ethiopian.’ No, I’m not Ethiopian. I’m not African. I’m from this small village, in Ethiopia, in Africa, and if you want to know about me and my family and my traditions and my culture, I’m from here.” And that’s very much how I feel about New Mexican culture.

My mom’s side of the family is Hispanic, but I don’t really have a lot of traditions tied to European Spanish culture because my mom’s family has been in New Mexico for a long time. And I wouldn’t say I’m American—that’s just too broad. So if you want to understand who I am, I’m New Mexican. This is a personal tale that I am telling, this way, and that storytelling has been one of my favorite things about food. You go into a restaurant, and you’re getting the story being told by that chef, for that restaurant. And this one is my voice.