- Justin Pioche was one of five finalists for the Best Chef honor in the Southwest in the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards.
- He owns and operates the Pioche Food Group with his sister Tia.
- The siblings started their company in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 but have made it a success.
FARMINGTON — When she was a child, Tia Pioche recalls, she once participated in a classroom exercise in which she was asked to write down what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She responded by writing that she wanted to become a chef, but her classmates all laughed at her, assuming she had meant the word chief and simply misspelled it.
Now, years later, Pioche hasn’t fulfilled that childhood ambition, but she’s come reasonably close to it, serving as a partner in the Pioche Food Group, a Fruitland-based, Navajo food service company she shares with her brother Justin. It was Justin who wound up becoming a chef, but it is Tia who deals with the business side of the enterprise, handling the bookings and the staff, setting the menus and taking care of the day-to-day operations of the company.
“I’m glad she didn’t become (a chef),” Justin said, explaining that the work allows him to remain focused on the creative side of the business. “Now, she’s my boss.”
Together, in just a few years, the Pioches have built a company that seems poised for a breakout, especially in the wake of its most exciting development yet. Earlier this year, Justin was named a semifinalist for the Best Chef honor for the Southwest region of the prestigious James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards presented by the James Beard Foundation, the New York-based nonprofit organization founded by the legendary food writer, teacher and cookbook author widely known as the Dean of American Cookery.
In April, Justin was informed he had been named one of five finalists for the region and was invited to Chicago during the first week of May for the national awards ceremony, joining the other four nominees — two from Las Vegas, Nevada, and two from Oklahoma. Justin wound up not winning the award, but that hasn’t kept his culinary reputation and his company’s profile from growing considerably over the past couple of weeks.
“It still hasn’t really hit me yet, even though I was right there,” he said of the ceremony and his first experience with celebrity chef status.
Tia said the Pioche Food Group has been inundated with emails from across the country since the awards ceremony.
“They all want to know, ‘Where can we get your food?’” she said.
There is no straightforward answer to that question, as Justin was the only chef from the Southwest region not affiliated with a restaurant who was selected to be a finalist for the award. The Pioche Food Group does catering for private events, as well as offering a regular series called the LorAmy Dinners, which mixes Navajo foods, cooking techniques and culture with other fine dining styles.
The Pioches work primarily in New Mexico, but they have served clients in locations as far away as Alaska, New York and Wisconsin, and they regularly work in the Phoenix area, where Justin went to culinary school from 2014 to 2017.
“That’s been our second home,” Justin said.
The Pioches had been doing occasional dinners and special events for a couple of years when they decided in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020 to “go legit,” as they said, and make the Pioche Food Group their occupation as well as their avocation. Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds, highlighted by its work on June 15 when it served 500 people during a dinner at the Farmington Civic Center for the New Mexico Association of Counties’ 86th annual conference, which was taking place in Farmington.
Events of that size are where Tia’s gifts for organizing and managing are on full display — not just in terms of overseeing the company’s staff, but also keeping her brother focused on his job, he said.
“She’s been a great manager,” Justin said. “She keeps me on point when I’m messing up, and she’s not afraid to call me out.”
Tia’s approach to managing the staff is firm but understanding, she said, acknowledging that she often serves as a bit of a mother figure to the company’s employees. She said the verbally abusive style for which so many celebrity chefs are notorious isn’t for her.
“I don’t want to be like that,” she said. “We’re family oriented. That’s not my goal, and that’s not what we do.”
That doesn’t mean Tia doesn’t have high expectations for her staff. She said those who work for the Pioche Food Group are required to be professional, courteous, reliable and hard working.
Her brother has experienced both sides of that coin over the course of his career, which has seen him cook in kitchens in Phoenix, New York and even Israel. Justin recalled working for chefs who yelled at him, threw pots at him or even locked him in a walk-in freezer.
But the chef from whom he learned the most, he said, is Farmington’s Mela Anchondo, who runs Francisca’s, an authentic New Mexican restaurant at 1000 N. Butler Ave. in Farmington. Justin recalled how Anchondo confronted him one time after he “ruined” a pot of her red chile.
“She threw it out right in front of me,” he said sheepishly, describing how she made him watch her wash the pot. “Then she said, ‘You’re going to watch me. This is how I want it done.’”
These days, Justin said, Anchondo couldn’t be more proud of him, never failing to introduce him to all of her employees whenever he stops by the restaurant for a meal.
Anchodno helped instill in him a serious work ethic, but he said he realizes his newfound status as a James Beard Award regional finalist means he must up his game even more.
“It definitely puts more pressure on me,” he said. “It’s forcing me to push that envelope again.”
If her brother has any thoughts of resting on his accolades, Tia is there to set him straight.
“I tell him, ‘You’re a James Beard finalist. You represent us, too. I expect you to do this, this and this,’” she said.
Justin said it wasn’t always easy for him to accept his sister’s authority as the general manager of the company, even though, as a Navajo, he comes from a matriarchal society. But it’s something to which he increasingly has become accustomed.
“I didn’t really treat her like a manager for a while,” he said. “But now, I’m always asking her, ‘Taste this’ or ‘What do you think of that?’ Hopefully, it’s becoming more of a joint effort.”
Tia said she appreciates the effort her brother is making and senses his increased respect for her.
“I feel like I’ve been getting the trust I wanted from Justin,” she said, noting that he now seems inclined to let her speak for him when one of their diners has a question about the food.
The siblings’ relationship appears comfortable and equitable, with both of them often finishing the other’s sentences. And they share the idea that the Pioche Food Group’s best days are still ahead of it, though they aren’t quite clear about what that might look like.
“We want a food laboratory,” Justin said, describing such an enterprise as a large building where he and his sister can not just cook, but also hold its LorAmy Dinners series, offer classes, hold special events, do consultations and even videotape cooking demonstrations that would be presented on the company’s website and social media accounts.
Tia said she understands that such a building likely would have to be located in a larger city such as Phoenix or Las Vegas, and she isn’t sure how she feels about leaving the Farmington area, which always has been her home. But with Justin now pushing to earn his first Michelin Star — regarded as the gold standard of cooking excellence — she said she knows it’s probably a matter of when, and not if, they need to leave the Four Corners area to realize their potential.
“We need to work it out sitting at the table facing each other,” she said, describing how she envisions that decision being made. “And then we’ll move on.”
For more information about the Pioche Food Group, call 505-258-2907 or visit piochefoodgroup.com.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 email@example.com.
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