Bill and Cheryl Jamison

Ambassadors of Food

by John Vollersten

October/November 2010

When cookbook author Bill Jamison bought his historic Tesuque home in 1978, little did he know that the restored former dairy barn would become a combined test kitchen and writing cranny for a career that would take him and his wife, Cheryl, around the world and through the authoring of more than a dozen books. The charming couple have received four prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for their cooking and travel tomes and have their fingers in the pics of almost anything to do with the Santa Fe food scene.

Their home, which sits back from Tesuque’s tree-lined main road, is charming, homey, and simple. After rolling down the rear driveway, which leads to a landscaped garden, I get out and walk down a stone pathway that opens into a patio, where the grill and outdoor dining area sit. I pause and imagine the Ducane Meridian grill in full Jamison swing, the whole area having inspired titles such as Sublime Smoke, Born to Grill, and The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining.

We’ve put our hearts and souls into this place,” says Cheryl. “It says so much about our personality. It keeps us centered.”

The outdoor kiva doubles as a wood-fired grill—one the Jamisons enjoy even in the colder months. Entering the house through the kitchen—of course—I hear Cheryl calling out to me from her loft, one of two (Bill uses the other) that rises above both ends of the long main room. Slanted skylights brighten up the interior. A smallish side room boasts a large record collection and an overstuffed chair. At the back of the house is a guest room and TV lounge—a sometime playroom for the Jamisons’ three grandchildren. There’s also a large wine cooler (a must for serious foodies), and the surrounding shelves and mantels arc chockfull of tchotchkes and collectibles gathered on the Jamisons’ travels.

Off the kitchen resides a massive cookbook and food resource collection, invaluable and handy when the couple experiment at their four-burner Viking stove. It’s not a huge kitchen, but it is highly functional. It has two ASKO dishwashers and Dacor ovens. Next to the stove is the counter—the hub of all the Jamisons’ cooking and writing. Here, Cheryl likes to lean while Bill sits to write. Cheryl considers the grill and outdoor courtyard one more “room of the house.”

A plate of meat about to be grilled.
Mmm, fresh meat
A fountain surrounded by ivy
The fountain in the outdoor dining area

“All the original families in this area date back to the settlers of the 1750s,” says Bill. “Tesuque Creek across the street was the center of agriculture here. After this building was a dairy barn, it was converted into a metal workshop and then finally into a house that the original owners sold antiques out of.”

The Jamisons met while Bill served as director of the State of Oklahoma Arts Council; he hired Cheryl as an intern. “I think that’s why we work so well together,” adds Cheryl. “We’d already worked in a professional setting.” They married in 1985, settled into the Tesuque house, and, while still pursuing other careers, began writing as a sideline. 

Bill’s first book was An Insider’s Guide to Santa Fe, an immediate hit that soon grew into a series of Best Places to Stay travel books on Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Cheryl, who grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, took to cooking early in life. “I wasn’t really interested in meat and potatoes,” she says, alluding to the standard heartland fare. “I wanted to know about the great flavors I tasted at local Mexican restaurants. When I went to the store to buy the chiles I thought I needed to make chile rellenos, I ended up with jalapeños.” Needless to say, Cheryl’s version turned out a bit too spicy for the midwestern palate. Bill, on the other hand, came of age in the Texas Hill Country, an area known for its tasty meat marinades and barbecue flavors. Their shared love of food—especially piquant food—made them a perfect match.

Their first combined effort, the Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook, came out in 1991. “I used to drive out to the restaurant and work with the ladies in the kitchen, recording every recipe they were making,” recalls Cheryl. “Each cook had her own version, so I’d come back here and Bill and I would re-create the dish and then take it to the Jaramillo family, who own the restaurant, to see which one we wanted to use for the book.”

Since that first book together, Cheryl has focused on recipe development and testing while Bill has concentrated on the historical information behind each dish and the concept of each book. Before even starting a new book, they’ve already decided which recipes to use and have laid out 75 to 85 percent of the content. They test all the recipes themselves. 

It’s a formula that clearly works. They’ve authored and coauthored everything from A Real American Breakfast: The Best Meal of the Day to Around the World in 80 Dinners. Next up, to be published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, is a book that will honor 100 years of New Mexico cooking (just in time for the state’s 2012 centennial).

Last year Cheryl teamed up with designer Barbara Templeman to form insideOUT, an exterior design consulting group. She also plays the role of food ambassador to the New Mexico Tourism Department. Both she and Bill play that role unofficially as well. As a pair, they promote food and food-related products, teach cooking classes, and contribute to national culinary magazines. They also host annual culinary trips to France. “Though we love to travel and never really feel homesick, we love to come home,” says Cheryl. “We’ve put our hearts and souls into this place. It says so much about our personality. It keeps us centered.” To Bill and Cheryl Alters Jamison, home is where the heart—and hearth—is.

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