Chef Hue-Chan Karels pours passion into every dish she makes. Her enthusiasm infuses her private parties, catered events, cooking classes and other culinary experiences. Add to that her boundless energy and brilliant smile and you’ve got a recipe for success.
And what success Karels has cooked up with Open Kitchen, a collaborative culinary center built on the belief that kitchen is community. With a smorgasbord of edible experiences, Karels and her team of chefs create community through innovative food that highlights healthy eating and global cuisines.
Karels launched Open Kitchen in 2009 in Washington, D.C., after an accomplished twenty-year career with her FDA regulatory and compliance consulting practice. “I created Open Kitchen because I wanted to bake cookies for a living,” she says. “I wanted to get out of my successful but very demanding life. I wanted to bake cookies and sell them at the farmers market, but I didn’t have a kitchen. So we created Open Kitchen, a place where others could facilitate their craft and I could facilitate mine. It turned out be much bigger than expected.”
In 2014, Karels relocated Open Kitchen to Santa Fe, where she and her husband had discovered their dream home. Her business quickly took root, flourished and continues to grow, having recently moved into a new space on Don Gaspar Avenue, where she plans to offer private dining and other events. During the pandemic, Karels and her team innovated, making delicious, nutritious meals and delivering them to Santa Fe and Los Alamos residents.
“Our distinctiveness is in giving people different choices, different flavors and different cuisines every week, and it’s very demanding,” she says. “We’re changing it up every week to keep people interested. Our food theme is global. It’s a personal thing because I love every type of food.”
Soup is among the most popular items on Open Kitchen’s weekly menus. “People love our Carrot Ginger Coconut Milk Turmeric soup,” Karels says. “A popular genre is Vietnamese. People love Asian foods and the authenticity of flavors that I bring to the table, in dishes like our Caramelized Chicken with Ginger Lemongrass.”
Vietnam’s vibrant cuisines are close to Karels’ heart. When she was nine, she and her family left Vietnam to settle in the United States as refugees, in the wake of the Vietnam War. “My mother never knew how to cook,” Karels says. “I was the oldest girl of three brothers, so we took turns cooking, and I found joy in experimenting. I would always jazz it up.”
While Karels has fun in the kitchen, she’s serious about forging connections to community that make a difference. “What nurtures me spiritually is giving back,” she says. “It gives me great joy. Open Kitchen cares, and we support our community.” She recently took part in a virtual Culinary Cook-Along to benefit the Children of Vietnam and competed in the 8th Annual Hungry Mouth Festival, which benefits St. Elizabeth Shelters & Supportive Housing. She took first place in the festival with her “Pacific Rim meets Southwest” dish, a mouth-watering combination of Filipino-style adobo beef short ribs, red chile polenta, garlic bok choy and purple cabbage slaw. A symphony of flavors such as these not only connects diverse cultures with different cuisines, it connects diners with Karels’ joyful cooking.
Lynn Cline is the author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes & Tales from New Mexico. She has written for The New York Times, Bon Appétít and numerous other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly radio show on KSFR 101.1 FM.