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October 2008

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Art Becomes Her

How Chef Maiya Keck brought upscale dining to Marfa.

by Michael Castellon

The success of Chef Maiya Keck is built on passion and simplicity. This is apparent when she describes dishes she most enjoys preparing. She will pause and describe flank steak, which is grilled, seasoned with olive oil and Parmesan, and served on a bed of radicchio. Seasonal, fresh, rustic. This has been Keck’s mantra since she developed the concept of Maiya’s almost a decade ago.

Maiya Keck Photo

“The biggest mistake people make is coming into this business liking the idea of being a restaurant owner, but not really understanding what it means to be one.”
– Maiya Keck, owner of Maiya’s restaurant in Marfa

This dedication to simplicity lives at the core of her downtown Marfa restaurant. It is a philosophy she honed in art school, and it has fueled the entrepreneurial success Keck has received in this town of artisans and tourists who know something about exquisite food and wine. As a result, her kitchen has become one of the most respected in the state.

Keck’s pioneering spirit brought her here 14 years ago, and this is where she opened Maiya’s, the town’s first fine dining establishment, in 2002. As with most restaurants, it was a tough go at first. Most nights, Keck wasn’t sure if she was going to have two tables or a full house. She also wasn’t certain if Marfa, which has a population of just more than 2,000 people, was ready to break free from more traditional, heartier Tex-Mex fare for her concept.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she says. “At that time, we didn’t have capital, but we always had enough to stay open. It wasn’t until the two-year mark we knew we were here to stay.”

The Creative Spirit

In the ultra-competitive restaurant business, which is increasingly so now due to growing concerns about the stability of the national economy, Keck cautiously shrugs off concern and discusses the need for restaurateurs to value creativity, originality and work ethic. After all, being a well-revered chef isn’t always about fame and glory.

“A saying I use is ‘no task is too small not to be done well,’” she says. “The biggest mistake people make is coming into this business liking the idea of being a restaurant owner, but not really understanding what it means to be one. I spend countless hours just chopping carrots and garlic. I spend a lot of time mopping floors.”

Keck’s flexibility and creativity drive her through bumps and unexpected turns in the economy. A weak dollar has raised the cost of ingredients shipped to Keck from overseas. But imaginative ordering from distributors and proper planning, tasks she learned while tiptoeing along a thin budget during her inaugural years, sees her through.

Always true to her passion for art and creativity (she is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied painting), Keck has found imaginative ways to overcome economic challenges – usually with gusto. For example, she views rising costs and poor exchange rates as an opportunity to buy more Texas meat, seafood and produce, which she proudly features on her menu. She speaks fondly of the GO TEXAN campaign, the Texas Department of Agriculture’s initiative to promote Texas foods and culture.

“We buy Texas shrimp, Texas beef, wine, beer, vodkas and sausage,” she says. “It’s a good way to support Texas and support Texas agriculture. That’s very important to us. One of the biggest trends I’m seeing all over the state is that of local dining. Our diners want food from Texas. People are becoming more aware and educated, and they are questioning authority when it comes to where their food is coming from.”

Pressing On

Now is a crucial time for many chefs. Economic downturns often spell disaster as people tighten their dining budgets. Keck explains that the most successful restaurants will be those with original concepts and that are driven by passion. She finds Zen in simple solutions and creativity – an artisan who knows beauty, as well as profit, is found in passion and details.

“My best advice is to choose a wise concept and to put your heart and soul into it,” she says.

And what does her future hold for Maiya’s?

“I want to be right here in Marfa,” she says. FN


Check out Maiya’s menu online by visiting www.maiyasrestaurant.com. To read more about what the GO TEXAN campaign is doing to promote Texas food and culture, visit www.gotexan.org.

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