Erin Wade was a born achiever.
She wasn’t just a great student; she was the best in her class. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school and headed to Harvard.
She shined as an athlete, too – soccer and track. As a teenager in Bellingham, Wash., she clocked a 5:03 mile.
Nobody pushed Wade harder than she pushed herself, and she always aimed high. She enrolled at Harvard as an aspiring doctor. After concluding medicine did not suit her, she started setting the perfect stage for a career in fashion. She landed an internship at Harper’s Bazaar, then spent a year after graduation studying in Milan.
She knew success. Contentment, however, remained aloof.
In 2003, Wade moved to some rural property her family-owned near Santa Fe with only a vague idea of what the future held. She began working the land, learning high-desert farming. It felt right.
A plan started to coalesce. She would use the farm’s bounty in a new salad-centric restaurant that met the community’s increasing appetite for fresh, healthy food.
Vinaigrette launched in 2008 in Santa Fe and expanded to Albuquerque in 2012. It became a multistate enterprise earlier this year when Wade opened a location in Austin, Texas.
In hindsight, she says, the course correction from aspiring doctor to fashion design student to farmer/restaurateur seems obvious. She has a creative bent, she was raised to love nature and the outdoors, and Italy had reignited her passion for food.
“It’s like Steve Jobs said in that great speech: You can’t connect the dots going forward; you can only connect them going back,” she says. “So you just have to follow your heart and sometimes that isn’t glamorous. That feels, in a sense, at that moment, like a failure, like, ‘Well that didn’t work.’
“But now every single piece makes sense to me.”
Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.
A: Oh, wow. I was very, very driven. Athletic – I was very involved in athletics, soccer, and track. I was valedictorian, so I was very obsessed with achievement. I was a math and science nerd at that time. That’s what I went into college: pre-med. I grew up running around outdoors, reading a lot, in a small town, extremely close with my family. I have one sister, and my mom and my dad, small unit. Had very great friends.
Q: Where do you think your drive comes from?
A: I was also fairly serious, I would say. I’ve always been. I popped out the womb that way. … I am goofy, I am a nerd and I love to have fun, but I think I was kind of serious in a certain sense. And I don’t know where that drive came from. It certainly, though, had to be addressed at some point. I realized that what I have learned as I’ve gotten older, and was a life-changing point for me, was that you have to take care of yourself, be healthy and happy, and then let the work and the drive come from that. At some point, there was a switch a little bit, where the drive was like putting the cart before the horse. The achieving became more important than my own well-being. And that’s when I had a major life shift in my 20s and started rethinking things.
Q: After graduating from Harvard, you headed to Milan to study fashion design?
A: I found out about the school. (The college internship at) Harper’s Bazaar was an amazing experience, but I realized … I just didn’t want to be on the editorial side of fashion. … I realized I wanted to be on the design side. Editorial in fashion feels a little bit like a yearbook. It’s amazing, the whole process – I couldn’t believe these incredible, beautiful books that were being put out. … It was really hard work and really good for me because no one gave a (expletive) that I went to Harvard. It was like “Go get the fricking garment bags, intern.” It was rough labor, but also just seeing (that) world. “The Devil Wears Prada” is true. That is a very accurate depiction of what it’s like in a fashion magazine. If you wore a bad outfit, your day was destroyed. Really for true. Seriously. When that movie came out, I was like “uhhh.” Because I wanted to write about my experiences. You form these great relationships. You go on these incredible shoots, but it’s so unglamorous at the same time. … I was in the fashion design program (Istituto Marangoni) for a year and I worked also for one of my teachers, who was a designer. We all worked for him helping him out.
Q: What were your plans after Milan?
A: At the time, the plan was to go to L.A. or New York and you end up being an assistant or helping another designer. … I didn’t even pursue that though, because I kind of had a moment in Milan (that changed things). Even though I was in this romantic idea of pursuing fashion design in Italy, I was still bringing my striver, kind of hamster-wheel, rat-race mentality to it and I wasn’t happy. I was like, “I’m not happy. I’m never going to meet my potential if I’m not happy and healthy and thriving.” The fashion design stuff was great – I use all that every single day. I love design; I love making mood boards and style is really important to me. But I was so influenced by the food there. I was so influenced by it. I grew up eating really well. My mom and my grandma are incredible cooks, but I’d been four years in Harvard, which just scrambled my common sense, my sense of how to have a healthy relationship with food and body, which I think is fairly common for women in college. They just get so unhealthy. I think I had lost a sense of joy and simple delight around food and, in Italy, it was just like this infectious sense of entitlement about food. They celebrate it; they talk about it ad nauseam. They relish it. They drag it out. And they feel completely unconflicted about the unequivocal pleasure (of food).
Q: When you moved to Santa Fe, was the family property already an active farm?
A: Not at all. It was just land. I had this idea that we could do some sort of agritourism thing out there so I started reading a bunch about organic farming. … I was reading about organic farming, renovating the house, trying to make this vacation rental or agritourism or some sort of viable business out of this property. I started reading all about organic farming and farming in the high desert, and that’s when I started kind of healing the soil in these ways I was reading about, planting cover crops, using our water rights, digging double-dug raised beds, and farming. I started to grow crops, and basically just selling and giving them to neighbors and friends, and experimenting. At the same time, the idea of a salad restaurant came into my head. This was like 2005. It’s working name was “The Salad Shack,” so I wrote the business plan and started trying to make it work.
Q: Do you steer the Vinaigrette menu yourself?
A: Yeah. I have a different setup though because I don’t know what my title would be. Technically, I’m the executive chef because I do all of the menu writing, I do all the menu development; the salad recipes are mine, the dressings are mine, the desserts are my family’s or mine. But I’m not a trained chef and I rely hugely on really awesome kitchen managers. I’ve always relied on that because I had no experience. I’ve always known what I know and trusted my sensibility, but then known what I don’t know and (found) the people that I needed to help me with that. … I think that’s a really important thing for business owners to know and admit to themselves.
Q: Now that Austin is open, where else do you see this restaurant going?
A: I’m kind of considering another location in Albuquerque because we’ve gotten some interesting offers. But I probably can’t be too specific about it; I haven’t even started lease negotiations or anything. But there’s a possibility for another location here. I opened a general store (called Modern General in Santa Fe last year) … which is a cafe/retail hybrid. … That’s something I think could do really well. It’s more breakfast-oriented. … That’s something that could work down here that I’m thinking about. And a second location in Austin makes sense potentially. Right now, my goal for the year is really to tune up our existing locations, tune up operations, get my staff extra-extra happy. I think we’ve all been working our asses off growing and what feels right now is to kind of go “OK, let’s enjoy this and appreciate this and tune up everything.” We now have four locations (including Modern General) and don’t really have a corporate structure, so (we’ll be) putting that in place and then looking at what the next best move is.
Q: If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?
Q: Is there a novel in you?
A: I think I like nonfiction more. But, yeah, in fact, that’s what I want to do. I want to take a month off and write. That’s a big part of me that feels a little bit undernourished now. I’m working on a cookbook, but it’s more of a life book about food.
Q: What’s your life like away from work?
A: I like to not get out of my pajamas and read and cuddle up in bed, and I like to hike and to be outside. My work and life are so connected, that’s a hard question, but at the same time I love to loaf. I like to have a little bit of space to kind of let my mind wander and come up with new ideas.
Q: What are your pet peeves?
A: Dinginess. Plastic. Ugliness in development. Insensitivity, I think. Dressing on the side. (laughs) Because every single salad we have tastes 40 percent less good when the dressing’s on the side and we use a lot less in the back. That one’s a big one. That’s a daily one.
Q: Do you have any hidden talents?
A: I can juggle a soccer ball 100 times, which isn’t really hidden, but I can still do it. Although I’d have to practice for like five minutes (to do it).
Q: What was your last splurge?
A: Oh, shoes. It’s always shoes. And seeds. There’s parity there. (But) I haven’t actually bought a nice new purse or pair of shoes in a while. I bought a cute skirt for an opening in Austin, that was probably it. It’s either farm stuff or fashion stuff, which is weird, but true. And I’m thinking about getting a tractor.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: Hot dogs. I actually think because of my experience I don’t believe in depriving yourself of anything. I think there’s almost a mystical importance to cravings. If you have a craving for something specific, you should eat it. So I happen to really love hot dogs.
Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?
A: Intuitive – I’m kind of freaky intuitive. Scrappy. Creative.
THE BASICS: Born Erin Kimberly Wade on Aug. 21, 1980, in Bellingham, Wash.; bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and language from Harvard College; not married and no kids, but her animal brood includes a cat named Hopkins, a “gaggle of pigs” and many chickens.
POSITION: Owner-founder of Vinaigrette, which opened its doors in 2008; owner-founder of Modern General.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Wade does not particularly like technology. Once after losing an iPhone, she gladly downgraded to a flip phone and disabled the text messaging, which she says improved her communication with her staff. “It forced me to just get on the horn and talk to people, and have conversations and check-in and see how they’re doing,” she says.
• The inspiration for Vinaigrette came in part from a pizzeria she discovered while living in Milan. She remembers it for the wide range of flavor combinations on the menu. “When I had the idea for Vinaigrette, it was like ‘What if salad was this new vessel for flavor like a pizza or like a sandwich?’ It’s just a new flavor vessel, and it’s lighter and you get to chew and feel more satisfied. But (it was) that idea of combinations – simple, beautiful, creative combinations.”
• Although she grew up in Washington state, Wade’s family made regular trips to Santa Fe when she was younger, since it was one of her mother’s favorite places. “We visited a lot here when I was growing up. It was like this yin-yang thing with Bellingham,” she says. “It was kind of like the motherland.”