Caruso was born in Boston and raised on the Basque and Italian cooking of his grandmother and mother. "They started teaching me to cook when I was a kid and never kicked me out of the kitchen," he said. "When I was 9 or 10, my grandmother predicted that I was going to be a chef. I just figured everybody knew how to cook because everybody around me cooked. I didn't think of it as a profession, per se."
Caruso moved to New Mexico when he was 25 to study anthropology at the University of New Mexico. His anthropological training and love of cooking led him to explore the origins of Spanish cuisine and the different cultures that have influenced Spanish food. Through experience, research, and cooking tours of Mexico and Spain (including stints in Seville and Jerez de la Frontera), James has been able to combine his love of cultures and food to create a unique cuisine that brings together the best of traditional and contemporary foods of Spanish-speaking countries.
During his studies, he supported himself by working as a chef at Mimmo's, the Second Street Grill and Scalo's, where he met his wife, Leslie, who was the pastry chef. "We both liked being chefs so much that we decided to pursue it together." Caruso gave up anthropology and got married in 1992.
In 1996, the couple moved to Santa Fe, where Caruso was the sous-chef at La Casa Sena, a Southwestern fusion restaurant. Three years later, he became executive chef at El Farol. "I got to create new menus all the time, and that's where I started developing my own style, a Latino-Mediterranean blend," he said.
His wife is a culinary instructor heading the bakery and pastry department of the Santa Fe Community College's culinary program. She also helps Caruso design desserts for El Farol. "We're training one of her pastry students who works part time in the kitchen at El Farol," he said.
Caruso himself has been a part-time teacher for six years at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, where he focuses on Southwest and Mexican cuisine, and tapas. He is now outlining a second book on modern Mediterranean food.
Caruso still considers himself something of an anthropologist. After all, anthropology is the study of man and culture. "In a sense, I'm still doing that, only now I'm focusing on the foods of particular cultures." He also co-hosts, with El Farol owner David Salazar, the popular radio talk show "El Sabor de Santa Fe" on Santa Fe public radio station KSFR.