Taste and Sip - Interview with Richard Sandoval

Renowned chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval has mastered modern and coastal Mexican, Latin-Asian, Peruvian and Pan-Latin cuisines, and is the hands-on operator of more than forty restaurants around the world, stretching out from his Denver base across the Unites States to Serbia, Japan, Qatar and China. The Cultured Traveller chats with the Latin gastronomic powerhouse on the eve of opening new outlets in Abu Dhabi and Aspen.

Was there much cooking in the Sandoval household when you were young?Yes, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother (the matriarch of the family) and pretty much everything revolved around family and food. I remember very large family gatherings where my grandmother would sit at the head of the table surrounded by about 15 family members. Every meal was family-style and all the plates would be passed around the table. Dishes included stuffed chayote squash, black bean soup, chicken with mole poblano, pork loin stuffed with almonds and nuts in a prune mole sauce, chicken mole tamales, roasted poblano soup and pork in pumpkin sauce.

What values did growing-up in a foodie family in Mexico City impart on you as an adult?The most important was respect for ingredients which I still believe in today.

As a kid what did you want to be?I grew up playing tennis in high school and university. I then had the privilege of traveling around the world to play my sport – which would later play a huge role in my culinary career. I really wanted to be a professional player since tennis was my first love, but once I started cooking, I realised that there were some similarities. I would get the same adrenaline rush when I was cooking on a busy Friday night as I did playing a tennis match, and I really enjoyed that.

At what stage did you realize that cooking and running restaurants were to be your vocation?Ultimately, around the age of 20, I had to make a choice to either teach tennis or find a new career, and this is when I enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America to pursue my love of food.

Do you remember the first meal or dish that truly awakened your palette?The first time I tasted mole made me realise how flavour could really impact a dish.

Your first openings were both contemporary French restaurants, “Savann” and “Savann Est”. Why this departure from your gastronomic heritage?Upon graduation, Savann and Savann Est were my segway into the New York culinary arena, but I always knew that Mexican cuisine was my true calling.

What advice did your restaurateur father give when you opened your first outlet?My father always advised me to have a financial plan in place and understand that if I was going to be successful, I had to treat my restaurants as a business and not a source to feed my ego.

Your flagship modern Mexican restaurant “Maya” in New York opened in 1997. For the past two decades it has been consistently ranked as one of the best Mexican eateries in the Big Apple, with New York Magazine lauding it as “the best Mexican for miles.” Why do you think this is the case and what is the secret of Maya’s success?When Maya opened in 1997, Mexican cuisine in New York was very stagnant and not evolving. Mexican food was often confused with “Tex-Mex” and people were not really tasting authentic Mexican flavours the way they should. Maya was the first to really give New Yorkers the opportunity to taste the great, bold and authentic flavours of my homeland. I think Maya’s success can primarily be attributed to the fact that, for the last 20 years, the restaurant’s culinary program has consistently evolved and given the people of New York multiple reasons to keep coming back.

You are known not to expand just to add another location to hang up your chef’s toque. What are the criteria for opening a new restaurant?I always like to be challenged and also challenge people. It’s very important to enter markets where I feel people will appreciate my work but most importantly that we bring some added value to the communities where we choose to set up shop. For example, when I chose to open a restaurant in Dubai 10 years ago, Latin cuisine and culture was virtually non-existent there. However, I believed that the leaders of U.A.E. were very forward-thinking and creating something new there could be very successful. Today, Latin cuisine is probably the fastest growing cuisine in U.A.E.!

The celebrity chef has become a something of a trend in the gastronomic world of today. Do you think it has it gone too far?Yes, I do, and I feel that the celebrity chef concept is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, multiple food channels and cooking-orientated shows have really made the food industry boom, and have given many people the opportunity to learn about and see first-hand all the different cuisines around the world. On the other hand, I feel it is having a negative impact as future generations may enter our industry with the intent of becoming celebrities rather than a passion for food.

What, for you, are the downsides to the media frenzy surrounding chef and cooking competitions?I feel there is both an upside and a downside. The upside is all the exposure our industry receives, which is, being honest, very good for business. The downside is that eventually, when the primary reason for all the competitions is financial gain and ratings, they become diluted and manipulated and stop being educational and motivational.

It’s widely known that you are passionate about training the chefs of the future and you’re on the board of trustees at the Culinary Institute of America. What advice would you give an emerging chef today?My recommendation to emerging chefs is to never forget why you entered the industry in the first place. In the whirlwind of our passion for food, some chefs seem to forget that our industry is all about creating unforgettable gastronomic experiences.

After more than two decades in the kitchen, including multiple accolades and countless judging roles in culinary competitions, what, for you, are the most important qualities that make a great chef standout from a good chef?I have always said the difference between being a good chef and great chef is paying attention to all the small details that make a dish great – from the selection of the ingredients and ensuring that everything is correctly seasoned, through to using the right cooking technique, you are what you inspect not what you expect!

When is the right time for an emerging chef to strike out on his or her own and open their own restaurant?Once a chef has opened a few restaurants using someone else’s money, mistakes are very costly. I have always learned a lot more from my mistakes than from my successes. The more restaurants a chef has opened, the better chance an emerging chef will have at succeeding in his or her own restaurant. After all, life is all about experience.

Overseeing more than 40 restaurants on multiple continents is no mean feat, and we know that you’re a very hands-on operator. Have you ever had to dig deep to overcome adversity? Please share any words of wisdom regarding perseverance and sustaining longevity in the notoriously tough culinary world.Yes, on many levels I’ve had to dig deep. Any business owner knows that doing business has its challenges, and there are peaks and valleys, but perseverance usually sees you through. Always give your best no matter what the circumstances are. Life rewards effort and honesty. The key to sustainability is consistency and surrounding yourself with good people.

What challenges does opening a restaurant in a country such as Qatar or United Arab Emirates pose for a chef serving Mexican, Latin and Peruvian cuisine?When opening in Doha and Dubai, it was very difficult to find the ingredients we needed. We overcame this by researching and locating similar ingredients in neighbouring countries, such as India where we sourced chilies. But the biggest challenge was introducing a cuisine and flavours that were unfamiliar to these countries, which we overcame by over training our staff and making sure they could engage guests and really make their experience special. After experiencing something new and special, we hoped that diners would go out of their way to speak to their friends and family about their new culinary experiences in our restaurants and this would have the domino effect. Eventually, everyone in Qatar and U.A.E. was talking about Latin cuisine and it started booming in both countries.

Please tell us about one creative culinary collaboration you are hugely passionate about?Zengo, my Latin-Asian restaurant, was a collaboration with an Asian chef. Zengo means “give and take” in Japanese. I hired an Asian chef to collaborate with me on the creation of the menu. I would create a Latin dish and give it to my Asian chef to put his cultural spin on it, and vice versa. This was a really great collaboration.

Has Mexican cooking evolved over the years?Yes, absolutely, and for sure Mexican cooking will continue to evolve. You need only look at tacos, for example. Before you would mostly find only grilled chicken, grilled steak and ground beef, with shredded lettuce and grated cheese. But today you can find all manner of tacos on the menus, including carnitas, chicken tinga and pork al pastor. The latter really is an original fusion food – a cross between Middle Eastern shawarma and the guajillo-rubbed grilled pork served by Mexican street vendors.
When you’re having a day off, what do you like to cook at home for friends and family?I love to grill good ingredients, with oil, herbs and fresh salsas, at home for my children.

Do you have a favourite comfort food that you prepare for yourself alone?Yes, I love a truly great burger every once in a while, and tacos.

Apart from you own restaurants, where are your favourite places to eat out?Nobuyuki Matsuhisa was the first chef to successfully combine Latin and Japanese cuisines and I always enjoy visiting his Malibu outpost (www.noburestaurants.com/malibu). At Máximo Bistrot in Mexico City, chef Eduardo Garcia has a unique talent for creating modern French dishes with strong Mexican influences which are bold yet unpretentious (www.maximobistrot.com.mx). In New York I love the simple flavours at Momofuko which remind me of Asian markets (www.momofuku.com).

If you were to write an insider’s guide to Mexico what three places would you include?The beautiful low-key beaches of Tulum. I love the small-town feeling of Todos Santos in Baja California Sur, especially its cobblestoned streets lined with tiny artisan shops and the refurbished haciendas in the old part of town. The setting of ten-acre Flora Farm, in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains in Los Cabos, is amazing and unmissable if you’re travelling in the area (www.flora-farms.com).

Where in the world do you most like to unwind and relax?The hospitality of the entire team at Four Seasons in Punta Mita is amazing. The whole property is very special, from the landscaping to the ocean, and the resort itself transports you to a place where you can truly unwind. The white-sand beaches and turquoise waters are gorgeous and the sunsets are spectacular. I always leave feeling rejuvenated. (www.fourseasons.com/puntamita).

What new restaurant openings do you have coming up?Toro Toro in Abu Dhabi – a Latin American steak house serving ceviche nikkei, pulled pork, arepas and succulent steaks. And Toro Gastrobar at The Viceroy resort at the base of one of Colorado’s top ski mountains in Snowmass Village near Aspen. This will be a farm-to-table concept, essentially Latin American cooking without borders.