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. 

Taste and Sip - Lili, Paris

Paris is famous the world over for its fine food and superb restaurants. From casual cafés and neighbourhood bistros to fine dining restaurants and gastronomic institutions, the French capital has, for centuries, shown the rest of the world how to eat well and create a sense of occasion whilst doing so. With seventy Michelin-starred restaurants, Paris is arguably one of the world’s culinary capitals. Understandably the emphasis remains on French gastronomy, which is so well loved and cultivated that UNESCO has added it to the list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”. Rich in sauces and benefitting from France’s diverse geography, climate and agricultural traditions, French cuisine encompasses the freshest seafood, poultry, meat, vegetables and fruit, and the nation’s wines and cheeses are as world-renowned as its desserts.

In the shadow of such established and celebrated local cuisine, Parisian restaurants delivering international and exotic fare at the highest standards have been few and far between with notable exceptions. So, when a new kid on the block opens like LiLi – offering Chinese cuisine at the same level as Paris’ finest dining establishments – people take notice.

LiLi was always destined to be standout. Combining longstanding gastronomic traditions of Parisian fine dining with the global reputation for luxury and excellence that Peninsula properties are renowned for, LiLi makes for an über chic and exotic addition to the French capital’s restaurant scene.

LiLi’s chef, Peter Ma, began his career as an apprentice in Hong Kong at the age of 17, and has since worked at some of the best Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau. Ma brings a level of authenticity and professionalism to the Chinese restaurant scene in Paris that is unparalleled.

Drawing upon the hotel brand’s Hong Kong roots, LiLi is a divine ode to Cantonese cooking, flawlessly presented in a glamorous yet tasteful setting, firmly rooted in the 21st century with nods to bygone oriental eras. Located in Paris’ moneyed 16th arrondissement within The Peninsula’s classic fin de siècle Haussmann building on grand tree lined Avenue Kléber, although LiLi has its own dedicated off-street entrance, making one’s way through the hotel’s magnificent marble and gold-accented palatial ground floor spaces creates an inimitable sense of occasion. Yet crossing from the hotel’s contemporary yet classical take on period interior architecture into LiLi’s threshold is to be instantly transported into another world.

The décor in LiLi is as one would imagine in the villa of a wealthy 1920s Hong Kong tai-pan realised by a flamboyant French interior designer. Rich dark wood columns, panels inlaid with intricate patterns and fiery red curtains are offset by oversized electric blue tassels and fanciful chandeliers. A circular central ceiling fixture from which a single light pendant dangles adds a sculptural dimension. Ambient low lighting completes the seductive stage-like setting.

You would be right in thinking that this all sounds a bit dramatic; it is. Chinese opera served as one of the inspirations for LiLi’s interior esthetic, the restaurant having been named after a famous Chinese opera singer. Lacquered wood detailing, screen-printed images of seductive Chinese operatic characters and wall-mounted costumes and masks add avant-garde accents to the theatrical space.

An intimate foyer gives way to the ample main dining room with soaring ceilings, adorned with private alcoves around its perimeter. Contemporary artworks skillfully mixed with antiques add the warmth of a sumptuous personal residence, whilst high backed chairs and banquettes add an element of stylish formality.

All of this elegant decadence just whets the appetite for the main event – delicious Cantonese food at its best. The menu is expansive, with six and eight-course set options plus page upon page of à la carte choices. Divided into sections including seafood, meat, poultry, vegetables, noodles and barbeque, the biggest challenge at LiLi is deciding what to settle on as it all sounds so delicious. It’s best to arrive hungry and share plates to sample as many different dishes as possible.

The Kamchatka crab with enoki mushrooms and cucumbers was tender, meaty and fresh. Minced foie gras served with chopped rice crackers to be rolled in lettuce leaves was addictive – I was truly sad when this dish had been consumed. Bresse chicken paired with jellyfish, daikon and sesame sauce not only tasted divine but proved that the chef was unafraid to mix non-conventional delicacies with the best local produce. But for many no Chinese feast would be complete without Peking duck. LiLi’s version is traditional, classic and quite possibly the best I had ever tasted. The meat was succulent, the skin perfectly dark golden and crispy, the pancakes thin.

If the meal had ended there and then it would have been a triumph. However it ascended into pure gluttony, in the best of all possible senses. Obsiblue prawns from the Pacific island of New Caledonia were lightly grilled in Chinese spices. Obsiblue is a unique variety of prawn, blue in colour and famed for their sweetness and texture, served in only a handful of the world’s best restaurants; they were magnifique.

The sweet and sour duck was the perfect combination of sweetness and savoury. Steamed monk fish from Brittany was accompanied with black bean sauce and bean curd. In fact, throughout the meal superior traditional Cantonese fare was continuously enhanced by the best French ingredients. This being France, the wine list is encyclopedic and offers even the most cultivated oenophiles something to ogle and open their wallets for, Lili’s sommeliers on hand to expertly pair wines with Chinese dishes.

Décor reminiscent of the opulent Ming Dynasty combined with delicious cuisine and classic dishes refashioned in a dynamic way all contribute to make LiLi a truly unique destination restaurant. Private enough for romantic and discreet outings, grand enough for special occasions and sufficiently gastronomically creative to broaden the palette of even die-hard Chinese food connoisseurs, LiLi is not only a welcome addition to the Parisian restaurant scene but wholly deserves its place amongst the city’s best establishments. 

LILI

Food ✭✭✭✭✩
Atmosphere ✭✭✭✩✩

Executive chef: Christophe Raoux.
Chef de cuisine: Peter Ma.
Address: The Peninsula Paris, 19 Avenue Kléber, Paris 75116, France
Telephone: +33 1 58 12 67 50
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.paris.peninsula.com
Cuisine: Gastronomic Chinese.
Opening hours: Every day 12:00-14:30 + 19:00-22:30.
Lunch price: 7-course set lunch EUR88.
Dinner price: 8-course set dinner EUR118.
Reservations: Essential.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Children: High chairs available. No kids’ menu but meals can be adapted to suit.
Credit cards: All.
Parking: Free valet for diners.

Ideal meal:

Dégustation menu – Steamed lobster dumpling with asparagus (EUR18), steamed shrimp dumplings with bamboo shoots (EUR16), chilled Kamtchatka king crab with enoki mushroom and cucumber, sesame oil seasoning (EUR42), roasted Peking duck served in two courses (EUR128), Glazed Kintoa pork loin (EUR32), wok-fried Brittany blue lobster with ginger and spring onions (EUR120), French Obsiblue prawns breaded with Chinese spices (EUR42), wok-fried Simmental beef tenderloin with mushroom and sugar snap, black pepper sauce (EUR42), Yeung Chow-style fried rice (EUR28), chilled mango cream with pomelo and sago pearls (EUR12).

Reviewed by Alex Benasuli for dinner on 13th May 2017