As a young boy spending his earliest years in Mexico City, Richard Sandoval dreamed about food. He was fascinated by the bustle in his father’s restaurant and his grandmother’s kitchen where she prepared big family weekend dinners. He remembers the odor of masa quesadillas and mole poblano wafting up to his perch sitting on the kitchen counter. “Everyone would be cooking. I was smelling and tasting everything,” he says with nostalgia.
“Without me knowing, my palate was already starting to get formed.” He admits it was odd for a ten year old to prefer the kitchen to the soccer field, but that foodie childhood turned out to be a stroke of good luck for diners around the world who emjoy this master chef and restaurateur’s wildly popular restaurants. But, as Chef Richard Sandoval tells it, his life certainly wasn’t a direct route to attaching his signature to a restaurant.
“I actually became a professional tennis player,” he says, pausing as if well accustomed to getting surprise reactions in the face of this unlikely fact. Sandoval traveled the tournament circuit with a modicum of success, but he insists food was always his passion. While on tour he always made time to explore local markets and try new restaurants. There was a point in his career, he explains, when he began to ask himself if playing and teaching tennis was really going to be his life’s work, or whether his love of food would win over his love of sport. “It was food from the start,” he says of his decision. “From the first thing I ever cooked (macaroni and cheese from the box), I was hooked, and even then I was changing up things adding more butter or American cheese,” he says laughing.
Despite having experienced the demands of professional sport, nothing prepared him for the rigors of studying at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America or the de rigueur brutality of his internships. “I’d cook eggs for two hundred people at 4 a.m. in one job and then later go to a second job at a French restaurant to chop hundreds of vegetables,” he says. Even in the telling, he sounds like he is reliving the young student’s fear and awe of that early training at the feet of a master chef. “At one point I thought, ‘I can’t do this’”, but he persevered and then it was only a matter of time, he says, until he made dream of opening his own restaurant a reality.
“I didn’t have much money and it was very scary,” he says speaking of his first restaurant, Savann, a small bistro on New York’s Upper West Side. The contemporary French restaurant was a hit. “French was hot at that time, but after a while I wanted to go more ethnic,” he says. He admits he was still held captive by the flavors and odors of his childhood in his abulela’s kitchen. Sandoval was certain that he could awaken the New York dining public to a sophisticated Mexican cuisine, beyond the Tex-Mex stereotype of the era, tequila and tacos. Maya, his first Mexican restaurant, was born and, he says with a smile, he finally got to use his grandmother’s recipe for mole poblano. The critics rhapsodized about the food, quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms and pork in pumpkin-seed sauce. The New York Times gave the eatery two stars and Chef Richard’s career rocketed. In the years to follow he would continue to buck the trends and bring high-end Mexican and Pan-Latin cuisine from San Francisco to Serbia, Denver to Dubai.
He has brought South American flavors to the Middle East with his launch of Toro Toro in Doha and he was the first to bring both Mexican and Latin-Asian menus to Dubai with Maya and Zengo. Taking these otherwise unfamiliar cuisines to new arenas, he says, is a challenge. “When we open a new restaurant we don’t print the final menu until we actually open because I am always changing and adjusting.” Part of that adjusting is adapting for a local market. He is scholarly in his research of new locations. He says he studies the people, prowls their local markets and eats at local restaurants. “I don’t want to just fly everything in. I want to see what kinds of herbs and what kinds of chilies they are using.” Fifty percent of what goes into the new menu is his core, he explains, but the other fifty percent is adapted to the local culture. For example, in bread-loving Belgrade, where his Toro Latin Gastrobar (pictured left) has been named “Best Restaurant in Serbia” he honors the local taste for bread with a pita style taco. “Belgrade loves it!” he says.
This multi-award winning chef says his surprisingly original and sometimes fanciful ideas come to him frequently in markets while he is traveling. He can be spotted furiously taking notes and jotting down all sorts of ideas that pop in his mind. “In a market in Colombia I was eating at every stand and had a cheese arepa. I asked myself, ‘How can I own that?’ so I braised some duck, added some chipotle and modernized the arepa.” He says he never stops experimenting and tweaking older recipes. He says he is always inventing, tinkering and tweaking in his search for ‘perfection’. “Of all my experiments in the kitchen,” he says, “probably two out of a hundred work perfectly the first time.”
This chef is simply on fire. He has forty restaurants around the world and flown three hundred thousand miles just this year, checking in with them and scouting locations. He is always on the run and always coming up with new ideas. His love of street food led to Latinicity in Chicago (pictured right) , a twenty thousand square foot food court with a dozen kiosks, each representing a different type of regional Latin American cuisine. Sandoval recently brought his thrilling menus to the rainforest of Riviera Maya, where he has taken the helm at four restaurants in the Fairmont Mayakoba. The tireless chef will soon launch a tequila-inspired dining venue in Los Cabos and a new restaurant in Philadelphia in June. The list seems endless. With all these restaurants, does the process get any easier for him? “No, absolutely no!” he says. While he may be better prepared, he explains, he compares his opening-night butterflies to those of many experienced actors. “It is still scary. I think that when you care about something so much, and you want to be good at something, the anxiety never goes away because you’re always striving to be better…to be the best!” See a full list of Richard Sandoval’s resaturants.
Inspired? Why not explore more authentic flavors in Mexico?