La Sandia exec chef Sergio Romo: "Negativity is contagious"
In part one of my interview with Sergio Romo, exec chef of La Sandia Northfield, the Mexico-born kitchen commander weighed in on servers who need a kick in the butt, explained why his molcajete bests a blender and insisted that real Mexican food is the focus of his modern kitchen. In today's Q&A, Romo discusses the earthquake that made him shake in his clogs, the importance of proper seasonings and why people who talk behind his back have no place in his galley.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I get to eat, like, seven times a day. Being a chef is the best gig in the world for a guy like me, and eating and cooking are my favorite pastimes.
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What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My very first chef's coat inscribed with my name on it. It meant a lot to me then, and still does.
What's your fantasy splurge? Seafood, and lots of it, especially lobsters -- the more the better. Red snapper is also a favorite. I could eat seafood every day.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? The Professional Chef -- one of the Culinary Institute of America's cookbooks -- has really helped me instill a lot of professional standards in the kitchen to help it run more smoothly and efficiently.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Smartphones have dramatically changed the way people experience food -- diners take pictures, tweet, share their thoughts, add pictures and check in on Facebook. Every little bit of a person's restaurant experience is now shared with their friends, which is great, but also a little scary.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Pay attention to your seasoning, especially when it comes to salt and sugar, and don't be too quick to add this, that and the other to a dish before you taste it. I see way too many people piling on different seasonings and hot sauces before they even taste the dish. Taste it first, ponder what it needs, and then adjust your seasonings.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When people talk behind my back. If you have a problem, you need to address me in person. In a restaurant, this is especially important. Open communication can make or break the way a restaurant runs. If I'm doing something that doesn't suit you, then please let me know. Constructive criticism is always a good thing; it helps us all put out a better product. Negativity is contagious and can bring down the entire feel of a restaurant.
Describe the challenges facing today's chefs: It's hard to remain calm when the rush is coming, but if you stress out, then everyone else stresses out. A good chef knows to stay calm and keep his staff calm, too. It's also hard to find good people whom you can trust. I've learned that a trustworthy, hardworking staff can make all the difference.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Be passionate and proactive, and don't give up. It's not easy to get to the position in a professional kitchen that allows you to make the big decisions. It takes a lot of learning along the way, so be a sponge and learn everything you can. No amount of knowledge is insignificant.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? They need to be fast. There are plenty of people out there with kitchen experience, but that doesn't mean they have the speed to keep up with everything that's going on in a fast-paced kitchen. I also prefer to hire people who don't talk too much. I suppose that goes back to the "being fast" attribute. If you're blabbing all of the time, then there's probably something you're not doing -- but should be doing -- in my kitchen.
What's the best compliment someone could give you? Mole is my specialty, and I always appreciate when people praise it. Everyone makes their mole a little different, and I take pride in the fact that I don't add too much chocolate. That can be the downfall of a great mole.
Which chef has most inspired you? Chef Richard Sandoval brings Mexican food to creative new heights, and I've always respected his work and creations, plus I think he's really changed the way Americans think about Mexican cuisine.
You're stranded on a desert island. Which chefs would you want to have with you? Giada de Laurentiis can seriously cook, plus she's gorgeous, and I imagine that if I were stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere, I'd want a pretty girl there. I'd also want Robert Irvine, the guy from Restaurant Impossible, to join me. He actually did a whole show on a deserted island, where he had to catch fish and lobster right off the beach and use coconuts and fruit from the island to put together this incredible dinner for twelve people. He's amazing, and he's got some great skills that I'd love to know more about. I'd also want my mom there. She knows what I like to eat, and nobody can cook like she does.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd like to cook alongside Tyler Wiard from Elway's Cherry Creek, mostly because I've always wanted to work in a steakhouse. Preparing the perfect steak is honestly an art form -- and I'd love to cook with a chef who's known for making the perfect steak. I figure Tyler knows a thing or ten about that.
Craziest night in the kitchen: I was working in Santa Monica in 2011, and the earth started moving. We realized it was an earthquake, and everyone freaked out and started screaming. When you live there, everyone is waiting for "the big one," so it's a pretty big deal when one hits. Needless to say, it took a while for everyone to settle down and get back to work after being shaken up...literally.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Cross-contamination can ruin the whole day...for everyone, so just don't do it.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I love preparing seafood, so I'd love to open a seafood restaurant. Seafood is so much fun to cook with -- there are so many amazing different flavors and textures -- and it's great to eat, no matter if it's prepared simply and traditionally or taken up a notch with creative spins. We serve Baja fish tacos here that are healthy and taste fantastic. We pair them with our signature salsas and sauces for a creatively prepared, delicious meal.
What's your idea of a great dining experience? I want my server to make me feel like I'm a truly valued guest. I want them to be as passionate about the food as the chef is, and I want them to be diligently trained on each food item, including how it's prepared, what other dishes or drinks complement it, and anything about it that might trigger allergies. That kind of attention to detail makes me, as a guest, think that if the server is this knowledgeable about the food, just think how great the chef must be.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I take a lot of pride in every dish I send out, and the dedication to quality is very high here. The first time I made shrimp ceviche for Richard, I was incredibly nervous. And then he loved it. That was euphoria.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Getting the exec-chef job at La Sandía. I started as a line cook and ended up as the head chef, which is truly the real-life American dream. I never thought I would come this far, and now I often wonder: What else can I accomplish?
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? People are surprised that I don't get panicked during a rush. When things get crazy, I get calm. No matter what happens in the kitchen, I keep a cool head. This keeps everyone else calm, too.
Last meal before you die: Posole from my mom's kitchen. No matter what I do, my dishes just don't seem to taste as good as hers. I guess Mom's food will always be the best in my book. She's going to love reading that!
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Not much except for eggs and bread. I eat at the restaurant on a regular basis, so I don't keep much at home.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a baker, which is how I started in this business. It's also the reason I don't like chocolate very much: I had too much of it. My dad had a bakery in Mexico, but he hates to make cakes. I think it's the same type of mindset. If you're around something too much, you start to dislike it.
What's in the pipeline? I'd love to be the owner of my own restaurant. I have so many great ideas that don't necessarily fit with the La Sandía concept, and it would be really fun to try some of them out. A steak-and-seafood restaurant would be perfect.
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