This is part one of my interview with chef Richard Sandoval, who owns and operates dozens of restaurants around the world, including seven in Colorado. Part two of my interview with Sandoval will run tomorrow.
There's the man of the hour," hollers an employee of Zengo, the Latin-Asian restaurant that New York-based chef/restaurateur Richard Sandoval opened in 2004 in the Riverfront Park neighborhood. Sandoval, who owns and operates seven restaurants in Colorado -- the most he's opened in any state, including Zengo, two outposts of La Sandia, Tamayo, Cima and Venga Venga, as well as his newest endeavor, a Latin lounge and wine bar called Al Lado, which opens Friday next door to Zengo -- has just popped in after a shopping jaunt to Park Meadows. He nods with approval. "It's looking good," he says.
Sandoval was born and raised in Mexico City, and while he didn't begin his culinary career until his mid-twenties, cooking was always an integral part of his everyday life. "Food was a really big deal when I was growing up," he recalls. "I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house, and every Saturday and Sunday, she'd put together an amazing feast for the whole family."
And Sandoval would watch with wide eyes from his perch on the countertop. "I always migrated to the kitchen, and my grandmother would hoist me up on the kitchen counter, and I remember watching her cook and thinking how much fun it would be," he says. And his parents ― his father was in the restaurant industry ― entertained in their home regularly, he adds: "I was always exposed to new ingredients ― all sorts of different cheeses, meats, butters and even baby eels."
But Sandoval started out as a professional tennis player, traveling around the world and going up against greats like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Somewhere along the way, though, he realized that he wasn't going to make it on the satellite circuit, so he re-evaluated. "I needed to decide if I was going to teach tennis or find a different career," he says.
He let the ball bounce away. "I thought about what I really enjoyed, and I kept going back to cooking," explains Sandoval, who then enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He graduated, moved to Acapulco ― his father owned a restaurant there ― and learned how to command the line. After four years of burning his knuckles and wielding a knife, he returned to New York City. "It's a great restaurant city, and a former classmate of mine was living there ― plus I wanted to open my own restaurant, and New York seemed like the perfect place to do it," says Sandoval.
His first restaurant, Savann, was a French-American-Latin bistro -- but it didn't come easy. "I couldn't find a landlord who would give us a space, so we got a 1,000-square-foot shoe store and built a restaurant, buying pretty much everything from auctions," Sandoval remembers. He sold the restaurant four years later to focus on Latin-American cuisine, and his second restaurant, Maya, of which there are still two today -- one in New York and one in Dubai -- generated two stars from the New York Times.
After that, there was no stopping the Mexico City chef, who went on to open more than dozen restaurants -- and he's showing no signs of slowing down. "Most of the growth has taken place over the last four years, and we have three more in the works," he reveals.
While it's easy to think that this kind of success would go to his head, Sandoval insists that it hasn't. "I'm still the same person I was when I opened my first restaurant," he says. "I haven't changed, and to be honest, I still get very nervous when I open a new restaurant. I still look at all the numbers from the night before, and in my mind, I really don't think I'm that successful."
With a staggering number of accomplished restaurants attached to his name, that's difficult to believe, but Sandoval says he's having too much fun opening new concepts, traveling more than 200,000 miles a year, to think about fame -- or, for that matter, fortune. "It's not about the number of restaurants I open; it's about creating great food and great staffs," he says. "If we start putting shit on the plate, then I'm done, but for the first time in a long time -- and maybe age has something to do with this -- I'm content and more relaxed, and I've built a team of people who have allowed me to step back a bit."
Still, he allows that he's nowhere near ready to stop the momentum. "There's a rush in creating a concept, and I love the flow of start to finish, of designing the spaces and creating menus, of staffing and opening," he says, adding that "a kitchen on a busy night is like playing in a tennis tournament. The adrenaline rush is amazing."
In the months that follow, Sandoval will stay focused on Denver while he slowly moves his corporate offices here and begins a complete remodel of Tamayo, the flagship Mexican restaurant that he opened a decade ago in Larimer Square. "There won't be any structural work, but everything on the inside is coming out," he reveals, divulging, too, that he's building a tequileria on the second level. "It's a ten-year-old restaurant, and what's made me successful is that I always reinvest in my restaurants. It's important to stay fresh -- I don't want my restaurants to get stagnant."
Tamayo will also boast a new menu and presentations. "We want to make it more approachable, and we're changing about 30 percent of the menu, adding categories for different tacos and different guacamoles, and we're also adding cazuelas," he says, noting that while the restaurant is "very successful and sales are up, it needs a facelift." And once he's done with that, Sandoval hints, his next Denver restaurant could be Peruvian. "I love Denver and want to continue to open restaurants here, and a Peruvian restaurant would be cool," he concludes.
In the following interview, Sandoval gives a shout-out to corn smut, snubs molecular gastronomy, and explains why it's unlikely that he'll come to your house for dinner.
Six words to describe your food: Modern, pan-Latin, flavorful, exciting, Asian-influenced and locally driven.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, intense, fit, passionate about my restaurants and, even more so, my people. I often say that I need to keep opening more restaurants just to keep my staff and give them opportunities to grow.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Huitlacoche, or "corn smut," is great stuffed into tortillas. I also love chipotle chiles, because they add so much flavor to a dish, even if you just use a little bit. They're great for puréeing and using teaspoon by teaspoon to infuse soups, stews and sauces. Come to think of it, I'm obsessed with all kinds of chiles, both fresh and dried; they add a flavor depth without added fat. From smoky chipotle chiles to mildly spicy but still fruity jalapeños, I'm obsessed with their seemingly endless range of flavors. Their heat, which also varies from subtle to unbearable, is an important part of each of my signature flavor profiles. On a recent trip to Thailand, I also found myself obsessed with lemongrass and ginger, which, like chiles, add such incredible flavors to a dish minus any added fat.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? A thermal regulator for sous-vide cooking. I can easily control the temperature of proteins while producing a consistently moist and delicious product. When marinated proteins are cooked sous-vide, they absorb flavors to the fullest.
Most underrated ingredient: Huitlacoche isn't very well understood outside of Mexico, yet the mild, earthy flavors of the huitlacoche blend nicely with fats like chorizo, plus they bond to mellow out the heat from the peppers and salsa. We use it at almost every one of our restaurants. It's technically corn smut, but what huitlacoche lacks in looks and glamour is more than compensated for by its rich, earthy flavor. We like to think of huitlacoche as Mexican truffles. It has a beautiful dark color, depth of earthy flavor, and itÅfs great for vinaigrettes.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Porcini mushrooms from the Vail Valley. Who knew you could go mushroom foraging in the mountains? Favorite spice: Star anise has an incredible depth of flavor. I love Zengo's tomatoes marinated in star anise vinaigrette. It's a crisp and refreshing spice that adds surprising nuances to the flavor profile.
One food you detest: Molecular food. I prefer perfectly balanced dishes that showcase the natural flavors of the ingredients. While arguably creative, molecular food is just too far of a departure from my preferred cuisine.
One food you can't live without: I grew up eating rice and beans as a small child in Mexico, and both are part of my culture. Rice is incredibly versatile and can be infused with so many flavors, and I also love the combination of textures. Rice absorbs sauce and flavor, making each bite more delicious; beans are also very versatile -- charro, puréed, as a spread, or starch on a dish -- with comforting flavors and textures.
Weirdest customer request: One of our loyal customers once asked me to come to dinner...and then fed me a meal served out of cans. It was a lovely gesture, but I rarely accept requests for home visits anymore.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Guinea pig, in Peru.
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Last meal before you die: Mexican food. I was born with it. Why not die with it?