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Chef Richard Sandoval: Every day can be humbling

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Richard Sandoval Al Lado, La Sandia, Tamayo, Zengo, Cima, Venga Venga

Part one of my interview with chef Richard Sandoval, who owns and operates dozens of restaurants around the world, including seven in Colorado, ran yesterday; this is part two of that interview.

Most memorable meal you've ever had: Seventeen years ago, I had dinner at Lespinasse in New York City, and it was pure, old-fashioned luxury with extraordinary food. Gary Koonz was the chef at the time, and while I don't remember the exact dishes, I do remember the combinations of flavors, colorful presentations and crisp and fresh ingredients. It was the first time I'd seen a chef combine French cooking techniques with global ingredients; that was a great inspiration to me.

Favorite restaurant in America: I love the concept of the large open-air food-market concepts, like Eataly in New York City and Andres Market in Bogotá, Colombia. You can wander around at your leisure and taste so many different things and make an evening out of tasting and sharing a great variety of dishes. It's almost like the next step in small plates.

Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Other than my own restaurant, La Sandia, I really like Centro Latin Kitchen and Refreshment Palace in Boulder. I'm inspired by fresh Latin flavors, and Centro serves them in a totally laid-back atmosphere. I appreciate the chef's use of authentic ingredients.

If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? Like most Denver diners, I'm a big fan of Frank Bonanno, so I'd go to Bones for lunch, because I love Bonanno's creative use of Asian ingredients and flavor profiles, plus the restaurant is fun, playful and delicious. And I'd go the Kitchen for dinner. That crew serves great, classic dishes with fresh, flavorful ingredients; the design is simple but beautiful and effective; and everything is totally approachable, comfortable and delicious. It's the type of place you can eat at a few times a week.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More street food, like we have in the big cities and Latin America. Street foods from around the world would be a great starting point for a few new concepts.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Burger restaurants. The burger boom has run its course. I'd like to see something new on the culinary scene.

Food trend you wish would disappear: Molecular gastronomy. While fascinating, the cuisine isn't necessarily flavorful; it's very hit or miss, and once you start playing with chemicals, you're changing the true identity of the ingredients. Organic farm-to-table is more my style, and I prefer to showcase ingredients for what they are -- not mask them.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Our cooks are always required to taste their dishes throughout each shift. Ironically, one of the most common mistakes in the kitchen is that cooks forget to taste. I require both front- and back-of-house management to taste all of our sauces prior to service to make sure the flavors are consistent. Recipes are just guidelines, and ingredients change in flavor over time, so without tasting as you go along, you won't know what your guests are experiencing. There are no cell phones allowed in our kitchens -- we can't afford distractions on the line, although you can imagine how hard it is to enforce, especially in an environment where people are used to texting and talking all day long. Also: Be organized and be clean; clean dishes come from a clean kitchen.

What's never in your kitchen? Negativity and dirtiness. People's attitudes impact the quality of every dish. When my staff is positive, clean and proud, we all put out good products. It's just like in sports or any other team activity: You need team players with positive attitudes to get results.

What's always in your kitchen? Cooks who always taste their food and different kinds of salt. I always like experimenting with new salts; it's the key to bringing out good flavor.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Truffle salt. It's decadent.

What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Cuzqueña from Peru and sauvignon blancs from New Zealand.

Favorite dish on your menu: The daikon duck tacos at Zengo. The fresh, crisp daikon ÅgtacoÅh shells offset the rich, flavorful duck and add great texture. ItÅfs a perfectly balanced and incredibly flavorful dish.

Biggest menu bomb: We've had problems selling sopes, Mexican corn masa cakes with various toppings, in many of our restaurants. They're fantastically delicious, but Americans aren't all that familiar with sope or masa, so they're a tough sell. We keep pushing them, though, because we want to share them with our diners. We've also run into the same problem introducing Peruvian causa -- puréed potato cakes topped with things like fresh ceviche -- to the American market.

Favorite childhood food memory: Watching my grandmother cooking the traditional dishes of Mexico. My entire family would gather every Sunday to share her feasts and catch up...fantastic memories.

Favorite junk food: Cancha, which is crispy Peruvian corn.

One book that every chef should read: The Art of the Deal, by Donald Trump. Life is all about making the right deal.

Best recipe tip for a home cook: Always season your food and taste as you go along.

What are your biggest pet peeves? When cooks fuse cuisines that don't make any sense, and the result is ingredients that aren't well balanced.

Culinary heroes: My grandmother for inspiring me, and Nobu Matsuhisa for introducing Peruvian-Japanese cuisine.

If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'm very good friends with Enrique Olver, the chef and owner of Pujol in Mexico. He's a world-renowned chef, and I admire his flavors and techniques and the fact that he's elevated the cuisine of my country. He's wonderfully creative and has tremendous passion and talent. One of the best dishes I've had is his escarole served with onion ashes and black-bean purée and watercress salad that's surprising and delicious. It's just an amazing restaurant that deserves all the recognition and accolades that they've amassed over the years.

Favorite celebrity chef: New York chef and restaurateur Laurent Tourondel is a great friend, and I respect his work, his humility and the fact that he's willing to experiment with different concepts and isn't afraid to push the envelope and create new things. He started with nothing in New York and quickly grew to international acclaim, all of it deserved.

Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Gordon Ramsay. I find that he's very disrespectful. While constructive criticism is necessary, disrespect never is.

What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I started out in life as a professional tennis player.

What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? You'll struggle in this business without passion.

Biggest compliment you've ever received: My James Beard nomination.

Most humbling moment as a chef: Every day can be humbling when you have thirty-plus restaurants. In such a detail-oriented business like this, mistakes are easy -- a simple mixup in ingredients, lack of seasoning, an unexpected rush -- all of these things can humble a man in an instant. When I had to close a restaurant that I opened in West Palm Beach about seventeen years ago, I learned that even if you have all the elements for success, things don't always work out, so you get up and start all over.

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The amazing restaurant teams I've created over the past fifteen years.

What's your dream restaurant? A Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant.

What do you have in the pipeline? A Pan-Latin steakhouse, a Balkan restaurant and more La Sandias...and maybe a Peruvian restaurant.

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