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Bitch At Us: Chef Richard Sandoval

Chicago
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This post is sponsored by Richard Sandoval Restaurants.

I think I first fell in love with Richard Sandoval when I brunched at Masa 14 in D.C., many moons ago, back when it had just opened. The brunch concept was unprecedented at the time: unlimited fusion food and bottomless drinks in a super fun atmosphere, all for a measly $35.

It was a brunch coup, as D.C. had never seen a deal like it. Plus, the spot was one of the founding restaurants in 14th Street’s rejuvenation, bringing a bottomless burst of fun to the area and literally re-paving the way for its current form. It was also one of our most-read brunch reviews for years—Masa 14 killed it.

Since then, I’ve moved to New York and have discovered an entirely new side of Chef Richard’s restaurants. Here in the city, his Mexican and pan-Latin roots can spread their wings even more. I’ve had many a happy hour in the upstairs loft of gorgeous Zengo in Midtown. Those happy hours quickly turn into big tables, shared dishes and stories, and eventually end up in the tequila lounge.

Now it seems Chef Richard is everywhere I go. Earlier this week, I was in Chicago and nipped across the street to LatiniCity, chef’s newest food hall concept, for a quick bite in between meetings. The empire is growing, I thought, waiting in line for what was one of the most delicious tacos I’ve had in a while. But it’s growing at an authentic clip—Chef Richard never lets his secret sauce slip from his concepts.

I had to ask him for his story. What makes his restaurants sing for years and years, their concepts and their food never getting stale? So we hopped on the phone, in the midst of his extremely busy schedule opening Toro Toro in Abu Dhabi, so he could Bitch At Us a bit.

How has growing up in Mexico influenced your restaurants and cooking style?

My love for food first developed from cooking with my grandmother growing up in Mexico City. I spent a lot of time at her house, and every Saturday and Sunday, she’d put together an amazing feast for the whole family.

My father was a restauranteur, so I learned the business side of operating restaurants from him. Some of the key lessons I learned from my grandmother were respect for ingredients—but the most important lesson I received was to always taste what I was cooking.

My cooking style is “old ways, new hands,” where I take the authentic Mexican ingredients I used with my grandmother and put a modern, global spin on them inspired by my world travels.

How do you decide where to open your restaurants?

I have been very fortunate because of my work that I have always been approached by different companies or people with offers in different locations around the world. After any offers made, I study the market and the community and decide whether one of my concepts would make sense there.

What has been the biggest influence on your cooking style?

My grandmother for teaching me how to use authentic ingredients. Nobu Matsuhisa for his creativity, especially when he introduces Peruvian-Japanese cuisine.

How are you trying to inspire chefs of the future?

Our company tries to support as many programs as possible that support young chefs. Last week, for example, all our restaurants nationwide participated in World Food Day. World Central Kitchen Foundation asks all major chefs/restauranteurs to donate 10 percent of their restaurants’ sales to their smart solutions to hunger and poverty.

This year their goal was to raise $200,000 for their new Culinary School in Port au Prince, Haiti. The school will empower young chefs who are born to cook, but can’t afford training. We love participating in these kinds of events to help cultivate our young chefs of the future.

Which city do you prefer: New York, Chicago, or D.C.? Which has come further in its food scene?

I love each city equally, but I think that New York has come the farthest in its food scene. My vision with Maya when I first opened it in New York in 1997 was to achieve “Modern Mexican,” which is what I like to describe as, simply, old ways in new hands.

Elevating Mexican food has been my goal from the start. When I began my career, I wanted to overcome the perception that Mexican food was just “Tex-Mex” cuisine—smothered burritos, chimichangas, and so on. I think Maya was able to achieve and continue to achieve exactly what I envisioned.

Along with Maya, many other chefs have changed the dining scene in New York with elevated and unique interpretations of global cuisine.

What city has the most opportunity to grow in food innovation?

New York attracts so many people from different corners of the world that it’s only natural for food innovation to grow the fastest in that city.

Why a Latino food hall in Chicago? How’s the concept doing?

The idea for LatiniCity started when I was in Colombia about six or seven years ago and traveling through South and Central America and I went to a market that was built with food stands. I fell in love with it, and I wanted to create something like it in the United States.

Eataly was open and successful by then, and people were changing the way they wanted to go to food courts. I wanted to showcase the market and have approachable food. When you go to a market in Mexico, you can find tacos, and when you go to Colombia you can find nice produce.

I based LatiniCity around a market that I felt food people would understand. I didn’t want to go high-end, I wanted to go back to basics with good home-cooked, market foods. Chicago was the perfect place to open as an opportunity opened with Block 37, and it was a city that I always wanted to open a restaurant in and had never before.

What are you up to next in New York and D.C.?

There aren’t projects in the pipeline now for either of those locations because we have recently been focused on opening Toro Toro Abu Dhabi. I’d love to open another concept in New York and D.C. in the future, though!

What’s your favorite restaurant (that’s not your own) in New York, D.C., and Chicago?

In New York, Momofuko. I love the simple flavors. It reminds me of Asian markets. In D.C., Himitsu. In Chicago, Mortar & Pestle. It’s a great brunch spot!

What is your favorite brunch spot in the world (not your own)?

Snooze in Denver.

What is your favorite dish to make for other people for brunch?

I like to make Chilaquiles because they are unique! Most people have never eaten them before, and I love to give people new experiences.

What is your favorite dish to eat for brunch?

My favorite brunch dish has to be Huevos Rancheros. I am a big fan of Mexican breakfast items, and Huevos Rancheros are bold and delicious.

Are you a Bloody Mary or Mimosa guy?

Bloody Maria!

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