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Q&A: Richard Sandoval

The Mexican-American chef of Elements steakhouse Toro is helping push the trend for pan-Latin American cuisine, writes Andrew Sun

 

How did you and Dining Concepts connect to open Toro? "I met Sandeep Sekhri [Dining Concepts' managing director and founder] through Laurent Tourondel [of BLT Steak and BLT Burger], who is a very good friend. I told Laurent I wanted to come to Asia and asked if he would make an introduction. After I met Sandeep, I introduced him to Jaime Pesaque - that's how Mayta [Peruvian restaurant] got here. I introduced them and then Jaime beat me to Hong Kong."

Mexican food has often been difficult to sell in Hong Kong. Is that why you decided to open a steakhouse instead? "Most of my restaurants today are more pan-Latin, not just Mexican food. I think Mexican food is challenging because people see it as fast food. Anytime anyone brings it a little upscale, people think, 'Why should I pay more when I can go to Taco Bell and spend US$3 on a taco?'"

Is Latin cuisine the newest trend in international dining? "Absolutely. You're seeing some of the top chefs from around the world saying that, too. We're just starting to see where it's going. Peruvian is beginning to peak in America. People are now embracing Colombian and Venezuelan food. The great thing about it is there's so much to work with. As a chef in Mexico, there's mole, which is a sauce, like curry. There are hundreds of chillies, either dried or fresh. I think people in Asia will appreciate it because it's a lot like Asian cuisine. If you look at flavour profiles, ceviche is like sashimi."

There are sushi type rolls on your menu. Tell us about your exposure to Asian food. "Before I became a chef I was a professional tennis player so I travelled the world playing in tournaments, including across Asia, and I loved the food. It's very similar to my kind of food, especially Chinese and Thai. You have these bold flavours and very colourful dishes. I also love the sharing aspect. We've done that in Mexico for hundreds of years."

You now run more than 40 restaurants across the world. How difficult is it to manage them all? "For me, it was challenging to go from one restaurant to two, and three was impossible. The fourth, I didn't even know how I was going to do it. But after that, once you have a structure and a team, it becomes easier because you have a big pool of people. I can pull someone from Miami or Dubai, bring my chef from Belgrade and another guy from Mexico here. A week before a place opens, I like to go and absorb the flavours, and do the same for another week afterwards." Do you ever miss just cooking in a kitchen? "My favourite thing is cooking on the [kitchen] line. I usually compare the experience to being in the zone when I played tennis - you're just focused on the game. It's the same thing in the kitchen on a busy night when everything is flowing and time stands still. You're cooking and it's an adrenalin rush. I miss that. But I still have my hand in every dish on every menu. I'm a control freak so everything has to go through my hands and my palate."

In the United States, you appeared on the show Top Chef Masters. Do you enjoy doing television? "I probably don't do as much TV as I should because I am not a big fan of it. Unfortunately, it does help you stay current and get your restaurants out there. And it helps fill seats when you get exposure. The negative side is the new generation of chefs all want to be on TV and be rock stars, instead of learning about ingredients and training with good chefs to have a better understanding of cooking. I find the talent is not there anymore. Something has to change."

 

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