Why Toro Toro's Richard Sandoval is the 'father of modern Mexican cuisine'

Kim Wyatt goes behind the scenes of culinary emperor Richard Sandoval’s rise to the top and his new Doha fine-dining venture

Why Toro Toro's Richard Sandoval is the 'father of modern Mexican cuisine'
Why Toro Toro's Richard Sandoval is the 'father of modern Mexican cuisine' Image #2

Chef Richard Sandoval could easily be called “the quiet achiever”. A self-proclaimed introvert, the soft-spoken entrepreneur presides over 50 worldwide restaurant outlets including Doha’s popular Toro Toro and Zengo. The former professional tennis player-turned- chef, CEO, TV host and author has created a culinary empire across the globe. Recently, Sandoval was in Doha to unveil Maya – the brand new Doha outpost of his mega successful New York eatery.

Starting young
Born in Mexico City, Sandoval’s culinary training started young. His grandmother, an amazing lady according to him, spent a lot of time in the kitchen while his grandfather was a banker and entertained a lot at home. “In Mexico, you typically had two or three cooks that worked at the house and grandma was always in the kitchen. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter, watching and tasting the food. My family would take me out to restaurants and I was exposed to food at a very young age. Grandma gave me the culinary appreciation and dad gave me the business side. He was a successful restauranteur,” says Sandoval. With the culinary world at his fingertips, surprisingly, Sandoval’s foray into the food industry came late. “I was nine when I started engaging in tennis tournaments in Mexico. I moved to California and earned a scholarship to play tennis. It was very intense and I wasn’t making much money. I travelled a lot on the satellite circuit and always ended up in the food markets on my days off. Food was my calling. Then I signed up for culinary school and the rest as they say is history,” he explains to us.

Described as the “father of modern Mexican cuisine,” Sandoval’s signature style of Latin-Asian dishes – classic Mexican recipes reinterpreted with a contemporary Asian twist, has received accolades and awards including Mexico’s highly prestigious Toque d’Or. It’s proven that Mexican food has come a long way despite, early in his career, the stigma of his culinary homeland in the US. Sandoval says, “If you go back thirty years in the US, Mexican food was considered very low-end. Everyone saw the cuisine as cheap, fast food. It was very challenging to open my first Mexican restaurant in New York because the press said ‘why should we spend more money in your restaurant when we can go somewhere else that’s cheaper?’ In those early days, there were no Mexican chefs creating high-end food. I was using unexpected, premium ingredients. Establishing a different connection was very difficult. Now Mexican food is a huge trend throughout the world.”

That trend has now made its way to Doha where Sandoval recently opened the highly anticipated Maya – a homage to his grandmother and culinary heritage. Richard describes the menu as “a modern Mexican kitchen with classical and traditional recipes. These are recipes from my grandmother but with a modern twist”. Now firmly established locally, what does Sandoval think of Doha? “I always like to be part of exciting things. I had read about Doha and didn’t know much about the country. I saw what was happening with the construction and World Cup. I have other outlets in the region so it made sense to expand here, too. I think there’s a nice mix between expats and locals,” he says. “People here like to go out a lot. They’ve embraced culinary culture. I love to travel and see new things. Travel has had a huge influence on me. As a chef you never stop learning and it’s important to see what other chefs are doing. We try to localise as much as we can and source ingredients locally as much as possible. Mexican food is very bold, and people here seem to like it,” Sandoval says.

Being social
How does the self-proclaimed introvert deal with all the social media attention? He tells us he’s done many things under the radar and a lot of people don’t know who he is. “When you look at the number of restaurants I have around the world, there are very few chefs that have achieved the same,” Sandoval says. As an introvert, he doesn’t enjoy being around crowds. He continues, “People don’t believe that because I’m seen on social media. As a chef, I’m always around a lot of people but, for an introvert, it takes a lot out of me. I need a lot of quiet time. I’ve never really engaged in social media that much.” With more than 50 restaurants around the world and no business partners, Sandoval knows everything. “Most chefs are just involved in the culinary side but I’m involved in all parts of the business. I have ten new restaurants opening over the next year and I’m involved in all of them,” he says.

There may be benefits in the power of social media on his growing empire. It’s a double-edged sword according to Sandoval. He says, “Earlier, when a restaurant opened, it would take one or two months before the press wrote an article. Restaurants take time to open. You’ve got to train staff and train their palates. Now with social media, influencers come into the restaurant, take a picture and then suddenly twenty thousand people see your food on Instagram. A lot of people can be critical. The other side of the coin is information gets out much faster, so success can happen very quickly. Typically, restaurants undercapitalise when they first open – social media is great because you can get the word out fast to a lot of people. I think it’s a double-edged sword and we’re adapting to it. In this business, in order to survive, you must adapt and learn.”

A business tycoon
Sandoval never thought he’d be so successful in the business world. It wasn’t in his plan and he never saw it coming. “It just happened,” he says. “My New York restaurant was very successful and then developers approached me to ask if I would set up in their building. To go from one to two restaurants is very hard because you’re only one person and initially it takes your own time. Financially, it’s stressful,” he explains. However, it got a little easier for Sandoval with some financial backing – he had a bigger pool of people to work with. Sandoval says, “It almost becomes like a chess game, moving people around your business. I’ve opened two or three restaurants in the last month, but I was able to do it because I have a great team of people. I look at the menu, taste everything and make adjustments. It’s not about me anymore. It’s all about other people and finding the right team with the same passion.”

Now Sandoval aims to teach aspiring chefs the business side of the trade. “I love seeing chefs grow and then go out on their own. I have some chefs that have been with me for twenty years. The first thing I would say to any chef is that only one in a million chefs become famous,” he says. The industry may be glamourous, but it involves a lot of hard work. According to Sandoval, they must go into a good restaurant and understand the business side. “Work in a restaurant and then work for a few different chefs. Learn as much as you can and when you’re ready, open a restaurant. Culinary schools never give you enough training in business. The more financially savvy you are the more you will likely succeed,” he advises.

Enjoying his own success after many years in a highly competitive industry may just be around the corner for Sandoval. Could retirement be on the cards soon? “I’ve just built a house in Cabos, San Lucas, and I’m looking forward to spending time there. My daughter is attending university and my son is going to culinary school. My dream is to build a team with them. Perhaps in four or five years, I can start to back away. I’ll never be able to be 100 percent hands off, but if I still get excited going to a new restaurant opening, then I’ll keep working. When you love what you do, it’s not really work,” he concludes.

Richard Sandoval’s top ten favourites
Midnight snack
Foodie city
New York
Maui, Hawaii
Street food
TV chef
Mario Batalli
Hibiscus water
Grandma’s amole with white rice
and plantain
Kitchen tool

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