Monday, January 22, 2007

Richard Sandoval Defines Modern Mexican

I lived in downtown DC from 2005 – ’06. One of the many perks of that urban experience was having Zengo right next door to my building. Owned by Richard Sandoval, Bon Appetit’s 9th Annual American Food and Entertaining Awards 2006 Restaurateur of the Year, the Latin-Asian inspired dining spot features creative dishes (including sushi!) and cocktails (I love the Blushing Geisha). I often met friends or business associates there for a nosh and a chat. Obviously, interviewing the restaurant mogul was very exciting, and left me with a Pavlovic hankering for a dragon roll and a cocktail.

Sandoval’s Modern Mexican Restaurant Group (worth over $20 million) has locations throughout the US, with outposts opening soon in Mexico, Dubai and India. His existing restaurants: Maya (New York, San Francisco), Pampano (New York), Zengo (Denver, Washington DC), Tamayo (Denver), La Sandia (Denver) and Isla (Las Vegas) earned him accolades in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Denver Post, and mentions in Food Arts, Food and Wine, Wine Enthusiast and Hispanic Business magazines.

Heralded by some as “the best Hispanic chef in the US,” Sandoval shares credit for his success with his staff. “I’ve put many years of hard work into my career that it is gratifying to be recognized for my work. I have also been very good at surrounding myself with great people at all my restaurants.” He enthusiastically emphasizes, “These awards are a reflection of their work, too.”

Today, Richard takes pride in bringing Mexican flavor into international limelight and feels his status a 'Celebrity Chef' inspires future Latino culinary stars. He explains, “More than anything, I want to impact future generations. I want to motivate young people, and give them someone to look up to in promoting our culture and our food.”

Sandoval began down a culinary path at age 12, helping at his father’s restaurants (Madieras and Villa Fiore) in Mexico. He then went to high school in California and, later, attended the University of New Mexico, where he played on the tennis team. Sandoval jokes that he realized “there wasn’t much money in playing tennis” after playing professionally in Europe, and revisited his original passion: cooking.

After graduating from the CIA in New York, Sandoval returned to his homeland and practiced his art under the tutelage of his father. In 1992, Richard won Mexico's National Toque de Oro (equivalent to Chef of the Year). Inspired to further his career on an international level, Sandoval headed back to the Big Apple. In 1997, he launched an eatery of his own. He recalls, “I loved the excitement of New York and there I opened my first restaurant, Maya.”

Following the success of his first enterprise, he collaborated with opera singer and restaurateur, Placido Domingo for his next. Sandoval explains, “I knew Placido from Acapulco. When I moved to New York to open Maya, he had a restaurant called Placido. He wanted to re-conceptualize his restaurant, so we decided to team up. I had an idea to open a seafood restaurant. Pampano was our first collaboration.” After its success, the two opened Zengo, in Washington, DC, in 2005.

With restaurants already in plum locations such as New York and San Francisco, I was curious as to why he has the most restaurants in a smaller city, such as Denver. “If you look at the geographic locations of my restaurants, you will see that I never had a plan,” jokes the restaurateur. “I was approached by a developer in Denver, so I opened Tamayo. Then another developer there asked me to open another restaurant. My restaurants have done very well in Denver, and it is a growing market. We have another one opening in 2007.” This year will also see Pampano branching out to Los Angeles, in the Beverly / Wilshire area.

Now that Modern Mexican Restaurant Group has grown quite rapidly, Sandoval plans new locations more strategically. He explains, “We want to expand areas where we have restaurants already. For example, we have plans to open something in Tysons Corner, VA, which is not far from Zengo in DC.”

Still, Sandoval beams at the prospect of taking his cuisine to the world market. There is talk of opening the next Zengo to Mumbai, India. He will also set up shop in the extravagant Royal Meridian Hotel in Dubai, one of today’s most glamorous destinations. “Dubai is exciting,” states Sandoval, “I’m always on the cutting edge with my restaurants, and Dubai is at the forefront of trends when it comes to architecture and, now, restaurants.”

Other international endeavors have emotional appeal, such as taking over a restaurant from his in Mexico, this year. Richard shares, “My father has had it for 25 years. I will redesign it and reopen it with my interpretation.” He is pleased to take carry his father’s torch to the next generation, and reflects, “I am excited because it is where I started my career. It feels like everything coming full circle.”

His favorite cocktail?
"I love mojitos. I’ve gotten more involved with the beverage program in my restaurants. I like mojitos because they use a lot of flavors that I do in my food; lemon, mint. I like using a lot of different flavors in my cooking. I like cocktails that are flavorful and balanced.” Sandoval is also a fan of high quality tequilas, and looks forward to sharing Modern Mexican flavors with the world.

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