His name may not be as well recognized as that of Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but make no mistake about it, Mexican-born chef Richard Sandoval is a bona fide rock star in the culinary world.
But your stomach probably already knew that. During your travels, it’s highly likely that you’ve encountered one of his restaurants. With 48 outposts and counting spread across the globe under the Richard Sandoval Restaurants umbrella, the toque serves tastes in cities from Cabo San Lucas to Tokyo, oftentimes in partnership with luxury properties such as Four Seasons, Fairmont and The St. Regis.
Find out about the secret to Sandoval’s success, hear about his exciting upcoming projects and get the scoop on the debut of his new Bayou & Bottle at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Houston as we catch up with this prolific, jet-setting chef.
There are 48 Richard Sandoval restaurants around the world, many of them different concepts. What has been the secret to your growth?
I think that we became very successful at doing hotel properties. That’s very challenging for a lot of chefs because it’s a joint venture when you partner up with a hotel. You have to build a relationship.
A lot of chefs will come into these opportunities and say, “Well, you know, this is how I do it. It’s my way or the highway.” So a lot of these joint ventures did not work for a lot of these chefs.
In contrast, we’ve learned and understood how to do them, so we’re very good at it.
For example, at Four Seasons Punta Mita in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, before we took that over, it wasn’t one of the top operations in the world. We took it to No. 2 in [food and beverage] performance among all of the Four Seasons properties worldwide.
What exactly do you do at these properties?
We set up the restaurants, the concepts, the menus and then the properties execute. The same thing happened with The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. We took that to No. 1. We just took over the [dining at] Fairmont Mayakoba. That was at No. 47. Today, it’s No. 5. So, we understand it. We go in and work with the people. We don’t fire anyone. We work with the actual team that’s there.
It’s pretty amazing that before they were not succeeding — when we come in, we motivate them, we change the culture and now they’ve become very successful.
What do you think is the key to this success?
I think it’s instilling passion into these people. What happens a lot of the time in these hotels is that there’s a lot of bureaucracy.
So, the people there are just cooks, and they’re not allowed to do anything. If they do want to do something, it has to go through so many channels of command that nothing is really happening.
The feedback we get a lot of time is, “Well, we don’t ever get to do anything. They don’t listen to us.” So, we go in there and we listen to them.
When they’re working with us, they get to work on their menus. Then we send the chefs to restaurants outside of their property, so it motivates them and it builds passion. That results in consistency and good-quality food.
Bayou & Bottle is a new American concept at Four Seasons Hotel Houston but your foundation is Latin. How does that background fit into what you’ve been doing?
Well, we have Latin [themed restaurants]. We have Asian. We have steak and seafood. We have about 12 different brands that we do.
What is American food today? It’s everything today. You look at American restaurants and French chefs. If you go to Jean Georges or Joël Robuchon, you’ll see curries and you’ll see tacos and you’ll see chiles. You would never have seen that 10 years ago.
So, when you say American today, you can pretty much put anything on the menu.
How many projects do you have in the works?
Bayou & Bottle in Houston is the latest. We’re doing the Le Meridien in Fort Lauderdale — it’s going to open in first quarter 2018, if I’m not mistaken.
When you open up a restaurant, what does it entail?
One thing that’s been different for me compared to other chefs is that I’ve done a lot of my stuff under the radar.
A lot of people know of Richard Sandoval, but they think I have maybe one or two restaurants. But I have 48 restaurants. I own my company.
A lot of celebrity chefs are the front of a company with an operating company behind them, but Richard Sandoval is 100 percent owned by me. When I’m doing a new venture, I meet with the owners. I’m involved in the design. I work on the menus.
So, I’m involved in everything from A to Z.
Give us the scoop on Bayou & Bottle.
It’s a lobby bar. The theme is American, which I said before can mean many things. The menu is going to be small plates.
We’re going to have some crudos, ceviches. We’re going to have an open-faced pot pie. We’re gonna have a burger, sandwiches, paninis. It’s going to be a wide range.
We want to have enough variety for people to have several things to pick from, but it’s going to be changing a lot. It’s all about sharing. When you’re at a bar having a cocktail, you’re going to want to be sharing food.
Why did you choose a whiskey and bourbon theme for it?
The last 10 or 15 years, all you were hearing about were the new vodkas, the new tequilas or mezcals. It’s about bringing back old, classic cocktails. Bourbon is an American staple.
We’re going to have a great variety. We’re going to have private lockers. So, you’ll be able to buy a bottle of bourbon or whiskey and store it there, so when you have guests or friends in town, you can say, “Go to Bayou & Bottle and you can have bourbon from my locker.”
We’re going to have a baron or baroness, a person very well versed in whiskeys and bourbons, so when you do a flight of bourbons or whiskeys, someone can explain the differences in each and help walk you through it.
What is your favorite place to visit when you’re not working?
I don’t get to travel much to places where it’s not work. I travel to these places and I take my family, but it’s usually tied into work. I love Cabo San Lucas, where I have a restaurant, Toro, in partnership with Esperanza, An Auberge Resort.
Punta Mita is probably my all-time favorite [destination]. The thing about Four Seasons Punta Mita is that it’s so well laid out that no matter how full it is, it never feels full.
When I travel, I’m always around people, so I need my quiet time. On that property, I can be on the beach [in quiet]. The water’s warm. The beaches are beautiful.
Outside of Mexico and the U.S., I love Belgrade. I have a Toro in Belgrade, Serbia, and when I go to Europe, I like to go there. It’s an exciting place. There are very well-educated people. Unfortunately, it’s in a terrible economy because of all the wars, but when you go to Montenegro and Croatia, it’s spectacular.
What is the one thing you should order at a hotel restaurant that will tell you if it’s good or bad?
In the U.S.? A burger. For my restaurants and for my chefs — if it’s a Mexican restaurant — I ask them to do rice and beans for me. If they can cook really good beans and rice, then I know the kitchen can do pretty much anything.
What is the one thing that you crave on the road?
One of my favorites is tacos al pastor.
Of all the places that you visit, what jumps to mind as the most exciting?
Istanbul. Every time I go, it’s just so impressive. The food’s incredible. I’ve been going to Istanbul for a while — and I don’t have a restaurant there.
What motivates you to keep going?
Every year, I keep say I’m going to pull back and I end up doing more. It’s never been about money.
People ask, “What’s the magic number?” It’s never been about a number. I love what I do. I love creating.
The day I do a restaurant just because someone asks me to do it, I will stop. But I still love this. I love going to cities. Like this concept, Bayou & Bottle, in Houston — it’s something new. That excites me.
To be able to work with my chefs, to create a new restaurant with a different style of cuisine and different mixology, that excites me.