Richard Sandoval is part of the line-up of celebrity chefs who will be at the Taste of Abu Dhabi food festival next month. But the chef behind the Maya and Toro Toro chains of restaurants, and founder of the Richard Sandoval Restaurants empire, says he is not overly fond of the "celebrity" moniker.
“I run a big company, and am constantly flying all over the world. It’s hard for me to take the time off to regularly be on TV shows. My mind is always on my next restaurant. I have seven opening this year alone – so who has the time to be a celebrity?”
Of those seven, Toro Toro in Abu Dhabi had its official launch this month. A free-standing property behind the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel on the Corniche, the licensed eatery serves the Latin American fare that has proved popular in its Dubai branch for the past six years.
However, while the Dubai restaurant is all marble, tough woods and leather, with dim, almost cave-like mood lighting, the Abu Dhabi space is lighter, livelier and bursting with colour. "It's all about timing," Sandoval says. "When we opened in Dubai, people were into a more luxurious fine-dining experience. Now diners are more about organic experiences, so we've put in more tropical colours, casual seating, a live ceviche counter and so on."
The waterfront restaurant, which will be open for lunch and dinner, will also have a live Cuban band performing most nights, and host salsa classes in the future, as well as a Friday brunch – that most loved of culinary concepts in this part of the world – from next Friday.
“I think you have to localise all your restaurants,” Sandoval continues. “I don’t like to copy and paste a concept, even in Washington or New York, and certainly not in the UAE. You have to come into a community and adapt your menu and venue towards it.”
Sandoval first visited the UAE a dozen years ago, when he was approached to open a restaurant at Le Royal Méridien in Dubai. Maya was followed by Zengo, also at Le Royal Méridien, then Toro Toro at Grosvenor House in Dubai Marina and now in Abu Dhabi. While Maya promises pure Mexican fare and Zengo does a mean pan-Asian, Toro Toro specialises in Latin American food – and was one of the first restaurants to bring the now-popular Peruvian cuisine to this region.
Sandoval says two things really stand out for him when it comes to pan-Latin food. "Chillies. They are my favourite ingredient to cook with because there are so many varieties and so many faces, depending on what you do with them. For example, a jalapeño has a clean, crisp flavour when used dried, as opposed to a chipotle, which is nice and smoky. I believe chillies are very versatile, and what they do for a dish all depends on how you use them: whether dried, fresh, roasted, grilled or pan-fried, each way will have a different flavour. I look at the chilli as an herb, rather than just as a heat-producing spice."
Sandoval says that the ají amarillo is his favourite chilli, and he cites the ají amarillo tuna ceviche at Toro Toro as his signature dish. "It's very popular in Peruvian cuisine. I like its uniqueness with the bright orange-yellow colour, medium heat level and fruity flavour." The chef also recommends the smoked guacamole, cornbread with pickled jalapeño and truffle butter, and the churrasco grill meat skewers, sliced and served fresh at the table.
The churrasco concept is perfectly in keeping with the second culinary trend close to Sandoval’s heart, and adopted by many of his restaurants: a sharing menu. “Growing up in Mexico, eating around my grandmother’s table, food was always shared. So it’s not a new concept, but somewhere along the way restaurants became about one dish for one person,” he explains. “Not so at Toro Toro. Here you get to taste so many more flavours. Sharing dishes also makes the meal very interactive; you talk more about what you’re eating and experiencing together.”
Sandoval admits he is a control freak and regularly spends time with his research-and-development chef to discuss and try things out. "Every new dish has to go through my palette, although I'm not cooking or in the kitchen on a regular basis these days," he says.
That is not surprising, given the 50-plus restaurant empire he currently manages. In addition to his UAE venues, Sandoval oversees Raya in California; Pampano, La Biblioteca, Zengo and Maya in New York; El Centro DF, Masa 14 and Toro Toro in Washington; Bahia, Brisas, El Puerto and La Laguna in Mexico; and Toro Gastrobar in Tokyo, to name just a few.
“There was never a plan behind it, but maybe that’s why I ended up with so many restaurants and types of brands,” he says. “I went with the flow, I adapted with places and people and trends – in food, decor and dining. To stay relevant in the restaurant business, you have to keep changing and evolving or you’ll disappear.”