Chef, cookbook author and founder of an international restaurant group, Richard Sandoval may be a globetrotter, but he always manages to make a little time for the Middle East. The celebrity chef has been on the road for the last six weeks and has squeezed in two trips to the UAE during the time. In fact, the restaurateur's relationship with the country goes back about 15 years, when he first stepped foot here. "Back then Dubai was just developing. Now it has the world's tallest building," he says.
One of Sandoval's most popular restaurants, Toro Toro, is a Dubai-born brand that is now expanding to other parts of the world following its success in the region (it recently opened a branch in Fort Worth, Texas). Sandoval also operates Maya Mexican Kitchen and pan-Asian concept Zengo in Dubai, and Vakava in Abu Dhabi. Not one to hang up his hat, the chef's most recent trip to the region was to launch yet another restaurant - Mr Taco is now open at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa.
"We want to create a really fun cantina restaurant that serves amazing food," says Sandoval. "Maya is strictly Mexican food and Toro Toro is pan-Latin. But Mr Taco will be all about having fun with friends; it's going to have a completely different personality."
Accordingly, guests can expect a venue splashed with graffiti, sharing platters and an upbeat atmosphere. On the menu are “outrageous” drinks and 12 types of tacos (with other classics such as nachos and chicken wings), with taco Tuesdays and ladies’ nights adding to vibe. Promising that this is a spot for all – whether you’re coming from the office or the beach – Mr Taco is Sandoval’s most casual concept in the region. And, he asserts, this is the direction in which the food and beverage industry is heading.
“I think fine dining is sort of going away,” he says. “Today, many Michelin-starred chefs also have more casual brands. Casual doesn’t mean bad food – it means affordable food in a more relaxed ambience. Back when I got into the industry some 30 years ago, it was 80 per cent about the food. Now, it’s 50 per cent about the food and 50 per cent something else.”
This “something else” includes everything from sustainability to artisanal products, believes Sandoval, who credits this shift largely to millennials who have “changed the dining world forever”.
“Today, it’s all about social media and Instagram,” says Sandoval, who explains that Instagrammable moments will be a part of Mr Taco’s ethos. “Clicking pictures of the dishes is the first thing people do when they get their food. It’s how they communicate these days, so it’s really important that they are also getting something worth photographing.
“Earlier, once you started a restaurant, it would take months, maybe even years for the media to come and review you. Now, everyone who walks through that door is a critic, a blogger, an influencer. You have to be prepared much faster.”
With modern technology changing the way we communicate, restaurants are also under constant pressure to adapt and change with the times, says the restaurateur. "Typically, every 10 years, a restaurant would be revamped. Now, every four to five years, you need to have a change just to keep things fresh and relevant. Millennials want to be engaged."
Luckily, a willingness to adapt to change comes naturally to Sandoval. While he's a celebrated chef and restaurateur today, in the past, he was a professional tennis player who toured the world. It was only when he had to choose between playing the circuit and making a career in the restaurant business, where his father worked, that his love for food won out. Sandoval decided to enrol in The Culinary Institute of America and the rest, as they say, is history.
It seems there are some lessons from his tennis days that he still brings to the kitchen. "In tennis, you have this phase called the zone, when you're not thinking, you're just naturally doing stuff and you're doing your best work. I feel the same when I'm in the kitchen – there's an incredible adrenalin rush. There's a little bit of competitiveness involved, too – you always want to be the best."
With about 20 concepts and 51 restaurants under his Richard Sandoval Hospitality group, it looks like his competitiveness has served him well: he has one more launch before this year ends, and four or five restaurant openings lined up for 2020. There's also talk of taking Toro Toro to Muscat in 2021. But he is adamant that it is not about the numbers.
"I always say, the day I open restaurants just for the sake of opening them, it's time to stop," Sandoval concludes. "As long as we're passionate, we'll keep on going."