Restaurant Hospitality editor-in-chief Michael Sanson discussed healthy menus, tequila and Top Chef with the busy restaurateur.
RH: You're now working with a nutritionist to create "Latin Light" menu items that are all under 500 calories. What was behind this move?
Sandoval: It's a trend to eat healthier and people are more aware of what they put in their mouth. La Sandia is more of a family restaurant, so I wanted to offer these menu items, and I had the help of a chef friend who took my menu items and tested them for calorie count. We're testing these at all four of the La Sandia locations. If they're a success, we may do the same at other restaurants.
RH: You always have something new brewing. We hear that you're getting into the tequila business with George Clooney and Rande Gerber. What's the story behind this venture?
Sandoval: I'm a big tequila aficionado. It's my drink of choice. Rande Gerber and George Clooney created a tequila, Casamigos. Rande and George have houses in Cabo and they've been drinking this great tequila for 10 years and smuggling it into the States. So finally they asked me to help bottle it. I've worked before with Rande at a couple restaurants and I know he and George know their stuff when it comes to tequila. It's on the market right now.
RH: You'll also be competing in the fifth season of Top Chef Masters on Bravo next month. I would think that at this point in your career you have nothing to prove.
Sandoval: They called me and invited me. I thought it was very interesting and I thought it would be a lot of fun, and it was. This was filmed quite some time back and a winner was named, but I can't talk about it.
RH: As far as your company goes, you've not only spread yourself all over the country with restaurants, but now you're in far-flung international locations. How do you keep up with it all?
Sandoval: I have 37 restaurants and 10 different brands. But going from one to two restaurants and two to three was more difficult than adding restaurants now. It's never easy opening a restaurant, but it's easier. I have a great team and a great corporate office and it's what I love to do. Of course I do it for financial rewards, but I truly love this industry and I won't stop until I start putting out bad restaurants.
Father's Day dishes; Peruvian cuisine
RH: Placido Domingo is one of your partners. How did that come about?
Sandoval: I knew Placido from Acapulco, where I grew up. His family would vacation there and they would visit my dad's restaurants. When I struck out on my own to open restaurants in New York, he had a restaurant there that he wanted to reconceptualize and he called on me. I had a great idea to do a coastal seafood restaurant and he loved the idea, so we did it together.
RH: With this event taking place over Father's Day, is there one dish that your dad asks you to make him?
Sandoval: My parents were divorced when I was very young and I spent a lot of time with my father's mother. She had a huge influence on my palate and my style of cooking. She used to make a turkey mole poblano, and it's one of my favorites that I learned from her. A black mole with cilantro rice and fried plantains. My grandmother is gone, so my dad asks me to make him that dish. My grandmother got that recipe from her grandmother and it's the mole recipe I use at my restaurants.
RH: During your visit here in Aspen, was there any chef you hoped to meet?
Sandoval: Actually, I met him last night, Ricardo Zarate, who has Mo-Chica, Picca and Paiche in Los Angeles. When I was doing Top Chef Masters in L.A., I went to Picca and read a lot about him, but I never met him there. Next week I'm going to meet with him and maybe down the road we'll do something together.
RH: Ricardo is doing Peruvian cuisine and the media has been predicting for years that Peruvian would be the next big thing. What's your take on that?
Sandoval: I have been hearing that, too, for many years. I actually have a Peruvian restaurant in New York called Raymi, which opened two years ago, and we're struggling. One of the most famous Peruvian chefs in the world also opened a Peruvian restaurant in New York and he's gotten bad reviews. I have a great chef. For some reason, the cuisine doesn't seem to get the traction it deserves. Everybody talks about Peruvian cuisine, but nobody really can describe it to you. I'm glad Ricardo is having success with it in L.A.