When the new season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters” kicks off tonight, it promises to make mega-chef and contestant Richard Sandoval sweat like a rookie. After all, when you’ve got chefs as talented as David Burke, Bryan Voltaggio and Jennifer Jasinski, you’ve got fierce competition and several good reasons to sweat.
But Sandoval, whose 37-restaurant empire includes two popular Miami eateries — Toro Toro and Kokoriko — comes to the competition well-armed. He’ll have his top sous chef, Greg Howe, riding shotgun. (In a new plot twist, this fifth season allows the 13 master chefs to enter a sous chef in an online battle that directly impacts the course of the series.)
Sous chef and sharp knives aside, Sandoval brings a passion for good food instilled in him as a child in Mexico City, long before celebrity chef shows were as ubiquitous as sitcoms on TV.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, and she was an amazing cook,” said Sandoval in a telephone interview last week.
The chef, who now calls Los Angeles (and the friendly skies of a frequent flier) home, went to live with his grandparents after his parents divorced. He remembers great Saturday and Sunday feasts, when the kitchen bustled with the household cooks. His grandmother, as matriarch, would sit at the head of the table, he recalls, and preside over multiple courses of platters heaped with family-style portions.
A weekend meal might start with cheeses, avocados and fresh tortillas. A brothy tortilla soup or a bowl of fideo seco (dry noodle soup) might follow. Then came the meats and sides such as fried zucchini blossoms or chayote squash.
The flavor profiles grew more diverse each time he tasted the imported butters and exotic cheeses brought home by his grandfather, a banker.
“Without my knowing, my palate was already being trained and evolving,” says Sandoval.
While he learned about flavors and culinary soul from his grandparents, he wouldn’t have to look outside the family to learn about the business side of the restaurant industry. His restaurateur father, Manuel Sandoval, owned and operated two hot Acapulco eateries and helped teach him about restaurant operations.
“I was introduced to food, and then to the business side of food. I’m one of those unique chefs who understands both sides of the business,” says the chef, who gained his classical training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Degree in hand, he returned to Mexico to work with his father. Then in 1993, he went off on his own, moving to New York to open Savann, a French eatery on New York’s Upper West Side. But four years later, he returned to the cuisine of his soul and opened Maya, a modern Mexican restaurant in New York.
It would become the flagship in a quickly growing restaurant group that now includes concepts in Washington, Las Vegas, Denver, Snowmass Village, Colo., Santa Monica, Calif., Qatar, Dubai and Mexico.
After the success of Maya, he says, “the domino effect took over,” leading to a quick sequence of other concepts. And now he’s on a roll: in the next 12 months, his restaurant group is opening 12 eateries in locations that include Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Dubai and Qatar, he says.
Another kind of domino effect took hold of the Sandoval family years ago, as the family’s love for all things culinary gave the world a succession of chefs and restaurateurs. Today, three of his brothers — Alfredo, Felipe and Patricio — are partners in the Mercadito Hospitality group of restaurants, which owns Mercadito Midtown in Miami.
But is this pedigree enough to give Richard Sandoval a boost in one of the toughest cooking competitions on reality TV?
Sandoval can’t spill too many details of Season 5, which was shot in Los Angeles. But he will say this: “It was a lot of fun.”
Not that his life lacked adventure. The chef, who has homes in California and New York, says he travels about 70 percent of the time to visit his restaurants, open new locations and sample new menu items. At home on weekends, he savors time with his family, simple, grilled meats with a kick of chile heat, and a fine tequila swirled in a snifter.
And when a Mexican soul food craving hits, he reaches for a guilty-pleasure fix: “I love rice and beans. And tacos. My favorite is tacos al pastor – corn tortillas filled with pork marinated in adobo, grilled pineapple and tomatillo.”
Speaking of guilty pleasures, “Top Chef”-heads may appreciate an inspired trio of dishes that are premiere-perfect for tonight’s reality TV viewing. Chef Sandoval shares the recipes that follow.
TORO TORO SMOKED SWORDFISH DIP
Recipe by chef Richard Sandoval of Toro Toro restaurant, Miami.
Makes 2 pounds
1¼ pound smoked swordfish (or trout)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup Japanese mayonnaise, (such as Kewpie brand)
1 tablespoon cilantro, roughly chopped
¼ cup red onion, minced
¼ cup capers, strained, finely chopped
¼ cup celery, minced
2 tablespoons pickled red Fresno chiles (or pickled jalapeños), minced
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt to taste
Pick apart swordfish with your hands to make pieces about the size of a nickel.
Place all ingredients in bowl. Gently fold together using a rubber spatula. Serve with corn tortilla chips, crackers or raw vegetables.
TORO TORO HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD
Adapted from a recipe by chef Richard Sandoval’s Toro Toro restaurant in Miami.
4 large ripe heirloom tomatoes, sliced medium-thin
1 pound wedge watermelon, cut with melon baller (can be substituted with slices)
1 avocado, sliced
2 burrata (or fresh mozzarella) cheese balls
1 cup hearts of palm, sliced
½ cup watercress leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Chipotle Balsamic Dressing (see recipe below)
On a large chilled serving plate, arrange alternating slices of tomato with the watermelon and avocado. Top with burrata or fresh mozzarella cheese balls. Arrange hearts of palm. Finish with watercress leaves and the chipotle-balsamic dressing, and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Chipotle Balsamic Dressing
1 cup tomato water (see NOTE)
1 teaspoon yuzu juice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon peeled ginger, chopped
1 chipotle chile in adobo
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon honey (or to taste)
Salt and pepper
Minced chives and parsley
To prepare the dressing: Place the tomato water, yuzu, vinegar, garlic, ginger and chipotle in a blender and blend on high speed until smooth. While blender is running, slowly add in olive oil until fully incorporated. Blend in honey and season with salt and pepper. Remove from blender and fold in minced herbs. Reserve.
To make tomato water: Strain about 2 pounds of pureed tomatoes through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Allow the juice to drain without stirring. This process should take at least 2 hours. (You can leave tomatoes to drain in the fridge overnight.)
KOKORIKO CORN ON THE COB
With creamy chipotle sauce and fresh cheese
Recipe from chef Richard Sandoval’s Kokoriko Natural Rotisserie restaurant, Miami.
For the corn on the cob:
4 ears of corn, shucked
1 gallon water
½ cup chipotle sauce (recipe below)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chile powder
1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
Creamy Chipotle Sauce:
2 cups mayonnaise
2 teaspoon chipotle puree (see note)
1 tablespoon honey
Juice of ½ lime
NOTE: For the chipotle puree, you can use canned chipotles in adobo, and puree them in the blender. But watch the heat factor on them — these are spicy chiles, so use them to your desired taste and heat level.
Make the creamy chipotle sauce:
Combine all sauce ingredients in a large bowl and mix until thoroughly combined. Reserve in refrigerator till needed.
Make the corn on the cob:
In a large pot, add the water and bring to a rapid boil. Add enough salt to the water to give the water the taste of seawater.
Drop the corn into the boiling water and cook for approximately 6 to 7 minutes, or until the corn is tender.
Remove from heat and drain. Brush each corn cob with the chipotle aioli and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and chile powder. Serve on a skewer with lime wedges.
TOP CHEF MASTERS
- The fifth season of ‘Top Chef Masters’ kicks off tonight with an episode titled ‘Sous Chefs and Skydives.’ The reality series airs at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
- At the end of the season, the winning chef is named “Top Chef Master” and awarded a grand prize of $100,000 for his or her charity.
- Chef Richard Sandoval is competing to benefit C-CAP, the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which offers training and career opportunities to underserved youth.
A TOP CHEF’S ADVICE
What advice does chef Richard Sandoval offer budding chefs and those who aspire to a culinary career?
“The most important thing is that they have passion for the industry. They have to really love it. It’s labor-intensive,” says the only Season 5 ‘chef-testant’ with restaurants in South Florida. “Gotta have that passion.”