Richard Sandoval thinks no one knows who he is, despite the fact he heads a global restaurant empire with 35 (and counting) restaurants, including the brand new Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort.
Sandoval, born and raised in Mexico, was a professional tennis player before he turned to the culinary field. OK, maybe you didn’t know who he was when he went head-to-head with legendary tennis stars, including Andre Agassi and Boris Becker. But a funny thing happened to Sandoval on the way to one of his European tennis tours. The culinary bug bit him. Actually, the bug bit long ago, but didn’t stir inside him for decades. It was dormant when he lived with his restaurateur father in Acapulco, and when he stayed with his grandmother, Maruca, watching her throw lavish food feasts for her banker husband’s business associates and clients.
Restaurants and hospitality are in his blood. Tennis was not.
He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and dabbled in contemporary French restaurants after graduation in 1991, but the tipping point in his career came in 1997, when he returned to his cooking roots and opened Maya in New York City. That same year, the New York Times awarded Maya and its modern Mexican cuisine two stars — the first ever, he notes, Mexican restaurant awarded stars.
“Most people don’t know who I am,” he says, “But it’s not about me. It’s about passion. People ask what’s the ‘magic’ number [of restaurants], and I tell them it’s not a number. That was never a goal. There has been a domino effect, sure, but it’s always been about passion.”
Since 1997, his “passion” has launched a fuzzy number of concepts. I say fuzzy because all are Latin with a modern (read: interpretive) twist, with varying degrees of Asian fusion, so it’s difficult to pin down the exact number. A better way to describe Sandoval’s restaurant collection is by the sheer number, but even that seems to be a moving target these days. He isn’t willing to give an exact number, but says it’s somewhere between 35 and 40. (He is off to Tokyo next week to open another Toro, the fourth by that name, although all four have slightly different menus targeted to their specific audiences in Hong Kong, Serbia and now Scottsdale).
Another moving target is the number of employees under Sandoval’s direction but he says it’s in the neighborhood of 2,000. That’s a lot of economic power for a man who says no one knows who he is. He’s quick to credit the people who work for him for his continued success. “First it’s my ADHD followed by OCD,” he jokes. Then he turns serious and says that it’s the people who work with and for him that create success. “I hope I transfer my passion to them,” he says. “That’s my role. That and creating opportunities for them to grow.”
Longtime Scottsdale food lovers might remember Sandoval was the creative force behind the reopening of La Hacienda at the Fairmont in early 2010, giving the Four-Diamond Mexican fine dining grand lady a modern makeover and menu reboot, but wisely leaving the storied restaurant in the capable hands of longtime chef, Forest Hamrick (I favorably reviewed the reboot for PHOENIX Magazine in August, 2010).
In addition to flagship Maya, Sandoval has a tacos and tequila outlet (T & T) in Las Vegas, a modern Peruvian restaurant in New York called Raymi, and five Zengo restaurants, a heavily blended Asian-Latin concept. I mention that SushiSamba must have started the Asian-Latin fusion trend when they opened in 1999, and he quickly corrects me.
“I think Nobu started the [fusion] movement,” Sandoval says, citing world famous chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s time cooking in Peru in the mid-70s as the catalyst. Besides Nobu, Sandoval credits his grueling global travel schedule (so far, he’s racked up 250,000 air miles this year) as his inspirational muse.
Sandoval’s latest concept, Toro, is a spin-off of another one of his concepts, Toro Toro. Is it called Toro because it’s only half the place of the original? Something like that. Toro Toro (locations in Florida, DC and Dubai) is a full-blown steakhouse, with Latin flair, naturally. Toro, he says, is similar but the emphasis is on small plates.
At Scottsdale’s Toro, Sandoval pays homage to the multi-cultural cuisine found in Peru with a section called Suviche Bar (sushi + ceviche), with dishes like tuna Nikkei ceviche ($15) and hamachi tiradito (Peruvian’s take on sashimi) with aguachile sauce, apple, red onion and sriracha ($15). Peruvian dishes influenced by Chinese immigrants make an appearance on Toro’s menu in the form of chifa-style fried rice ($14). Corn empanadas ($10) are three bites of fried wonton skins stuffed with mozzarella, and crunchy shrimp ($14) is paired with lime aioli and topped with tobiko. Because Toro is tucked in a resort, there are obligatory steaks ($38-$70) and bigger plates including Mexican campfire-style whole snapper ($36) and yes, of course there is a burger, topped with Oaxaca cheese, bacon and guacamole ($14).
If you’re wondering about the rum connection, Sandoval says that Caribbean rum is popular throughout Latin American and, well, La Hacienda across the way has tequila (and mezcal) covered. Certainly diners will find something palpable among the 110 rum offerings.
Who is Richard Sandoval? He’s a 47 year-old father of two teens, a globetrotting chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. He’s the most famous chef you’ve never heard of. Until now.
Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar
(in the TPC Grill space at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort)
7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale
New Latin Flavors cookbook released October, 2014