The Mexican-American chef knows that teaching Copenhagen cooks and diners about Mexican cuisine is going to take patience. A lot of it.
Left photo courtesy of flickr user Lou Stejskal; Right photo courtesy of Hija de Sanchez
It’s hard for a chef to translate their personal story into something they feel represents them on the plate. It’s even harder when that translation also has to happen across languages and oceans. But Mexican-American chef Rosio Sánchez, owner of Copenhagen taco shops Hija de Sanchez and the newly opened Sanchez, is making it look easy. She made her bones in the kitchens of Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 and Rene Redzepi at noma as a pastry chef. She struck out on her own in 2015 to introduce Denmark to tacos made the right way—with fresh ground masa for tortillas, and an attention to detail that would showcase all the Mexican flavors she missed from home. With the recent launch of the slightly-more-formal Sanchez (with a menu more expansive than tacos and street food), she has a chance to show her audience just how versatile Mexican food can be.
There’s a lot of pressure on the 33 year-old chef’s shoulders to be the harbinger of Mexican cuisine to all of Europe, but she’s committed to the long game of bringing Copenhagen diners into her world. During a recent visit to New York, MUNCHIES had a chance to catch up with Sánchez to talk about how she’s teaching her European chefs a new culinary vocabulary, getting her cooks on board with her passion for nailing all the little details, and being the torchbearer of Mexican food in noma country.
MUNCHIES: Your sous chef, Laura Cabrera, has been with you since the beginning at Hija de Sanchez. Coming from the restaurant background that you do and working for people like [Redzepi] and [Dufresne] for as long as you did, what have you learned about building a staff that’s loyal and sticks around for a while?
Rosio Sánchez: I haven’t mastered that at all. [laughs] What I always try to think about is that you have to give them something to look forward to. I listen. I’ve taken in a lot of what’s happening in their lives, what’s running through their minds. That’s easy for me to say, because it’s a new business, so it’s something that’s being created. For me, that means—we’re the team that’s creating it, so I always remind them that we’re the ones setting it in motion. And I’ve had a lot of good people take part in that.
Our [taco] shop is really seasonal, so we’re forced to not have a long-term staff. But with the restaurant, it’s gonna be a little different, I hope. I know restaurants have a high turnover, but giving everyone responsibility is important. Because that’s what I want. I try to remember what used to drive me.
And if I look at it the other way, for me, it’s always been important to feel like I’m a part of [the team] and like my opinion matters, and that I’m being heard.
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You’ve talked before about the difficulty of getting Mexican chefs who want to work or stage with you into Denmark because of visa issues, and that some of the European chefs who come to you are intimidated by techniques they’re not familiar with, like tortilla making. How do you translate your culinary vocabulary for cooks trained in a more narrow European tradition? How do you make someone not afraid to make a tortilla?
I think most of it is that they’re just trying to understand what it is, how it works. I think that’s the challenge, and I think it’s just a matter of practice, just like anything else. It could be the same thing as someone who’s never made bread before. It’s the same thing. It’s two different doughs, right? You’re not gonna learn how to make bread in two months, in six months. You’re gonna learn it in a year or more. Not even learn it—you’re just gonna get the basics. You understand it when you work at it every day. It’s the same thing with tortillas. And the cooks who do want to learn it will stick around.
It’s just a matter of practice and remembering that, maybe to us it seems very normal, but this person has maybe never made a corn tortilla. They need to know how [the dough] reacts, and I try to relate it a lot to bread. Because the tortilla’s gonna change, it’s not just about making the recipe. It’s as sensitive as making a bread dough. If it’s an older corn, a younger corn. Is it a yellow corn? Where was it harvested? Is it humid outside? Is it cold outside? Does it need more water today? It’s a lot like bread. In the winter, we struggle so much with tortillas. Now we know, in the winter we need to grind [the corn] with more water, cook it longer, like over-cook it. Sanchez hasn’t been open very long yet, but we’re trying to find the people who are willing to take all these details seriously.
You came to New York for a taco pop-up at Shake Shack, a company you’ve collaborated with before and with which you’re good friends. What is your philosophy on collaborating with other chefs or brands?
I just want to have fun. The whole point of it is to have fun and get to do something you don’t do every other day. I’ve met a lot of people in my 10 years of cooking where I’ve been like, “Okay, what can we do that’s fun and makes them have fun with us, too?” I love the turn that I’ve taken. Even today, going into this crazy place, all of this busy-ness, and being happy and smiling, it’s just a different environment. For me the collaborations are also about getting [guys like Shake Shack] to do something new and different, out of the ordinary. You just have to go for it. It’s like, “Okay, we’re gonna serve 200 of something, but we don’t know who’s gonna come." It’s not just 40 or 50 journalists or PR people, it’s just everyday people. They don’t know who I am, they just want to have a taco.
What’s another collaboration project you want to make happen?
I would love to explore more musical connections. We’ve done a pop up with [Barcelona DJ] Dubfire once. He played while we were making tacos at a festival outside in Copenhagen, and that was very cool. And he just did it for fun as well! We both just wanted to create a fun event.
It’s just a matter of finding the right person. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. With Dubfire, we’d been talking about it for like two years and it finally happened.
More people are experiencing regional Mexican cuisines now with the rise in tourism to places like Tulum, Oaxaca, and Mexico City. How do you think that sets the stage for people to think about Mexican cuisine in a new way?
People are becoming more knowledgable and that’s a good thing. They’re realizing Mexico is beyond Cancún and Mexico City. Which is great, because every state has its own beautiful thing, just like the United States. I think it’s a great thing, and it’s drawing a lot of attention from outside. So luckily for me, I can try to do it in Copenhagen and people will get to understand it a little bit more there, too.
Rick Bayless gets a lot of credit for for Mexican food becoming mainstream in America. How do you feel about people saying you’re doing the same for Copenhagen?
That’s a huge comparison! I wouldn’t compare us at all. Rick is an amazing chef—I mean I grew up watching him! I think about it often, because we do struggle a lot with getting people in the doors. People don’t know how to eat a taco some of the time. I actually use that with my cooks a lot. I say, you know, “It’s just like the States in the 70s or 80s!” We have to remember that we can’t lose our temper, we can’t get upset about it. We just have to remember that people are curious and we need to teach them. And that’s a longer game. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I say that to myself more than to other people. It’s gonna take some time, and if I really, really believe in it, then it should be worth it. And I do believe in it. So I hope something good happens from it.
A lot of young cooks don’t really get the long-game strategy, and don’t always have the patience for that.
No, definitely not. I’ve always thought, “Where’s the place I want to be, and really be living it?” You don’t leave until you’ve done it, until you’ve outgrown it. I’ve only worked at two places in the last ten years, and it’s been two places I really believed in. And they’re part of how I think about what I’m doing next.
Thanks for chatting with us, chef.