Chef Richard Sandoval opened his first restaurant, Maya, in New York City nearly 15 years ago. He now has more than 20 restaurants across the U.S., in Mexico, and in the Middle East. The latest is in YOTEL, a UK-based hotel in New York's Hell's Kitchen. FOUR is an interactive space between the restaurant (DohYO), a terrace, and lounges on the hotel's fourth floor.
"Dohyō" is the Japanese word for the platform used in sumo wrestling. While there is an overall sumo-wrestling theme, it's mostly related to the construction of the restaurant and its seating. The menu is a fusion of Latin and Asian cuisine focusing on small plates and family-style sharing. At night, the main tables can be lowered to create a flat surface in a space that will feature a growing list of performances and DJs. Chef Sandoval recently took a few moments to talk about this latest opening and his next new venture, Toro Toro, which will open this summer in Dubai.
Has opening restaurants gotten easier as you have gained experience?
That’s a no. I think an opening will always be an opening. There are a lot of new people and training. Obviously, you don’t make the same errors you used to make, so it is easier, but an opening is very difficult. What people don’t understand when opening a restaurant is how many people you have to train, from the hostess to the cooks learning recipes. Everything changes. It’s not like you buy something out of a box and pull it out to sell. It’s very complicated.
What goals do you have in mind when you open a new restaurant?
It has always been a goal of mine to introduce people to my culture. I think when I started 15 years ago, Mexican food was very bastardized, always fast food, Tex-Mex. People really didn’t know much about Mexican culture, so I kind of just slowly introduced people to it so they could better understand what my country is all about.
What things do you consider when you create or revise a menu?
Seasonality — what’s in season. Again, you kind of have to analyze the guests you‘re going to have, try and cater to what the target clientele is, if it’s young or if it’s business. I think the way the world went the last five years with the recession and everything I’ve kind of taken a different direction with all my restaurants — made them more about sharing, more fun. With the recession, price points have to be lower. You have to relate all of these elements of a restaurant and create a menu that’s relative with the price points.
Have you made adjustments for different locations of the same restaurant?
Absolutely. Unfortunately, but fortunately, I have never taken a cookie-cutter approach. When I opened Maya New York, everybody wanted Maya. People came to me and said, "Oh, can you put a Maya here and there?" And, I’m a very passionate person so I don’t believe in just taking something and transporting it somewhere else. Some places it might work and in another it might not. I go to the market and understand what people like, what they think of Mexican food. People might perceive Mexican food differently in different places. I take that all into consideration.
You've achieved one of your New Year's resolutions for 2011: to develop a gluten-free menu. What was the motivation behind this?
That’s the way people are eating today — more health conscious. Everyone is on a diet, so we created a menu, like a vegetarian menu, that we offer at some of my restaurants.