From his birthplace in Mexico City to the notoriously difficult-to-crack restaurant scene in New York City – and most recently to Dubai – Richard Sandoval has brought his passion for Mexican food to an audience far wider than he ever imagined. Maya at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort recently celebrated its first birthday, and James Brennan caught up with the celebrity chef to chat about contemporary Mexican cuisine, gun-toting tequila drinkers and celebrity gossip.
How did you celebrate Maya’s first birthday?
We had a party last night on the terrace. We have a new band from Colombia, so they were playing; there was plenty of tequila, mojitos and food.
How have things been over the last year?
Great. It’s definitely reached my expectations, and the hotel’s also. I think that when everything is finished in this area it’s going to get even better. Last year we won an award for the best fine-dining restaurant in the Middle East.
How have people taken to it?
Very good, I think. You know in the States, I think it was more of a challenge for me because there are a lot more Mexican restaurants and people have more to compare it with. Here there’s not that much; it’s mainly Tex-Mex and people haven’t been exposed to that much Mexican food, so it’s accepted quite quickly.
What’s the difference?
Tex-Mex involves a lot more melted cheeses and sour creams. Here it’s fine dining, incorporating a lot of Mexican ingredients with a lot of proteins – like lamb and fish. It’s not all tacos and burritos; there’s a lot more on the menu. We use local fish like hammour and even some of the local cheeses we use are similar to what we use in Mexico. Some of the chillies here are similar to the ones we have at home also. We like to use as many local ingredients as we can. Obviously, the ingredients won’t affect too much what we’re trying to do with the dish. When we create the menu, we adapt it to the local ingredients. It makes things more challenging.
What other challenges have you faced in your first year?
There haven’t really been many. I’m working with a great team – that’s made it a lot easier for me. Of course if I spent the whole year here I’d probably have faced many challenges, but everybody has made it pretty simple. Chef Ruben has been with me for 10 years, so he’s made it pretty easy for everybody.
Do you come out here often?
About three or four times a year.
Have you made any changes to the menu this time?
We’re working on that tomorrow. We’ll be testing some things, so hopefully by February when I come back, we’ll incorporate a new menu. We’ll look at about four or five items that haven’t sold well and change those. I’m adding a few more enchiladas to the menu – two or three things that will be more recognisable to people. Perhaps closer to the Tex-Mex stuff.
Is that a concession you’re OK with?
Not really a concession, it’s more of an attraction thing. If you look at the menu and you don’t see anything you recognise, you might not come inside. But if you see things you know, you’ll come in and it’s our job to re-direct you to the more interesting things that we think you’ll enjoy more. Even in New York we do that.
What’s the concept behind Maya?
It’s modern Mexican food. Most cuisines throughout the world have adapted and changed through the years. Mexican food unfortunately never did that. When I first went to New York over 10 years ago, it was still very inexpensive, it was fast food – Tex-Mex. It hadn’t gone through a growing curve. So we’re trying to modernise it. A lot of people think of Mexican food as very heavy – fried. We took a lot of oil out of the equation but used the same ingredients, so we had more purees, more vinaigrettes… We still have the same flavour profile, but we make it lighter.
Does it have more of a European influence?
Some European techniques, yeah, but still very true to what I grew up with in Mexico too. There has always been a misconception as to what Mexican food was. People thought it was all Tex-Mex – tacos, burritos, and that’s it. That was very far from the truth. It was a challenge for me to change people’s perceptions. This is a modern restaurant, but you still get people who think the Mexican culture is all donkeys and burritos… last night somebody asked me if we still have restaurants in Mexico where guys throw down their tequila bottles and pull out their guns [bellows with laughter]! For me it’s about challenging those perceptions about my culture – we have great artists, great ingredients and great food.
Why do people have those misconceptions?
In a lot of countries, most people get exposed to the culture of other countries through the restaurants – whether it’s an Indian or Mexican restaurant. When they travel they see that it’s totally different. So people go to Mexican restaurants and what do they see – piñatas, sombreros and tequila shots… So that’s what drove this conception of what Mexico was.
Talking of tequila…
Well we have 30 different types of tequila here. We bought as many as we could, because tequila is the fastest growing spirit over the last few years. Again, people associate tequila with hangovers after drinking shots all night. But when we drink tequila we sip it. We have a Sangrita, with tomato juice – we taste it. All tequilas have very different characteristics.
You’ve got Maya restaurants in New York and San Francisco – you must get plenty of celebrities…
Yeah, we do. We’ve had the Yankees baseball players, John McEnroe, Barbara Walters, Wayne Gretsky…
Do you have any stories?
(Pauses)… Err, none (laughs).
Oh, come on… or do we need to get the tequila out?
That might convince me!
Maya, Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort (04 399 5555).