One early afternoon on my last visit to Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen watching a very self-assured Rosio Sanchez being interviewed on camera I recollected the first time I had met her. The year was 2011 and we were at the Noma Food lab on a boat moored by the restaurant . The very shy Sanchez had just joined the team a few days earlier. Five years later this pastry chef at Noma ventured out on her own with her taqueria Hija de Sanchez in the trendy Torvehallerne a collective food market.
The second location that she opened recently in Kodbyen, the old meat packing area of Copenhagen is in a historical building and so other than painting the ceiling gold they had to leave the old floor to ceiling tiles intact. Sanchez is already planning a third operation, but as she pointed out not a real restaurant for now, just take another away model like the other two. Rosio wanted to give it a homey feel and though ‘it’s a taco shop I didn’t want it be look like a fast food place, still very professional but not too industrial’. During our most recent conversation she spoke of the responsibility that comes with recognition and success that has come her way in a remarkably short span of time.
Sanchez prefers using free range and organic vegetables, the corn and chills come from Mexico but at the low price point of her tacos she says it’s a struggle. Sanchez’s taco enterprise has really taken off as evident by the buzz in the press and the constantly growing line up of well-known guest chefs at her taqueria. The latest addition is Brazilian chef Alex Atala the week before MAD5 and I know many people who are scrambling to change their travel plans to arrive a few days earlier in order stand in line for what will be a memorable experience. Damn! I’m going to miss it by a few hours but will definitely stop by during the MAD Symposium for one of her delicious tacos with a fiery hot sauce on the side.
A part of my recent conversation with Rosio Sanchez was published on The Daily Meal and the extended version is posted below.
by Geeta Bansal
Rosio Sanchez hit the road to celebrity well before she placed the first taco on the counter of her stand outside the food halls of Torverhallen Market In Copenhagen. Since the opening last year she been hailed as a star by media all over the world, the phenomenon undoubtedly fueled by her connection to Rene Redzepi and Noma. Rosio spent six years as the pastry chef at a restaurant that is on every chef, journalist and food enthusiast’s radar. Considering that a virtual stream of cooks and stagiares have passed through the hallowed Noma kitchens Sanchez obviously stood out receiving the blessing of her boss to open her own place. Hija de Sanchez (daughter of Sanchez) is not the only taco joint in Copenhagen but probably the only where occasionally her former boss Redzepi shows up to play cook. Many other guest chefs and friends have lined up to serve their own on spin on tacos since the opening and in coming weeks Daniel Burns (Luksus), Daniella Soto-Innes (Cosme) and Alex Stupak (Empillion), all from New York, as well as Brazilian chef Alex Atala are on the playlist.
The shy young cook I remember from 2011 in the Noma Food Lab has transformed over the years into a confident businesswoman now juggling two and soon three projects in the bona fide international food hub. Her time at Noma was well spent and provided the opportunity for her to travel to international events and connect with other heavy hitters in the culinary world. This past June she was part of a select group at Yale University for a MAD Leadership Summit along with Redzepi and French chefs Olivier Roellinger, Alex Atala, and Michel Troisgros. Sanchez worked as sous pastry chef in Wylie Dufresne’s WD50 kitchen in New York with pastry chef Alex Stupak and they have both since moved to the savory kitchen in pursuit of their passion for Mexican cuisine and in the case of Sanchez her American Mexican heritage . Sanchez laughed when the subject came up, saying she was just waiting for Malcolm Livingston, also a WD50 alum, who replaced her at Noma to open his own Mexican joint.
During the winter closing this young entrepreneur took off for Mexico on an extensive tour of eight states. Oaxaca to check on their corn suppliers then onto Merida, Tulum, Pueblo, Monterrey and also Cancun which she said” because I had to”. The girl from Chicago calls Copenhagen home now and when asked if she was planning to stay for the long run she said she didn’t know but for now she loves the city for its small town feel and feels part of the community. Her ten years in the industry and the long hours did not give much time for a personal life but during the last winter closing she says started dating and hoped that after her crazy schedule began she could still find the time…
Her stand is a requisite stop on any food tour of Copenhagen these days and though local and international chefs have been seen lining up for her tacos the one dream guest she is waiting for is Dubfire.
International press and media attention came from the moment you announced your taco stand because of your association with Noma and Rene Redzepi. Did this attention put more pressure to be successful?
Absolutely, I felt a lot of pressure before I opened because I had just left Noma in March and in April I started working on the menu and in May we started doing pop ups and in June we opened for business. I felt it was all happening very fast and though it’s a taco shop and not a full-fledged restaurant because of my connection with Noma there were a lot of expectations so it was a lot of pressure!
Now things are going well and I look back and think that if you know what you are doing and not think too much about it but just stay true to who you are that is the best way. For me not focusing on all the pressure and people’s expectations and just doing what I am proud of was good for me.
What did you do after leaving WD50 and New York and then joining Noma in 2011?
I took some time to travel to Spain and worked as a stagiare for a few months at different places and then it was off to Noma. I worked at Paco Torre Blanca in Barcelona which is super classic because after WD I really wanted to work in a pastry shop. I wanted to experience that part of pastry to decide if I wanted to take that route. I figured out that I like the kind of dessert pastry served in a restaurant where it’s a little more fluid and the menu changes and the plating has to be perfect. It was a great experience for me though.
The cooking was more technical especially at WD and then at Noma so are you still using technical wizardry in your own kitchen?
I don’t use it because we are using very simple techniques and doing straightforward cooking, finishing and plating. The technical knowledge is good to have and to know how things work, and why. Knowing the basics especially when you are working with products that are manufactured, have modified starches, LBG gums etc. and understanding how to use them was good. At WD I was the pastry sous chef working with Alex Stupak who messed around a lot with trying not to use commercial stabilizers which are specifically made for pastry, sorbets or ice cream like glucose, gelatins, xantham gum and locust bean gum etc. Alex was trying to make his own mix to alter textures for the outcome that he wanted and a lot of those were failures but it was helpful towards understanding the cause and reaction of these additives in molecular gastronomy. I used a little bit of this knowledge at Noma, especially for ice creams when I decided what would give a nicer texture but I don’t use them at present.
The food business especially restaurants are so unpredictable with a high possibility of failure. Were you apprehensive when you dived into the business with your first project and did starting on a small scale make it easier?
That is how I looked at it with my first venture because I wanted to figure it out and find out if that was the kitchen I wanted to be in. I had no experience of working in a taqueria and so I wanted to start with a taco stand to test the waters. I thought when I invest more into a restaurant I would have a clear idea of what functions. In the past my only experience has been working at kitchens with a totally different way of functioning than a taqueria. In the time since we first opened I have already learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
I had just left the Noma way of working and I wanted a little space to establish a clear identity for myself. Having something a little less permanent seemed ideal for me. This April we reopened the taco stand after the winter break as well as a more permanent place which is also a take away and in the same format. Opening the second place has been scary but we needed the space because the stand at the market is so temporary. Every year I have to work out a contract with the market that expires quickly and the second location will provide stability.
Your taqueria is in an exposed location at Torverhallen, so does the weather affect your operation?
Weather is HUGE! It’s a big factor in the winter time especially but even then on weekends this past winter we always had a line.
How about opening a full-fledged restaurant?
It’s funny but while working on the second spot I thought that it would be nice to have some chairs and then my mind traveled to using real dishes etc. At that point I caught myself from thinking that way because that would be a real restaurant.
Now that you are fully entrenched in the dining scene here, is Copenhagen going to be your permanent home?
I don’t really know but I have been really happy here though I work a lot and people in the industry would understand since we all work crazy hours. The community here has contributed to my being happy here; all the friends that I have made working at Noma have helped to make me feel at home. I like working here and hope my business is successful since I have opened recently as it’s too soon to tell but that will be a factor in my decision to stay. I like it here and haven’t thought about leaving anytime soon.
It’s funny because I just started dating someone which is new for me because I have been single and focusing on work for ten years. I admit I have been trying to avoid a relationship and during the winter break when we closed for three months I started dating someone who I met here. Speaking of coincidences he is also from Chicago (laughing) not really but from Indiana. I have never been able to have a balanced life in that regard and so it’s a whole new experience for me.
What is a normal workday like for you? At Noma you worked five days a week and now that you own your business is it 24/7?
It’s true since I wake up real early to my phone, try to answer emails and set up appointments while still in bed and then head to the office to make sure things are happening at the pace that they should be. Now there are three locations since we have a prep kitchen, the stand at Torverhallen which is open seven days a week and the new take away in the meat packing area. The prep kitchen really needs to be functioning seven days a week.
Do you have a good team in place and are there a lot of women in your staff?
We hired a lot of new people and everyone looks bright eyed and bushy tailed and in the right zone. Of course proper guidance has to be given in order for them to succeed in our operation.
Last time I checked we had sixteen people out of which only two are males. Most of the people are from Mexico though there are a few Danes as well. I am so proud that we have so many women since a lot of them applied from Peru, Venezuela, Mexico, France, Bulgaria and all over. Some of them are part time and doing their own things on the side. One of the guys is studying for a master’s in environmental change so it’s a mixed bunch which is nice because sometimes when you get chefs they tend to be jaded. It’s an advantage to have people who have their own world and are doing this because they like to cook. At Noma most people were very career oriented and were chefs or wanted to be one and here we accept all kinds of people who might be studying business or something else.
Do you think we have a lot of unhealthy competition in this industry?
That is what I like about the people working with me that there are not rubbing shoulders or elbows to be the best. I don’t like that and we don’t need that either. When I left New York I wanted to be away from all that and was a little fed up with the layers that come with working in a city. Those layers being egos and who is who, which guy needs to be addressed as such and those were my observations as a young cook at 21 years of age.
Did that time and those experiences help you realize how you wanted to lead your own team?
Yes, I had seen people be egoistic and real jerks and didn’t want to be like that. Rene is also a good example for me and how he is so down to earth and will talk to anyone and everyone. Even now when I speak to people in New York or when they use assistants to talk to me I find it strange and don’t want to be like that. It’s shocking since even someone like Rene will not do that and always answers his phone or mail and is very respectful. Then when you see someone in New York who is not even close to that level have a huge ego and think much of themselves it’s disappointing I didn’t want to like one of those assholes.
Where did you acquire more practical knowledge about running your own operation? Was it WD50 or Noma?
Definitely at Noma because it’s more recent and it’s where I spent the most time. The other reason is that at Noma you really look over the whole restaurant and not just your own pastry section and just working on whether your ice cream is crystallized or not. At Noma the whole team is in tune with what’s happening with the guests and what is working or what needs to be fixed. Everyone is responsible to be intuitive of people and know what’s happening around the whole kitchen. For me that especially has been a huge influence and prepared me for what to expect and to be on top of everything.
At Noma I joke about “Welcome to Noma” and now you are responsible for this, that and sometimes all over the place but I really like that you are expected to be a part of everything. If you are in pastry you will go over to help in appetizer section if they need help. It’s so simple that you help your neighbor and that’s different in the States and other parts of the world.
Have all the associations and relationships you formed over the course of your career been helpful to you, and have you kept up with them?
I still have that association with people I have worked with over the years. I don’t think that when you meet a really good person in this industry you ever want to let go and tend hold onto them. Especially when you have the same ethics and I keep in touch with Alex Stupak and I recently ran into Wiley Dufresne and there are others I worked with there that I keep in touch.
What are your thoughts on events or forums that focus only on women, and do they encourage more discrimination in our industry?
They have a good motive and are creating an awareness with these forums but I also think that you are making the situation worse with these things. It would be better to make a forum and just include women in it. I respect the work put into organizing these events to change something in the industry. I got upset with a journalist once while I was at Noma because this person wanted to write about why there were no women chefs in the industry because one of the first interviews I ever did was about women chefs for the New York Times. That story mentioned Elena Arzak, Pamela Yung, and I while talking about where are all the women chefs. So ten years later when asked this question again I felt this topic about women chefs was so tired, especially when all you had to do was find the women chefs because they are there.
We try to keep to a schedule but sometimes it just depends on what comes in. Sometimes we can’t get an ingredient or something is available for example when we had the sea urchin taco that we only served at a certain time when the water is the right temperature and so we put it on the menu. Sometimes we can’t get any or enough veal tongue then we have to switch to something else instead of having a fixed day for it. There are issues with the butchers and if they don’t butcher any or enough animals to give you the quantity that you need.
Does this unpredictability and creativity bring in customers who look for the unexpected?
A lot of them love it and though we have a lot of regulars who come in not knowing what’s on the menu and love the surprise. It’s also the trust they have in us to try whatever we are offering believing that it will be good regardless.
Any fermentation or pickling in your kitchen since it’s a major focus at Noma and very Nordic?
Yes, we make pickled onions and pickled spicy jalapeños in the very classic way with vinegar and spices. We also ferment our habaneros for our dark habanero salsa.
Any ants in your tacos?
They are used in Mexican cuisine and called chicatanas or grilled flying ants but we don’t serve them as they are but we toast them al plancha and add lime juice, salt and tajin pepper and put them in a bowl on the counter for people to add if they like. That is how it is served in Mexico and we have done it a few times. We do make a taco with grasshoppers using spicy grasshoppers from Mexico which we toast and add cheese for flavor.
You have a lot of guest chefs visiting and serving their version of tacos with a twist, so who are some of the chefs visiting this year?
Last year we had a lot of friends come to cook and we don’t do it for money but just for fun and the tacos are very inexpensive so it’s not for profit. This year I do have about nine chefs who want to come and maybe they will all come. Sometimes when friends are coming to town I will ask if they want to cook and then we have them over. It’s not pretentious or anything but just fun.
Has Noma been the ultimate learning experience for you and is does it motivate you to experiment and keep evolving on a daily basis?
It has been amazing and that is why I stayed there for almost six years. I could have stayed longer because every year you try something new there and it’s all done with a good heart. You are trying to make delicious food but you are doing it cleverly with regards to ingredients. I applaud Rene for the way he takes on challenges such as moving into the new concept of Noma. I faced so many obstacles in opening my little taqueria and he has now taken a huge challenge.
Do many chefs and friends visit and hangout at your taqueria?
I feel like I see much more of them now and it’s everyone from Christian Puglisi from Relae to Rasmus Kofoed at Geranium. From Rene to Lars and cooks from different places all come to support me. I don’t feel any aggression or competition but rather a lot of support.
Where do you usually like to eat in town?
I love eating at Christian Puglisi’s places and usually go with whatever they are offering since they change their menus quite often.
What advice would have for a young cook with dreams of opening their own operation?
I would advise them to have a clear idea or a business plan, and a strong genuine soul to their idea and be sure they are doing what they want to do. It makes it a lot easier and worth it.
Are you in a happy place now?
It’s a good time in my life right now but super scary at the same time, especially the day we first opened was really scary because I was really putting myself out there. For so many years I was behind the scenes in Noma and they have a great success and I was part of it and then suddenly I was on my own. To be successful on my own was a huge load to take on but I try not to think about it too much and just concentrate on what I am doing day to day. I have pride behind what I am doing and I am doing what I want. If I fail then at least I tried to do what I wanted to do.
Would you give it all up for romance?
Oh no you are asking me that way to soon! It would be hard but who knows. When I left Noma I thought I would make a business where I could have a personal life. I met someone when we were closed and we had time to hang out so we will see how it works out with me working from eight to twelve every day now. Let’s see….