Richard Sandoval

In the Chef’s Kitchen
Photograph By
Leo Schmid

Chef Richard Sandoval garnishing a fresh, seared sea scallop dish at Toro Toro.

Richard Sandoval is a Beard-nominated restaurateur who has created more than 40 restaurant concepts –nationally in Florida, Arizona, or California – or around the globe in Serbia, Qatar, and Dubai. In the District you can find a few of his restaurants like El Centro (in Georgetown and on 14th Street), Masa 14, Zengo, and his latest opening, a pan-Latin steakhouse, Toro Toro, with many small-plate offerings. Last month, I sat down with him to talk about his career and to spend an hour watching him cook.

Born in Mexico City, Richard Sandoval didn’t start out wanting to be a chef, but as a young child he’d join his grandmother in the kitchen where he learned to prepare vibrant Mexican fare from scratch. “So, there were two things I really learned at my grandmother’s side: taste the food as you go, and have great ingredients,” he says of this bold and colorful cuisine. He picked up on the service and restaurant management side of the food world from his father, who was in the hospitality business.

Sandoval moved to southern California for his high school years and was introduced to poorly prepared Mexican cafeteria fare. During college he studied hotel management, but his primary focus was honing his talent for tennis. While he played professional tennis in the satellite circuit through Europe, he kept coming back to food and eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. “I realized I needed to make a decision – either stay with the tennis and maybe start teaching the sport, or follow my passion for food,” says Sandoval.

Back in Mexico Sandoval opened an Italian restaurant for his father, and after a couple of years he left his family’s restaurants in Acapulco and decided to move to New York. In 1995 he opened a French-American restaurant, Savann, on the Upper West Side, but kept feeling that the city really needed a great Mexican restaurant. He eventually opened Maya, a restaurant that paid homage to his roots. “My goal was to show that Mexican culture and the cuisine is different than just tacos and tequila. I had to change people’s idea of Mexican food – it was selling the idea, showing that it could represent a larger spectrum and be more refined and sophisticated.” Sandoval sees correlations between different cuisines. “Maybe you have crema fresca instead of sour cream or crème fraiche, and you use similar proteins like you use in French cuisine, it’s just with a Latin flair.”

Sandoval hit a low point after opening Maya when the 125-seat restaurant almost closed. Then, in July 1997, the New York Times’ Ruth Reichl awarded Maya an impressive two stars. Sandoval notes that at that time he didn’t have any real strategy or plan, because he didn’t have any money. After the Reichl review business really started to pick up. “Before the review we were serving 40 to 50 people a night; after the review we were up to 250 people, with the tables turning a couple of times.”

After Maya reached a couple of years in business, Sandoval was able to open a second location in San Francisco, receiving a great review from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer.

Along with the restaurants he has won a number of awards, including Mexico’s National Toque d’Oro (2003), Bon AppétitRestaurateur of the Year (2006), and Cordon d’Or Restaurateur of the Year (2012). Logging about 250,000 air miles a year from his home in southern California, Sandoval says, “I love what I do, I love creating restaurants, cooking for people – you get instant gratification, you can see it in people’s faces. However, I am frequently on the road, so if there was any one thing I could change it would be to find a little more balance, to have more time with my wife and kids.”

To prepare one of the chef’s signature dishes, try this elegant recipe, easy enough for a fast supper or perfect for a dinner party that includes many small plates.

Chef Sandoval’s Summer Scallops

Pick up lovely, slightly sweet New Bedford scallops from your local fish monger – they come from the Eastern seaboard. A trio per person should do it as they’re pretty substantial, or serve with small plates for a larger party.

4 ounces (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 large New Bedford scallops
zest from half a lemon
¼ cup white wine
pinch of chile flakes
1 tablespoon heavy cream
pinch of chives, chopped, and micro greens
¼ cup panko (bread crumbs)
¼ cup Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat and sear scallops for about 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove from pan and set aside.

Take breadcrumbs, Parmesan, chile flakes, and two tablespoons of butter and process in food processor until paste forms. Spread a dollop on top of each scallop and bake for several minutes until top begins to brown.

In the meantime make a lemon butter sauce by reducing a quarter cup of dry white wine by half as you simmer in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Add lemon zest and heavy cream. Heat for a minute or so; reduce until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in four tablespoons of room-temperature butter while whisking. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Plate scallops with Parmesan crust facing up; spoon sauce around scallop perimeters. Garnish with chopped chives and micro greens.

Open daily, Toro Toro is located at 1300 I St. NW, 202-682-9500, richardsandoval.com/torotorodc.

Seared scallops, plated and ready to go.
Chef Richard Sandoval searing translucent sea scallops in the open kitchen at Toro Toro.
Chef Richard Sandoval speaking with the writer in Toro Toro’s comfortable and inviting dining room at 1300 I St. NW.