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Flavour fiesta

Concierge talks ceviche and success with Mexican chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval, the celebrity chef behind the newly-opened Latin American haunt Vakava at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi

Striking the right balance between culture and creativity is at the top of celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s list. His humble beginnings can be traced back to Mexico, where helping his grandmother prepare family feasts from scratch was a regular affair. Although he chose tennis as his career path during his early years – making quite a name for himself while touring the world playing professional matches – his love for food saw him make a comeback to the kitchen. And the rest is history. With a global chain of 45 world-class restaurants, Sandoval is all about bringing the food of his homeland to the world on a plate. Combining traditional ingredients with international flavours in a variety of inventive techniques to create unexpected concepts has become his speciality. His latest venture, Vakava at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, is a rising star on Abu Dhabi’s dining scene offering a vibrant taste of Latin America in a chic ambience.

Celebrity chef Richard Sandoval

What inspired you to bring Latin America to the world on a plate?

“My Mexican roots! The ingredients, flavour combinations and techniques used in traditional cooking in my native country make everything around food special.”

What influences from your Mexican heritage translate into your culinary style and approach?

“Growing up, my grandmother would serve huge culinary feasts and pretty much everything revolved around food. She would sit at the head of the table, surrounded by her loved ones, and everything was served family-style. Dishes were passed around and shared by everyone at the table. I wanted to emulate and deliver that exact experience to every guest who dines in my restaurants. Latin culture is all about bringing people together through food. Dining is an experience that is meant to be shared and savoured. Food should be comforting and bring us back to our roots.”

Is this food philosophy the secret to your success?

“My mantra as a chef has always been, ‘Old ways, new hands’. And this also describes my cooking style. I combine authentic Latin ingredients, inspired by my native Mexican roots, with modern cooking techniques that I have developed over the years through my travels. Exploring new cities and cultures has allowed me to create an unexpected and exciting Latin dining experience that draws from traditional practices and gives them that modern twist to make each dish my own.”

You switched gears from professional tennis to the kitchen… tell us more about the transition.

“When I started travelling around Mexico for tennis tournaments, I always found myself exploring food markets on my days off. Food was my calling, so I quit playing tennis professionally and signed up for culinary school.”

Having experienced the best of both worlds, what would you say these professions have in common?

“I think professionals in the world of sport and hospitality are motivated by the love of their craft. Of course, both professions require dedication and talent, but what they fundamentally have in common is passion.” 

Vakava has been described as the second incarnation of your world-famous restaurant Toro Toro. What’s your take?

“I like to describe Vakava as Toro Toro’s mischievous sister. It has the same Latin roots, yet a more vibrant, passionate and spirited personality. Vakava also has a more diverse taste in music and its gastronomy brings elements from other cuisines together. Vakava is diverse, colourful and fun.”

Tell us more about the food at Vakava. Any signatures on the menu diners must try?

“Vakava is a blend of flavours and ingredients from all over Latin America. Guests will also find a lot of Asian influences, techniques and ingredients on the menu because Latin American countries – Peru in particular – are also home to a large number of Asian expatriates. As signature dishes, I would definitely recommend one of our Peruvian ceviches and the Brazilian or Argentinian parrillada.” 

What takes the overall dining experience at Vakava beyond taste?

“Everything! Today, food only represents one part of the overall dining experience. I always make sure my restaurants offer the whole package. At Vakava, every detail is carefully planned to give diners the complete experience, right from the food through to its presentation, the service, style, décor, innovative mixology and, of course, the music.”

What philosophy drives every new venue and menu? Talk us through your vision.

“I want to make sure that I’m giving my guests a delicious meal and the best experience possible at a beautiful restaurant. We are a chef-driven company and that is why we always need to stay creative in the kitchen.”

With a global network of dining venues, how do you balance consistency and diversity?

“It almost becomes like a game of chess, moving people around your business. I’ve opened two or three restaurants in the last month, but I was able to do so only because I have a great team of people. Of course, I look at the menu, taste everything and make adjustments. But it’s not just about my role in the process. It’s all about the people who make the venue a success. That’s why, finding the right team with the same passion is critical.”

In your opinion, what is more important when it comes to cooking: creativity or tradition?

“Both! But if I had to pick, it would be tradition, which, to me, correlates to the taste. Taste is what people remember for years after a meal and that’s a memory I want to give all my guests when they visit my restaurants.”

You have three restaurants in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. What do you think draws chefs from all over the world to make a name for themselves on the UAE’s dining scene?

“I believe that the UAE is cementing itself as a culinary hub. What inspired me to establish my presence here is the incredible vision that the leaders have for the country. They turn sand into diamonds, and as a chef, I always want to be in places where there is a strong vision for the future, growth potential and a very knowledgeable clientele.”

Does tennis still keep you busy when you’re not behind the kitchen counter?

“Absolutely, tennis and golf are my two favourite hobbies.”

If you had to describe the dining experience at Vakava in one word, what would it be? “Explosive!”

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