Get to know Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef who has stormed New York with her explosive take on Mexican gastronomy.
When the stern lady phoned to ask if President Obama and his wife Michelle could get a table for two at Cosme that evening - the buzz immediately erupted. A table was found, a cosy private space at the back, it didn’t matter that the restaurant was consistently serving over 300 covers a night and turning people away at the door, they would accommodate. As suspicious servicemen inspected exits and nervous floor managers jigged seating plans, they would accommodate.
Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef in charge of the kitchen at Cosme in New York, had a dilemma. She’d just been told the president was coming to dinner and she wasn’t there. “They really don’t give you a lot of notice,” she recalls during a recent chat. Her sister was going into labour, she’d already missed her wedding to cook for a VIP table and she had sworn not to miss any more important events because of work. This left her with a pretty big decision to make: stay for the birth of her new niece and let her team handle the dinner, or bail and get busy in the kitchen. She decided to stay, because, as she says, “Family is more important than food”.
Obama and Michele were seated and within minutes, Soto-Innes had been told of the first problem. The President had ordered a particular brand of gin to go with his tonic, a brand that Cosme didn’t stock. A trusted barmen was quickly despatched to purchase a bottle but, upon his return, stocky Secret Service on the door wouldn’t let him in. No way was this sweaty, panicked looking Mexican with a bottle in his hand about to poison the President. Soto-Innes, constantly updated on the phone, was confident her team would handle it, and they did. The matter on the door was resolved, the seal was checked and the President was replenished, all while chefs downstairs prepared his food.
If you’re wondering, he ordered the restaurant’s famous Duck Carnitas and Soto-Innes had just turned 26-years-old at the time.
The vibrant chef had bounced onto the New York restaurant scene in 2004 when she opened Cosme as the chef de cuisine of the Mexican maestro, Enrique Olvera. At 23, she found herself in charge of what quickly became the city’s most talked about opening, a venue once operated as a strip club had been transformed into a sleek, contemporary Mexican restaurant and it wasn’t long before the accolades rolled in.
Three stars from Pete Wells in the New York Times, “we didn’t even recognise Pete Wells the first time he sat down to eat," she sheepishly admits. “We worked it out half way through his meal.” Either way, he was impressed, describing one dish as having “flavor so intense it could walk through bricks”.
In just a few years, Soto-Innes and her distinct brand of ever-evolving cuisine had stormed New York. She was the James Beard Rising Star Chef, Cosme clocked in at 40th position on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, and her cuisine was constantly appearing on ‘Best Dessert’, ‘Best Taco’, ‘Best Everything’ lists. Her food - a sharp, concise kick of Mexico with constant new additions to the menu, had become one of the go-to examples of how modern Mexican in America should be packaged. Come to think of it, for how any international cuisine in NYC should approach the show: authentic, cool, uncompromising in flavour, bold, exciting - I could go on but perhaps the most telling aspect is the sheer amount of times I’ve heard others in the industry say they want to open the next “Filipino Cosme” “The Brazilian Cosme” “The (Insert country) Cosme”.
“I was so scared,” says Soto-Innes, recalling the first few months of opening. “When you’re working for the person you’ve admired all your life, you don’t want to mess it up.” That person is Enrique Olvera, arguably the leading ambassador for Mexican gastronomy in the world at the moment and also the man funding, fronting and risking everything on his first opening in New York - with a chef so young that most people naturally assumed she was his assistant.
“Everywhere I went with him people thought I was the hostess or the sommelier. They would talk to me, find out how old I was and be so shocked, but he would always say, ‘no, this is my chef’.”
Olvera had seen something in the young cook who had embarked from her family home in Houston back to her homeland of Mexico to study at his Pujol kitchen. The energetic bundle arriving with an already large skill set, so hung up on improving she would time herself making meringues in an attempt to shave seconds off her time. The chirpy laugher who had been so nervous he wouldn’t answer her original email for a weekend stagiaire position that her mum had called the restaurant to check. “My god,” she says, “can you imagine. My mum called Pujol, 'Hi, I’m just calling because my daughter wants to get experience and she is afraid the chef will not answer.' I was so embarrassed, but he answered my email. I just wanted a weekend - check out the kitchen and come back to Houston and keep learning there. But that didn't happen.”
THE EARLY YEARS
My sisters always laughed at me because since I was about four I wanted to start cooking lessons.
Back in Houston, where Soto-Innes family had moved from Mexico when she was younger, the teenager had focused on two things: Swimming and Cooking. “I’ve always had this big energy vibe, maybe a bit more extreme than other people, when I used to swim I would want to do it again, do it again, do it again - until I was exhausted.”
At 13 she was already sure she wanted to cook, so much so she decided to take a practical education route. Her mum, who had become a Montersorri teacher after arriving in Houston (a unique school of education that encourages a child-centered educational approach) and her dad, who had always wanted to be a basketball player but instead became a lawyer, both encouraged the idea. "I would take around three hours a day for cooking class,” she says, recalling how happy she was to finally have the opportunity to start learning how to cook.
However, three hours a day wasn’t enough for ‘do-it-again-Daniela’ who was also starting to compete at a high level in swimming, so she approached the local Marriott Hotel for work experience. “I had just turned 14 and started begging them to let me get some training, they kept telling me I had to go through the school. I did something sketchy, I ended up signing something from the school, so I could get to work with them.” That’s right, at 14, while most were still concerned about hair style, their favourite band and the latest school-gossip, Soto-Innes was forging documents so she could start getting her first professional experience.
“In order for me to be happy, I have to be a student.” And this seems true, after transcribing an hour-long interview with her, and running a word search on the document, the words ‘learn’ or ‘learned’ appeared 25 times. At 14 the hotel gave her years of experience in speed, efficiency, prep and more prep for good measure. She then hit Le Cordon Bleu for a year, travelled to Zurich to see family and, as she nonchalantly, only half tells me, “learned to make cheese”. She worked for numerous restaurants, classic fine-dining with small covers, to huge operations like Brennan’s, the restaurant that invented the world famous Banana’s Foster. “That place is old-school, they break you in. You better known your temps, how to cook a perfect fish, make rice, pasta, everything."
“Many people think I only trained at Pujol but at 23-24 I already had 10 years experience in the kitchen. For the first five years of my experience cooking I wasn't even paid." She’s also one of a rare bunch of chefs who can hold a pastry or savory line in a kitchen, having worked and trained on both. She is also proficient in butchering, and has been known to - at the drop of a hat - arrive at other restaurants to help confused crews get their head around the sheer scale of stripping down an entire animal.
Houston chef Chris Shepherd, referred to by Soto-Innes affectionately as ‘The Beast’, is someone who, alongside Olvera, she sees as an important mentor. “I will still call him and be like, 'hey, Chris, how much salt should I be using for this'?” Shepherd also taught her the skills of butchery and how how to hold down a line when you’re working in a restaurant that is turning multiple tables, multiple times. (A skill firmly on display at Cosme).
When she first told him her weekend trip to Pujol was actually looking more like a six month internship, he was obviously pissed but he asked only two things: she would one day return and bring her new skills back to his kitchen, something she did, and that she would maintain a journal of what she learned every single day at Pujol, something else that she did.
BACK TO NEW YORK
Even though we would close for two days on Sunday and Monday, I was sleeping at Cosme because I was scared that something bad would happen.
When she arrived in New York in 2003, she was faced with a whole new set of challenges. On top of trying to build a new kitchen, manage shoots, hire and train staff, do safety checks, orders, inspections and a whole host of unpredictable tasks that she’d never encountered before, she was also fighting the fact she was no longer on the line depleting her boundless dose of daily energy.
This odd urge to always be moving, coupled with a worry that she’d never really managed a line as a chef in New York, led her to do something quite bizarre and revealing. “I walked into The Elmrestaurant and asked if I could help wash dishes on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They said ‘no'. I was there in my cute little hat and boots and I was like, what about a prep cook? ‘No’. They thought I was so weird, especially when I offered to work for free. I kept asking and eventually they put me on prep, I was organising everything, going as fast as I could and I was asking them for more and more. Then I’m working one day and I hear, ‘Daniela, is that you?’. I turn around and it’s the pastry chef from Pujol - I was working secretly while I was opening this other place and I was like, ‘please don’t tell anyone’.”
Olvera to this day may not know about that, but if he does, I’m sure it’s just another affirmation of the reason he trusted her to open the restaurant in the first place. “He always says, ‘I’ve got your back’. Even when I make mistakes.” And there’s been many, “It’s how you learn,” she says. One such mistake comes with a funny ending. Tasked with finding a new refrigerator for the Cosme kitchen, and never having done anything like that before, she headed to JB Prince - the last place to go looking for a new fridge, mainly because they don't sell fridges. “Can you believe I went to JB Prince for a quote for a refrigerator? That’s how much I didn’t know New York… One of the guys told me after, ‘I was thinking, who is this poor girl who has no idea what she is doing? And the next time I saw you it was three stars from Pete Wells in the New York Times’.”
She's come a long way since then and learned a lot of new things. If she was still writing her Pujol journal for ‘The Beast’ today, it would include a host of new things. ATLA, the second restaurant she opened in 2017 with Olvera in New York. Cosme in Los Angeles currently being planned for 2018, her new found management duties for a crew of staff that bounce as they fire out dishes on the line. Plus the added responsibilities that come with being a chef these days: media, appearances, constant spotlight.
“It was too much at the beginning, the stress of the media, the stress of the crowds. We were all learning… I feel like Culinary School should change into a more reflective look at what’s happening in the world. Not just about exactly how to cook, there should be a school educating people about what’s coming next. A culinary school should be more about shaping a person for what you’re about to give up as your life, the psychological and physical side of cooking.”
Perhaps the biggest experience of Cosme has been to learn to cope with all of this pressure, to constantly create new dishes under demanding hashtagary, to seemingly smile a lot, to certainly enjoy every minute of the challenge and, at a time when there’s an inward push for kitchen culture to change, manage a kitchen that tries to bring some humanity to the line. She now meditates 20 minutes a day, “I started because I was running two restaurants and wondering how the hell am I going to do this and stay happy. This stuff is very important,” she says.
It’s not the deliciously chewy, cornhusk meringue with burnt vanilla, or the juicy duck with tacos and their hypnotic waft of fresh corn, or the fact that there’s a new dish played with almost every week that impresses me most about Soto-Innes. It’s the balance she wants, perhaps that’s the beauty of approaching the job at such a young age, with a fresh view point as to how it should be done.
“I’ve seen so many successful chefs and people get so stressed and worked up, what worries me is that I see so many people that are not happy… My dream, really? I want to have a wellness centre that has nothing to do with cooking. You just live, a beautiful garden, yoga, if you want to cook, you cook. Just create a space where I can teach people in the industry how to enjoy themselves rather than having the best caviar they’ve ever had.”
“My family is all about wellness, I didn’t go to my sister’s wedding because it was more important for me to cook for the New York Times - that’s fucked up. Nobody really cares about a new dish you’re going to make. What’s cool? Cool that we’re travelling the world by doing these dinners? Or cool because we could make a change to psychologically help people?”
And that’s why you don't rush back to the kitchen when Obama says he’s coming for dinner.