What do Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Monroe and Björn Borg have in common? They’re Richard Sandoval’s ideal dinner guests, that’s what. Whereas Mandela and Monroe will pop up on many a similar list, tennis pin-up Borg is a little more surprising. Unless you know Sandoval was a player on the pro circuit once upon a time.
Now 50, the chef’s days of rallying with Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras on the European tour are well behind him, having made the decision to switch from the court to the kitchen more than 25 years ago. “I needed to do some soul searching,” the Mexico City native says. “I was not making enough money playing the circuit to make a living out of it.” So, he went with his gut feeling, moved to the USA, swapped his racquet for a knife and signed up for the Culinary Institute of America.
After graduating, Sandoval opened Savann, a French-American bistro in New York. The restaurant was a success and Savann Est. followed soon after. However, it was his next move that put him on the culinary map. Delving back into his childhood and Mexican roots, he opened Maya – and has never looked back.
Remembering his youth perched on the kitchen counter of his grandmother’s home, studying her every move as she worked her way around her kitchen, was his inspiration. “That’s definitely what sparked my interest in food,” he says. “And It was one of the major drivers that inspired me to get into the food industry.”
Sandoval’s father, a successful restaurateur in Acapulco, taught him the tricks of the trade. “I was very fortunate to learn the business side from my father,” he says. “He taught me how to be disciplined about [practical things] like profit and loss statements.”
While all of that doesn’t really get across his passion for cooking, you don’t get to run a global brand with restaurants in as far flung destinations as Tokyo, Serbia and Nevada without having a good head for business. And it’s that success that has led Sandoval to Abu Dhabi. His latest opening, pan-Latin venue Toro Toro, opens at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers on September 6, and we can’t wait. Branches of Maya, Toro Toro and Zengo (a Latin-Asian joint and another of his success stories) have been in Dubai for years. Now it’s our turn.
He says: “What attracted me to the UAE was the incredible vision the leaders of the country had for it. And as a leader in my industry I want to be in places where there is a vision for growth.” Bringing Toro Toro to the capital was as much a personal decision as it was a professional one. Sandoval has partnered with Turab Saleem, founder and owner of Perfetti Hospitality, to open the restaurant, and their relationship goes back years.
“Turab and I had always discussed opening a restaurant together,” Sandoval says. “I love the location and I trust Turab’s business instincts. We felt that a restaurant like Toro Toro was not available in Abu Dhabi. Dining at Toro Toro is meant to be a social occasion.”
The restaurant is known for its sharing plates of tasty eats like aperas and ceviches, and main courses (including some top vegetarian options) as well as the rodizio offerings of meat served to the table by passadores who strut around with huge skewers of picanha, chicken, chops and rib eye – carving them onto your plate.
“Having these different dining options under one roof differentiates Toro Toro from other restaurants,” he says. “Plus there’s an incredible rooftop and live entertainment, all in one place. It is unique – I think we’ll attract a great and diverse clientele.”
While the menu at the new Abu Dhabi outlet will be similar to the Dubai outpost, Sandoval has changed a few things to keep it fresh.
He says: “I don’t like to copy and paste. I always make adjustments so that every restaurant has its own identity.” And this one looks different to the dark and moody Dubai branch, too. “The interiors are colourful and vibrant,” he adds.
Success hasn’t gone to the chef’s head, partly due to the strong work ethic Sandoval Sr. passed on to his son. “He always said the light bulb was invented so you could work at night, and that I took it for granted,” says his boy now.
Equipped with his family’s wisdom and passion, Sandoval has been burning the midnight oil for 25 years now, travelling the world, and opening 60 restaurants. Despite the pace of life, he shows no signs of slowing down or getting caught up in the trappings of fame and fortune – to the point he says rice and beans would be his death row dish.
“I love rice and beans so it would definitely be a large bowl of that, topped with habanero sauce,” he told The New York Times. “I would also have a dozen tacos al pastor with all the right garnishes – pineapple, coriander, onion and salsa. For dessert, a chocoflan – half dark chocolate cake and half caramel flan.” And that sounds okay to us.
Toro Toro opens on September 7. Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, West Corniche (02 811 5882).