The Mexican celebrity chef explains why Tex-Mex food is so much more than refried beans and why he is so excited to share his Modern Mexican cuisine with capital residents at VaKaVa.
From the notoriously aggressive restaurant scene in New York City to Dubai and Abu Dhabi – Richard Sandoval has been sharing his passion for Mexican food far and wide for decades. VaKaVa at Jumeirah Etihad Tower is his latest venture, and Yalla caught up with the celebrity chef to chat about contemporary Mexican cuisine.
Why is it so hard to find good Mexican food outside of North America?
The concept of Mexican food varies depending where you are. If you visit Los Angeles, it’s more authentic because you have a huge Latin community. If you are in Texas, you have Tex-Mex, which bears little resemblance to what you’d have in LA. When I started in New York City 20 years’ ago with my restaurant Maya, I offered a more modern take on Mexican, and people weren’t used to it. So, it’s been a learning process to for people to learn and understand what the cuisine really is. More than ever you are seeing more authentic Mexican offerings around the world. People’s appreciation of the cuisine has also really evolved.
What is it like introducing a cuisine to a new place?
It was challenging. I opened Maya in the Le Royal Meridien Dubai ten years’ ago, and Dubai 10 years’ ago was over-the-top expensive. It was hard to fit a casual and inexpensive cuisine, like Mexican food, into that over-the-top mold. So, we had to modernize Mexican food and fit our cuisine into the box. It was a mistake in retrospect, but it was what the hotel wanted. Fast forward five years, I brought it back to its roots, and the restaurant doubled its sales. Ten years ago, in Dubai, people were used to the more UK take on Mexican, guacamole out of a can, and salsa in a jar.
Does Mexican food translate into fine dining?
Yes, it can. In a way, I was one of the pioneers of it in New York with Maya. It was the first modern Mexican restaurant at the time, and it just took education. If you compare it to French or Italian cuisine, for example, we use the same proteins, but we use Mexican ingredients to season it. We use crema fresca instead of crème fraiche, cilantro instead of thyme. For me to get people to understand what I was doing with Maya, I had to make diners understand that Mexican food was not that different a dining experience to European foods that they were more familiar with, and then people bought in. We had to educate our staff very well, so each member could also help guide diners through the cuisine. Maya had two Michelin Stars, so I was doing something right there.
We were doing bone marrow tacos at the time, which were very popular in Mexico but virtually unknown in the US. These were classical dishes in Mexico, but a world apart from the fajitas people were more used to. It took a while, but it eventually worked.
It was hard to take the one-dollar taco combination plate and try to sell it in a fine dining restaurant for ten dollars.
The flavours of Mexican food are amazing. It makes sense to take the casual and bring it to the fine dining table.
Middle Eastern cuisine is not known for its spice factor. Did you adapt your food at all the fit into this region?
No, not all, but I did adapt it initially to suit a fine dining experience and also new dining expectations of a healthier meal. When I introduced this modern Mexican cuisine, I also made it lighter. I took out the lards and heaviness of it. Even with heat and the chillies, I use it as a balancing ingredient in whatever I am cooking so you taste it, but it doesn’t overpower what you are eating. If you make something too busy, it kills your taste buds, and you don’t really taste the meal itself. And, of course, every chilli is very different. If you use habaneros, it’s a different chilli profile to a serrano, a jalapeno, or a smoky chipotle.
Latin American cuisine is now everywhere in the UAE, but you were the first with Toro Toro in Dubai.
Toro Toro opened before Coy and all the other Latin hotspots. We were the first to introduce ceviche and all the different seafood dishes from Latin America, and now you’d be hard pressed to find someone here who’s not familiar with ceviche, but we were the first to bring it.
Describe a meal at VaKaVa.
The whole idea of the menu is to be infinitely shareable. We want to fill your table with small bites of many things to share so there’s something for everyone here. You have a light meal, you can have a heavy meal, you can sit and linger over a few plates for hours with your family and friends listening to great music in a friendly atmosphere. This is what diners can expect from a meal at VaKaVa.
Sounds pretty fun!
Yes, it’s a rollercoaster of flavours, fun, and Latin flair. It’s meant to be fun and casual. We’re proving you can still have fine dining without all the stiffness and formalities. I don’t think people want that anymore, and I personally don’t think fine dining will ever come back. People like to share. It used to be that people ordered their starter and their main, and that was that. Here, when you go out as a party of four, you can experience 12 different dishes. Who doesn’t want that?! That kind of experience is much more exciting.
What’s new at VaKaVa for those who might have been to Toro Toro?
The décor is the same, and we kept the grilling component—the grilled meat churrasco and traditional rodizio—the same because it was so popular. We lightened up the menu, and we played around a lot with the shareables.
What does VaKaVa mean?
It’s slang for “Come on/Come over” in Spanish. It means something like Yalla.
Nightowls, come hither!
Beyond the food, VaKaVa comes alive at night with its Latin rhythms and percussions. Resident DJs spin Latin Fusion tunes Monday to Saturday, from 8pm onwards and a band will perform on Tuesday to Saturday, from 9pm onwards, bringing a authentic and vibrant South American vibe to the whole place. VaKaVa’s Tuesday ladies’ nights are an experience to remember, with signature beverages, delicious food and great music.
Want to take home a taste of VaKaVa? Follow Chef Sandoval's easy to follow ceviche recipe at www.yallauae.ae/post/prepare-this-ceviche-at-home
VaKaVa, Podium Level 1 (off the beach), Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, jumeirah.com/VaKaVa
For more information or to make a reservation, please contact +971 2 811 5666 or JADrestaurants@jumeirah.com