Chef Spotlight: Roberto Santibanez
NBC Latino (March 2012)
Vitals: Born and raised in Mexico City, Roberto Santibanez grew up under the watchful eye of his abuela who taught him how to make tamales and salsa. A culinary star who began the trend of chef-driven restaurants in Mexico City, Santibanez came to the United States in 1997 and made headlines during four years as chef at Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas. In 2002 Santibanez made it his mission to give trendy East Coast Mexican restaurant chain Rosa Mexicano a makeover as culinary director. He now owns and operates Fonda, with two locations in New York City, where he offers patrons Mexican fare with a contemporary and refined twist. He also owns a torta concept stand in the Seattle Mariner’s stadium, with another concept restaurant to open soon in Denver, Colorado.
Awards: Santibanez’ first cookbook, “Rosa’s New Mexican Table,” was published in 2007 and landed the chef a James Beard Award nomination. His recent book, “Truly Mexican,” also garnered national acclaim. His restaurant in Austin, Texas was awarded a five-star review from the Austin American-Statesman, a newspaper which also bestowed him the title of “Best Chef.” A chef whose recipes have graced the pages of magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur and Martha Stewart Living, Santibanez is a member of The Culinary Institute of America’s Latin Cuisines Advisory Council and The James Beard Foundation.
Experience: After working in various kitchens throughout college in Mexico, Santibanez earned honors at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu cooking institute in Paris. Armed with a classic cuulinary education, Santibanez headed back to Mexico City, where his leadership and culinary skills helped make downtown Mexico City a culinary destination.
His love of Mexican cuisine: “I want people to know that Mexican cuisine is one of the most incredible in the world. I have a vision of Mexico where I’m able to focus on a variety of regions and traditions. On my menu you can find something as traditionally made as a mole negro from Oaxaca alongside an innovative appetizer of duck with a cream sauce of habaneros. If I create a new dish, it’s based on traditional ingredients but in a completely different usage to transform and uplift. The conquest of Mexico by Spain took hundreds of years and so for Mexicans to mix, and become Mexico as we know it is a fairly new thing. We’re still trying to negotiate our history and our past with our visions for the future. I hope I’m an ambassador of that because of my passion for my history and our cuisine.”
His inspiration: “I think my country’s wonderful diversity is what moves me. I go down to Mexico often to discover new things and try different things, which is truly inspiring. I also ask my cooks to prepare dishes, and given the diversity in Mexico, means that I learn different ways to make the foods I love. I am what I am thanks to all the people who taught me to make and see things differently. I have the means to publish recipes and give them to the public, but we’ve all learned from home cook, my cooks, the ladies that cook in Mexico. They are proud of what I do with their adobos, salsa, moles and other techniques.”
Current passion project: “I think the Fonda restaurant in Manhattan is my main concern right now. Having just opened, it’s what wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up until 1 o’clock in the morning. I’m a little intense when it comes to food and my restaurants, and I feel like I have to be there constantly until the cooks and staff grow and develop. I ‘m also working on a cookbook coming out this fall called, “Tacos, Tortas and Tamales.” I treat those foods as something elevated, not as street food. People think that taco trucks are born and raised in Mexico, but that’s a California phenomenon. I’m trying to make people see Mexico as Mexicans see it, which is what the book is all about.”
Five ingredients he can’t live without: “I can’t live without chipotles. And I love onions and garlic, but I definitely can’t live without chiles de arbol. That’s my absolutely favorite ingredient in the world, along with cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks from the jar are completely different from the cinnamon we use in Mexico. Ours is true cinnamon, cassia, which came from Sri Lanka and which Mexico adopted. It’s been part of our flavor palate since colonial times. I add a little cinnamon to everything, even tomato sauce.”
Favorite snack: “I love vegetables like jicama and cucumber with lime juice, salt and chile powder. We actually have that at the restaurant – it’s one of the menu items. It’s a fantastic snack, fresh, spicy and savory with layers of flavor. It’s wonderful and something I reach for all the time.”
NINA TERRERO, NBC LATINO STAFF