From Copenhagen to the whole of Europe – Rosio Sanchez’s modern Mexico cuisine conquers the restaurant scene
BY NADINE PELZER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2018)
Mexican cuisine is one of the most popular in the world. Who doesn’t love sinking their teeth into a fresh taco with spicy salsa and creamy guacamole? Widespread in America, it is virtually impossible to find authentic dishes in Europe. Young, aspiring chef Rosio Sanchez also thought so and – following years working in top restaurants – established her own business with two taquerias and a cantina in Copenhagen. She wants to present a different version of her forefathers’ cuisine in the city – namely smaller and lighter portions than we might otherwise expect in the case of Mexican food – and to enable customers to sample the entire spectrum of flavours. But she is also not afraid of bringing together tradition and new ideas.
Rosio, you grew up in Chicago as the daughter of Mexican immigrants and have been living in Copenhagen for a few years now. How did you end up in Denmark?
It was not a planned move, really... I was travelling through Europe when I was offered a job at Restaurant Noma in the Pastry section. That was some eight years ago, and the rest is history.
What do you like in particular about life in Europe?
I like living in Europe because of the exposure to a variety of cultures – there’s a lot going on around us. There are places like France, Sweden, et cetera that are so culturally rich and you don’t have to travel very far to experience them.
I also really like the lifestyle in Copenhagen and the fact that I can get around most places on my bike. The city has a lot to offer. In the beginning, for example, I didn’t particularly enjoy that the shops closed early, but I have come to really appreciate the ‘forceful’ down-time where you learn to accept things, as opposed to in the States where it is more about convenience.
You have spent most of your career working in high-end restaurants. What did this formative time teach you?
I worked in high-end restaurants for ten years and I think that one of the most important things I learned was to pay attention to the little details, not just the food but also around us, in the restaurant. What can we do differently to make it better, how can we enhance the experience for our guests? It’s all in the little details. I also realised that I had focused my career to learn about other cultures and techniques, and started to think about Mexican food more in relation to that. I realised I didn’t know everything about the cuisine and probably never will, but it was always in the back of my head and I wanted to do something about it.
To what extent did the connection to your Mexican roots and above all Mexican food change while you were working in top restaurants?
I did not consciously think about the Mexican connection while growing up, or even while working in restaurants. In a way, especially since my move and working with Noma, my focus turned to exploring Europe. I suppose it was in the back of my head to explore these roots. Many people that are children of immigrants struggle with defining their identity - I was born in Chicago to Mexican parents - and the question ‘Who am I really - am I Mexican, am I American...’ was always there. Growing up, it bothered me a bit, but now whatever the label, I have come to accept that my identity comes from not just these roots, but also my life experiences, the work we do here and much more.
When and why did you decide to start your own business?
After five years of living in Copenhagen, I felt the need to start exploring this connection I had. I saw that there was no real reflection of Mexican food in the city, and I wanted to give it that merit somehow. I didn’t want to just sit in the sidelines and complain about it; doing that is so easy. I wanted to bring about a difference. The decision to start my own business came from this need of tapping into my own roots and giving people what they should have. It was also about growing - I had been at Noma and learned so many things. I had people that were willing to support me, who are now my partners. It was a way to continue learning and helping people in need, for example the communities in Oaxaca where we import our corn from. This was more than just opening up a business; it was about making a great Mexican kitchen, with and for the support of people who know how. I wanted to create something meaningful, and now we have.
Your taqueria ‘Hija de Sanchez’ has long been one of Copenhagen’s essential pit-stops. What’s the secret of a good taco?
Our plan was simple - to make the best tortillas that we could. The real challenge in Europe is finding great tortillas. We were, of course, going to make tasty salsas, cook the meat right, but none of it matters if you don’t have a good tortilla. So that is indeed the secret of a great taco.
Mexican cuisine is not as widespread in Europe as it is in the US, for instance. What feelings and impressions of Mexico are you hoping to evoke in people with your dishes?
I want people to see that Mexican food is so much more than just ‘fast-food’ tacos or ‘Tex-Mex’. At Hija de Sanchez, we strive to showcase the culinary diversity that Mexico has to offer, teaching people about the different types of corn, for example, and making homely Mexican food that uses ingredients of very high quality. It’s more than just serving food at the restaurant – our team constantly works to elevate what people think about Mexican food. We want them to feel the warmth and care, like when your mom or aunt cook for you. We want our guests to feel like someone has cooked for them in their own home.
How do you define good Mexican food?
Good Mexican food is cooked from the heart; just like any other ‘good’ food. For me, quality is key. If you have ingredients of great quality and you use the right and proper techniques, the result is good Mexican food.
At your restaurant ‘Sanchez’, you fuse Mexican food with Nordic cuisine. How do you do that?
I look at ‘Sanchez’ as a Mexican bistro - it has a European essence, but the soul is Mexican. I wouldn’t say that we are a fusion restaurant. We source local products for various reasons - it’s not just because we cannot import every single ingredient from Mexico, but also that there is so much good stuff to cook with around here, and they reach for instance the same umami points or flavour profiles, like our use of gooseberry instead of the traditional tomatillo in salsas. It would be silly not to make use of the great salmon that we get from the Faroe Islands when we can. But it is a Mexican restaurant, most of our inspiration comes from Mexico.
What exciting dishes are you serving?
We have a lot of classic Mexican stuff, especially in our brunch menu. We have chilaquiles and huevos rancheros which are very traditional Mexican foods, but let’s see – we make a kale and squash taco, and there’s nothing purely Mexican or Nordic about it other than the corn tortilla itself, but we use a salsa macha on it and the combination results in a really tasty taco. We also make a serving of seabuckthorn and habanero juice oysters; we’re just using these to make vinaigrettes that would remind you of something you could get in Mexico - a little spicy, a little acidic. It just makes sense here, in this restaurant. I guess that if you were selling these oysters in the States or in Mexico, it would feel like a fusion, but in this case, we’re using seabuckthorn that are preserved over the winter, and fresh habaneros with a little orange juice and olive oil and the result is magic, and ‘fusion’ doesn‘t quite cover it.
What inspires you most? Is there a certain philosophy to your work?
It really inspires me when I have to prove something; like if someone tells me that a certain thing cannot be done, it almost pushes me to prove that it can. We could not get fresh sour tomatillas here the way you do in Mexico. The ones we found were sweet, you know, because the weather and terrain are so different. We even tried to farm them ourselves with seeds that we brought from Mexico but they still were not good enough. Tomatillas are the base in many salsas, and we had to come up with a solution. Gooseberries are acidic, almost like a tomato, they get a thick texture when cooked and this is how we started using gooseberries in our salsas. My inspiration comes from having to push ourselves to do the best we can, and innovate if need be. They may not be the exact same Mexican dishes that we grew up with, but we know how they should taste like, feel like, and that’s how we recreate Mexico in our food.
Rosio Sanchez is a Mexican-American chef. Sanchez has worked in many of the world’s top restaurants and reigns over three of her own in Copenhagen, where she serves some of the most exciting modern Mexican food in Europe. Along the way, she spent five years with chef René Redzepi and rose to head pastry chef at Noma, the four-time number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Picture credit © Fredrik Clement