Many D.C. diners are familiar with celebrity chef Richard Sandoval due to his multiple projects in Washington — from longtime Penn Quarter standby Zengo to 14th Street hotspots El Centro D.F. and Masa 14.
They'll be even more familiar with the chef in the next few months. Fresh off an appearance on Top Chef Masters, the chef is opening two more locations in the next few months: a second location of El Centro in Georgetown later this month, and his Toro Toro steakhouse downtown, come October. Eater sat down with Sandoval, who was in town checking on El Centro's progress, to talk about his Top Chef exploits (including skydiving on national television), his multiple national concepts and what's next for D.C.
Two concepts opening in two months. Did you think the timing would work out that way?
No. Toro Toro was actually first, and then this opportunity for El Centro came up, so now we're juggling both. The other is in a high-end building [at 1300 I St. NW], so that's a complicated build-out. But the way this is progressing, it'll open right after this. It's a good thing because we've already done Toro Toro in Dubai, and obviously we've done El Centro, so we're not reinventing the wheel here. It's easier for us.
So how different will the D.C. Toro Toro be from the original?
They're very similar - the same designer, so it'll look similar. For the menu, there will be some adjustments. I'd say it'll be about 70 percent the same, 30 percent different.
What made you think the concept would work in Washington?
In D.C. people love steakhouses - you think expense accounts, you think lobbyists. It's something that's familiar to everyone. But in Dubai, part of the reason we're so successful is because it's something a little different than a traditional steakhouse. There's a big small plates menu, versus at a steakhouse where you'll get the same classic appetizers, same cocktails. Here, a big group might make a meal out of 30 different small plates, or people can order skewers of lamb or chicken or beef, and share them tableside. It has a heavy Brazilian influence. We're very excited. We have a butcher we work with in Omaha, Nebraska and we can hand-pick all the various cuts of meat.
What did you think when Jose Garces announced he'd also be doing a Latin steakhouse in D.C.? We've got two celebrity chefs doing them now.
I just found out from you. I'm sure he has his own take, and it'll be very different.
You've opened restaurants at various times over the past few years. Have they all been busy from the start, or have some taken longer to catch on?
Well, we've got Zengo which has always been very busy. Obviously we've got Ivan [Iricanin], my director of operations, and he's based here. He's really well-connected and he understands the area. We were pioneers on 14th street, and he guides me through what will work in the market.
With El Centro, you'll have two restaurants with the same concept in the same city. Have you done that in the past?
No, not really.
What made you think there was room for two in D.C.?
I love El Centro because it makes things very approachable. It's very affordable. We do the restaurant with a late night component. Usually you'll have club owners who want to get into the restaurant business, but they don't understand it, or restaurant owners who want to run a club, but they don't understand the business. Ivan really understands how to build both. It's really Mexican comfort food, and it's the kind of place people can come to twice in a week and get different things.
Obviously Masa 14 and El Centro are busy and newer. How has it been maintaining business at Zengo over the years?
It's doing great. We're up, I think, 25 percent from last year. I think, knock on wood, we're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the recession. All my restaurants are up across the board.
How hands on are you when opening restaurants?
Everything basically runs through me. I'm a control freak. I have my hands in everything, I'm tasting everything. Obviously I trust Ivan with some decisions; I don't micromanage.
What's your travel schedule like with balancing all your locations? Like, what's a typical month for you?
I won't answer that exactly but for example, typically I'll travel 125,000 miles in a year. This year, I'm already at 180,000 miles. I thin I'll hit 225,000 miles by the time the year is over. When you're very hands on, you have to be in the restaurants, seeing the people. I'm successful because of the many people working by my side. But I never want to be just the face of the restaurant. When El Centro opens [Aug. 26 is the estimate] I'll be here the week before, the week after, and if I don't think everything is where it needs to be, I'll stay longer.
What have you learned abut the D.C. diner over the years, and how has the scene changed?
The diner is very cosmopolitan, with all the embassies and all the mixes of different cultures. I've found in the last few years that people are really reaching out for ethnic foods. I think fine dining is out. The scene has grown tremendously and people want to share, and order small plates. Dining is more of a lifestyle now - people want the music and the cocktails. It's not just about the food like it used to be. It's the music and the design, the whole package. They want everything. In a sense that makes it harder for us.
So you were just on Top Chef Masters. Briefly at least.
Oof. It was fun. It was also very stressful, though. Because you see your friends there. The funny thing was that they did this thing pairing sous chefs and chefs. My chef really wanted to do it, and we figured it'd be fun, we'd be cooking together. But then we realized we wouldn't be together at all. So I felt bad - you either benefited or were hurt from how they did, and I think it was a lot of pressure on them. But it was fun. I'd do it again. Maybe.
Did you think you'd end up skydiving on the show?
No, not at all. They told us to bring our passports, so I figured they'd have us drive across the border. Then they said, "We're taking you to Paris." But it was Lake Paris, for skydiving. I was the first to say I'd jump. I'm an adrenaline junkie but I'd never done it before. It was the most amazing experience of my life. When we were on the plane and it was climbing up, I didn't even want to look out the window. But once you jumped and you look around you, it was like you were looking at the whole world. It was an amazing feeling. As soon as I was done I said I wanted to do it again.
So are people teasing you about your knife skills after the show?
Oh, yes. And I didn't even have a knife for the first challenge. At least I couldn't cut my hand, I guess.
So what's next after Toro Toro? Are you planning more for D.C.?
Oh, yes, we've got another location. Ivan, can I talk about that?
Iricanin: Location #4? Oh yes. It's at 7th and Q. We can't say more than that because we're still in negotiations. The lease isn't signed. And there will be more to come after that.
Can you say what kind of restaurant it'll be?
Iricanin: It'll be Mexican.
Sandoval (joking): Serbian Mexican.
Iricanin: No, no. Strike that out. Just Mexican.
Sandoval: It would be wildly popular! Anyway, yes, just Mexican. And that's just here. We've got 10 restaurants opening in the next 12 months.
What else are you working on elsewhere?
We've got a restaurant in Beirut. We're opening another Toro Toro in Qatar. We're doing a food court in Chicago, kind of like Eataly but with Latin foods. We're doing a Peruvian restaurant in Arizona. I'm sure I'm forgetting something.
Is there any type of cuisine you haven't tackled yet that you're dying to try?
Not really. I joke sometimes that I'm like a drug dealer, asking people, "What do you want? What can I get you?" But I do the food that I love. I still travel a lot, and our places will evolve as the cuisines evolve. I like to say we create trends, we don't follow trends.
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[Photo: Richard Sandoval]