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The Chicago-raised daughter of Mexican immigrants—and Noma alum—on the rewards of bringing a foreign cuisine to Scandinavia.
Every young stagiaire who’s so much as peeled a potato under the watch of René Redzepi lists a stint at Noma—his influential restaurant in Copenhagen—on his or her résumé. But Rosio Sanchez isn’t fudging the details. The chef spent three years on the line as pastry chef at Noma, and two more in Redzepi’s test kitchen, before leaving to pursue a more personal project. The Chicago-raised daughter of Mexican immigrants planted a flag for her ancestral cuisine when she opened Hija de Sanchez, a seasonal nine-foot taco stand outside Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne Market, last June. In so doing, Sanchez effectively introduced Denmark to Mexican food, bringing fresh masa tortillas, slow-cooked carnitas and even huevos rancheros to a culture that had previously enjoyed very little exposure to these flavors. Here, Sanchez talks about the rewards of bringing a foreign cuisine to Scandinavia and the ongoing challenge of sourcing the ingredients that make it possible.
Mexican food is relatively new to Copenhagen. Has there been a learning curve for your clientele? Have you had to adapt what you want to do to get people comfortable with this cuisine?
In the beginning, people didn’t know what a tortilla was. They’d ask us, "what kind of pancake is that?" or "what is it made out of?" We find ourselves explaining our food less and less frequently now, or maybe people are just reluctant to ask. But we haven't really adjusted anything. If there is an extra-spicy salsa we will put it on the side [to allow people to control the amount of heat], but everything we have on the menu is served just as I would eat it. The fillings are quite simple—we have [a roster of] 12 tacos total and we serve three types per day. It’s all the stuff I grew up eating—tongue tacos, carnitas, fresh cheese and avocado. A few of our tacos aren’t classics, but they feel Mexican to me. We also do a fjord shrimp taco—tiny shrimp that are normally peeled, but we fry them whole and baste them with árbol chile oil. So they’re Mexican, but also so Scandinavian.
Let’s talk about the challenge of sourcing Mexican ingredients in Denmark. How did you figure out where to get corn for your tortillas?
I first started searching for good corn and testing it while I was still at Noma. René was super cool about it; every now and then I would make masa in the test kitchen using different [samples] I’d get in from the States, from Germany, from Holland. Eventually I got an email from Itanoní Antojeria y Tortillería in Oaxaca, one of my favorite places, and my jaw dropped. The owner reached out to me because he heard I was going to open a taquería. He sent us a ton of corn to begin with, and it really was the best. Most recently he sent us a shipment of five tons. [Even though we’ve found a reliable vendor], it’s always so nerve-wracking until the shipments arrive. You just wonder, is it going to get here? What [would happen to our business if] it gets stopped in customs and returned?
What about other fundamental Mexican ingredients, like chiles, tomatoes and certain cheeses? Is there anything you have had to reimagine because of limited availability in Copenhagen?
We get our dried chiles, like moritas and guajillos, from Mexico. Fresh jalapeños have actually been such an issue for us. They come from Holland but they aren’t spicy enough—you can bite into them. That’s something we try to explain to the vendor, but we aren’t at the point where we can ask them to grow things specifically for us. Our tomatoes come from Italy, and everything else we get here, including all of our pork and coriander [cilantro]. We work with a small mozzarella and burrata company here that produces our queso fresco on request. It’s not exactly like the queso fresco that I grew up eating—actually it is probably fresher than anything I had [as a child], because all of that stuff was store-bought, dry and crumbly. The Jersey milk here is very rich and the texture of the queso is more moist. We also taught the company how to make quesillo [Oaxacan string cheese], but the authenticity of that one goes up and down. Quesillo is usually salty, but they are timid about adding too much, because it isn’t in their nature to over-salt their cheeses.
Gender politics in professional kitchens is a big topic in American restaurants. Having worked abroad for so many years, is this something that you think about?
There are some European conferences popping up for women in food right now, like the Parabere Forum, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. But personally, I haven't had any opportunities taken away from me because of my gender. I do think that women, at a certain point, have to make choices about what lifestyle they want to live. For example, choosing to have children—a male chef can have a few kids and still be in the kitchen 16 hours a day, but most women wouldn't do that. I know that if I were to have kids, I would want to take a few years to raise them, and ultimately that would affect my presence in the kitchen. At the moment, all I want is to be in the kitchen and achieve the goals I've set out for myself.
You’ve done some really interesting one-off collaborations with chefs, like Zaiyu Hasegawa from DEN in Tokyo and Lisa Lov from Relae in Copenhagen. Have you been surprised to see what these international chefs have done with the taco format?
Last spring, I wrote a list of 50 people I wanted to work with at Hija de Sanchez, and I’ve been really blown away that so many of them were as enthusiastic about it as I was. They aren’t big events and it isn’t a bunch of money—you cook, people buy your food, and you leave. Some people do tacos that feel really Mexican. Fabian von Hauske from Contra in New York made a taco with beef tongue, potato and chipotle. Matt Orlando from Amass in Copenhagen did fried fish with bone marrow and aged beef fat. But the guys from DEN in Tokyo did a completely Japanese taco with braised pork, cooked cabbage, dried squid and bonito flakes. It was pretty wild to taste something like that in a little nine-foot stand.
Who would you like to collaborate with next season?
I’m not going to say. I just have to write another list.