With a work culture based on the well-being of her employees, this Mexican chef is opening the door to a new generation: one that seeks the balance between table and life.

By Mary Gaby Hubard
June 15, 2019
Fiamma Piacentini

It's Monday night in Cosme and there’s a full house. “Harvest Moon” by Poolside is on while the place’s most popular bites come out of the kitchen: razor clam tostadas with salsa macha, crab infladitas, meringue with sweet corn cream desserts. Glasses are filled with mezcal margaritas and the dining hall with the laughs and chatter of the guests—new and recurring—that feel at ease, right at home.

It’s a regular day at Cosme, workplace of the Mexican chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who at almost 30 years old has been the talk of the town since The World’s 50 Best Restaurants named her Best Female Chef. She leads the restaurant, its sister project Atla, and other recent ventures of the Enrique Olvera brand in the United States. She’s in charge of keeping the formula –which blends Mexican roots to their Americanized context– up to date.

Although Soto-Innes’ curriculum is enviable –with a list of jobs and awards in the great culinary capitals of the United States: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York– her motivation and success come from elsewhere, from an idea of well-being that’s easily spread to whoever crosses her path. To her, it’s not the awards or the magazine covers that make her cooking relevant. It’s not. Her great victory is leading a happy, dedicated team.

“Rankings matter because they bring talent in”, the chef claims. What really matters, though, is understanding how to retain it, “knowing what kind of music they like, what his mom or dad’s name is, what they did on the weekend. Ever since we opened Cosme, that has been my main focus”, keeping both her guests and work team happy. “Everyone chooses where to work. And I have always been a “vibes” type of person. I like working with cool, good people; that’s the place to start”.

Her principles apply both ways, without beating around the bush. “You might have worked at the best kitchens in New York, Paris or London, but if you aren’t willing to be nice to people and to be a good person, there’s no place for you in my kitchen”. Her leadership style is a breath of fresh air compared to the tainted, clichéd image of the dictatorial chef that has prevailed for ages.

Fiamma Piacentini

In Cosme’s day-to-day operation, Daniela’s work translates into a low staff turnover and a perfect choreography in and outside the kitchen: plates go out in time and waiters know how and where to move. “When the chef isn’t around I don’t feel nervous, I know everything’s going to be fine. She’s nice but also very demanding”, says Victor, a waiter at the restaurant since it opened in 2014. “There’s a wonderful vibe in there”, adds Valentina Brito, sous chef, to support the fact that, next to Daniela, the atmosphere behind the kitchen doors can be even more fun than the one in the dining room.          

Making a party out of fine dining is another one of  Soto-Innes’ goals, who, with tacos and flax seed chilaquiles as weapons, is shaking the idea that formality and protocol are a requirement for haute cuisine. You don’t have to be serious in order to cook serious food. “If fine dining means eating without making a noise, not being able to laugh and feeling uncomfortable in a dress, I don’t want it…”, she asserts, “I think it has to do with evolution, understanding that what you’re doing and what you’re consuming is much more important than having a white linen restaurant”, she adds.

There are no linens in Cosme but an understanding of the product and a devotion to the absolute freshness of the ingredient. It’s one of the best restaurants in the world and with the best ambiance as well. This also holds true for Atla: there isn’t formality but quality, a twist to what Mexican food ought to be in the shape of a green michelada with tomatillo, cilantro, and avocado or huevos rancheros. Flavor, well-being, balance and raucousness, the yin and yang.

It took some time to get here. When Daniela moved to New York to work at Cosme she didn’t know anyone in the city, so searching in Google (“what kind of chairs are best for a restaurant?”) became her best ally. From those days she remembers that, close to opening night, her work team consisted of four cooks. No one wanted to work on a Mexican restaurant until she and Enrique Olvera almost literally “turned the tortilla” and the situation around.

Daniela built a community around the restaurant by including cooks from all over the world—who can interact with Mexican corn producers just as well as with farmers from New York– on the same team. She made Mexican cuisine her own, gave it a feel of authenticity and good vibes and served it in restaurants where being a good leader is more important than over-garnishing a dish.  

Judgment is another one of Daniela’s attributes, who, having been the youngest one in her family, grew up with the intention to “never make mistakes twice” and has always been used to being the youngest one in the house. Today she is, in fact, the youngest chef ever named Best Female Chef, and intends for the title not to be a weight on her shoulders, and her youth not to be misinterpreted as immaturity. “If I ever start believing I am the best chef in the world, please take me to the nearest hospital”, she says humbly.

She’d rather think that being on the spotlight carries a responsibility, to learn and to teach. “You can always understand that knowledge isn’t for you to keep and be the best but to give a chance to those around you and guide them towards taking good opportunities”.

Her good judgment appears as well when this cook talks about her teachers and mainly, about her family—a gluttonous bunch—and her grandmother Carmen: “She taught me to cook Mexican food”, a woman who was key for her culinary education, her greatest accomplice and her harshest critic, “she always scolded me, told me what was missing in my dishes and sent me letters with recipes from my great-grandmother”, recalls Daniela, who still considers one of her greatest joys to cook for her family: her blood family and the one at Cosme.

This article originally appeared in FOOD & WINE ESPAÑOL.

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