Sergio Romo, exec chef of La Sandia, on servers who treat guests like a "number"
La Sandía Cantina
8340 Northfield Boulevard
This is part one of my interview with Sergio Romo, exec chef of La Sandia; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Sergio Romo started his cooking career at the wee age of six, working at his father's bakery, where he perfected the balancing act of carrying heavy trays and then hawking bread on the streets of Jalisco, Mexico. And when he wasn't flexing his muscles on the pavement, he got a workout at home, cooking alongside his parents -- and seven brothers and sisters. "My mom is an outstanding cook, and I remember helping her make tamales -- the most amazing tamales -- when I was really young," says Romo, today the executive chef at La Sandía, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in Northfield at Stapleton.
"I really wanted to be a baker like my dad, but I learned pretty early on that I was a better cook than a baker, so I turned my focus to cooking," recalls Romo, who moved to Los Angeles when he was sixteen. "The economics in Mexico weren't particularly good, and I had aunts and uncles living in L.A. and thought that there would be better opportunities for me to make a career for myself." And for nine years, he cooked at the same restaurant, a fast-casual taco joint that reminded him of his youth. "I was cooking Mexican food like they do in Mexico, which was what I wanted to do -- but I learned so much more, like how to really run a kitchen and manage people," he says. And that gave him the confidence to spread his wings.
"I'd moved up as high as I could, and there really wasn't anywhere else for me to go, so I started researching other Mexican restaurants, especially Mexican restaurants that were a little bit fancier than where I was cooking," remembers Romo. Richard Sandoval, who owns a multitude of restaurants around the world, was opening La Sandía in Santa Monica, and while Romo didn't have a clue about Sandoval's global restaurant domination, he recognized that La Sandía wasn't your average taco hut. "I could tell right away that it was different -- way more contemporary -- and once I got the job, I also realized that this was a big, big company that could potentially provide me with a lot of amazing opportunities," says Romo, who was hired as a line cook and quickly promoted to sous chef. "I was fast, level-headed, and I did things right, and Richard took notice."
A year later, in 2011, Sandoval offered Romo the sous-chef job in Denver, and while Romo admits it was a "trial period," he definitely passed: "It was a test to see if I could eventually make it as a head chef, and to see if I could retain the integrity of the food and satisfy guests -- and I did all of those things." His reward? In early 2012, Romo was promoted to executive chef.
"This is a place where I can do real Mexican food and use a lot of spices and chiles, just like at home, and I feel so lucky that I get to do this every day," says Romo, who in the following interview dispels the myths of Mexican food, begs servers to up their game, and explains why the molcajete always bests the blender.