A few months ago, I attended dinner at Entre Sueños, a pop-up restaurant that popped up in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. In the kitchen was Chef Stephen Sandoval, former executive chef at Leña Brava, who specializes in what he calls Baja Med cuisine. Inspired by Baja’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe, Sandoval’s changing menu focuses on local and seasonal ingredients, Latin flavors, fresh seafood, whole-animal preparations and open-flame cooking.
It was a wonderful dinner, artfully prepared and delicious, featuring innovative takes on traditional Mexican dishes, including our favorites, a Pistachio Mole Verde and octopus with preserved Meyer lemon and mascarpone.
“I was raised in San Diego, California,” Sandoval says. “With my Mexican, New Orleans and Spanish roots, it was common to find tamales and gumbo on the dining room table. As I began to explore my culinary path, I was drawn back to the robust flavors that originated across the border. A new-age style was emerging in Baja Mexico. Chefs were cooking with a sense of freedom, integrating diverse cultural and personal influences that went beyond the border. This inspired me to explore my ancestry and culinary identity through working in restaurants throughout Mexico, the United States, South America and Europe. Entre Suenos is a creative interpretation of this journey that I hope to share with you.”
Throughout the evening at the Entre Suenos pop-up dinner, Sandoval talked about his creative approach to each dish, and how his cuisine was influenced by travel. I wanted to hear his thoughts on being a chef, and I was most interested in hearing him talk about art, music, travel, and how these these other forms of expression influenced his excellent cuisine.
In what ways is being a chef like being a musician, painter or novelist?
I feel that anything in the creative world requires experience, whether gained by practice or organically occurring during a person’s life. Telling a story is key to my culinary identity. The aromas and flavors should speak to the tale of that dish and how it correlates to my life, in the same way that a chord exposes the plot of a song, or a brushstroke can tie together an entire painting. In the dish itself, you’re highlighting the history of the chef and all the steps that led up to creating the dish.
Tell me about how music plays into your job as a chef.
I tend to ebb and flow with different genres based on what I’m doing. When I’m in the weeds with prep and in the middle of service, I tend to zone out to Metallica. When I’m looking to connect to my Cajun roots, I find myself leaning toward jazz. When I’m trying to be creative, I tend to listen to hip hop.
What book has blown your mind, and how has it affected who you are and how you cook?
I really enjoyed “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. Throughout the book, he discusses how family, culture and friendship each play a role in an individual’s success. I like what he said about the ten-thousand-hour rule, because success is not only the product of one’s environment but also the many hours spent honing your craft. I decided to apply this rule to cooking. I travel to learn different cuisines; I work with many different cooking media, practice my techniques, and research the science of the food. The more experiences you have, the more you can build an arsenal of flavor and knowledge over time, which translates into an ever-growing creative vision.
You’ve done a lot of travel. How has travel proven to be important to your life as a chef?
What I’m looking for when I travel is inspiration. I want to see what’s happening in the streets and the best restaurants of that destination. I get a better feel for the culture, the cuisine, and the place when I go to the markets and eat street food. When dining in restaurants, I look at design and operations and think about how all that applies to my own endeavors. I like going to museums and seeing the art of the region. I just want to be completely submerged in the experience. All these components make their way back to my menu.
What food trends give you hope?
I am not into making food because it’s trendy. No TikTok pasta for me. The hope I have for the culinary world comes from great farmer relationships, sustainable practices and cooking traditional food that tells the stories of ancestors.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org