His passion for cooking, inexhaustible enthusiasm about the culinary universe and two Michelin stars have made Chef Mario Sandoval a shining light in the firmament of global gastronomy. He has been a leader in innovation for a decade, launching his own scientific research initiatives in search of new cooking techniques, creating gourmet dishes that are both healthy and exceptionally delicious.
Spanish Chef Mario, who has two Michelin stars, combines memories and recipes from his childhood with his scientifically developed techniques at his Madrid restaurant, Coque. His parents started their own restaurant in their small town decades ago. “My mother thought that that way her children wouldn't have to look for work far from home and we could stay together," he explains.
With all of his accolades, the father-of-three is, above all, a family man who credits his roots for both his personal and professional achievements. When we ask him what he attributes the success of Coque, his Madrid restaurant that is a global benchmark of haute cuisine, he assures us that it has only been possible thanks to his parents, who started a family restaurant in the Spanish town of Humanes decades ago. “My mother thought that this way her children wouldn't have to look for work far from home and we could stay together," he explains.
Today, 42-year-old Mario and his older brothers continue the family's culinary legacy. Brother Juan Diego manages the restaurant, while Rafael, who designed Coque's stunning wine cellar, is a former bullfighter who joined the restaurant as a sommelier after their father passed away. (A fourth of the brothers, José Ramón, initially "helped a lot in the kitchen" but found his passion was as a soccer coach instead.)
By the time he was eight years old, Mario was preparing desserts at his parents' restaurant in the town of Humanes, population 17,000. Decades later, he still works alongside his older brothers in the kitchen, but now serves some of the world's most exclusive dishes at their cosmopolitan restaurant.
Two years ago, looking to expand their space and their international clientele, the Sandovals decided to move their restaurant to the heart of Madrid. But how did Chef Mario go from his mother's kitchen to the heights of haute cuisine? He gave us the answers as he opened the doors of Coque and revealed his recipe for success.
¡HOLA!: Do you remember your favorite childhood meal?
Mario Sandoval: "My mother made gallina en pepitoria (chicken in pepitoria sauce), which the whole family loved. I remember how she crushed almonds in a mortar and spent the whole morning braising a farm chicken. It was so wonderful to watch her cook. The whole house smelled of saffron and almond, an aroma that I can still remember. That dish was a family celebration, and when it was ready, my mother would put the dish in the center of the table where we were all sitting. It is one of my most special childhood memories."
What was your first taste of the kitchen?
"I started very young. Every day, before going to school I had to pass through the kitchen, where my parents were always cooking. Without realizing it, I learned all about culture and gastronomy. When I was eight, I was already preparing desserts in the restaurant to help out because there was a lot of work to do... It was almost a natural process that each of the brothers in my family has assumed a role at Coque. Its success is due to the fact that each one cares about his piece: Rafael with the wines, Diego with the dining room and me with the kitchen."
You'd say then, that business and family do mix?
"It's not easy and it's not common! Having a business with three brothers has been successful because our parents taught us to work together; it requires a lot of dedication to ensure that four men, each with their personality, ego and virtues, get along... Working together as a family is the most important to me. I think that without them, what I do would make no sense."
It's also a great tribute to your parents.
"Of course. My mother set up the restaurant with the hope that the family would stay together. That idea was the origin of our being here today. We are the third generation – starting with my grandparents, and now my nephews are already with us in the business."
How do you express your roots in a dish?
"We emphasize rescuing popular Spanish recipes, the authentic cuisine of the country and transforming it into a more creative, modern version. For example, for the duck foie, we prepare my grandmother's marinade, and all we do is update the recipe. We did the same with the cochinillo, vegetables, pepitorias, pilpiles."
What do you mean by “updating” a traditional recipe?
"Executing recipes applying the techniques we have today: centrifugation, vacuum packaging, low-temperature cooking, applying liquid nitrogen... It also refers to incorporating food and procedures from the cultures of other countries. For example, this season we have served Spanish tear peas with a Mexican green mole. I find it fascinating to play with the brushstrokes of color and flavor, which are typical of Latin America because we are closely linked to it. I like to discover the history of ancestral kitchens and experiment with their richness: fermentations, moles, chili peppers. With these types of fusions we get cuisine that's very authentic but very much our own. It's wonderful to surprise someone who recognizes an echo of their own country in our dishes. It makes our cuisine special and international, without losing its Spanish roots."
How do you combine such a demanding job with family life?
"That's the most difficult. A restaurant like Coque demands a lot from you on a personal and public level, it is something that is part of you as a person. For me, my children and my wife come first. I wake up early in the morning; we have breakfast together, I take the children to school; then my wife picks them up and brings them to the restaurant so we can have a snack together. Whenever I can take a break, I go straight home to be with them. I don't have hobbies because any free time I have is dedicated to my family. It's what I value most and what gives me the energy to give my all at work."
Now that Coque is settled, the Sandovals are developing another family project that will complement it and also bring them back to their small-town roots: a farm in the town of El Escorial, Spain, where they will raise their own local livestock and produce their own honey, olive oil and albillo grapes, a type of vine first planted in Madrid two centuries ago. "Maybe that's where we'll finally retire," he muses. "And while we savor the taste of freshly-cut tomatoes, we'll reminisce about all that we've done."