For the past three years, Rosio Sanchez has run the pastry section at Noma, in Copenhagen. She is in charge of preparing the last two or so plates that conclude the meal at what has been declared the best restaurant in the world for the past three years. She is young, having gotten her first major kitchen job at 21, under Alex Stupak, then of New York's wd-50. Not long after, Sanchez moved to Europe and, the way she describes it, pretty much found herself the pastry chef at René Redzepi's acclaimed restaurant. In the following interview, Sanchez talks about what she picked up from Stupak, how she emphasizes simplicity and deliciousness in her desserts ("I don't see myself as a pastry chef, really, since I don't think too much about the 'wow' factor"), working with Redzepi, and serving ants to diners.
Did you get into cooking when you were growing up?
My family isn't made up of big gourmands, nor do they cook a lot. I just took a class in a vocational school and from there, right after high school, I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. That went pretty quickly, and then I went to work at wd-50 in New York.
You worked under Alex Stupak, right? How was that experience?
Yeah, for almost three years. I kind of knew all the basics beforehand, nothing crazy, but Alex really opened me up to not being afraid of taking risks. A lot of chefs are too afraid to make mistakes, but I picked up from him that you need to make mistakes to achieve some sort of real success.
What did you know about wd-50 before working there?
I had an idea of what wd-50 was like, and when I moved to New York, Sam [Mason, former wd-50 pastry chef] was just leaving. I really wanted to work there, even though Sam was gone, since I knew the restaurant was creative. It was more about working there than anything else.
And what are some of the most valuable things you picked up under Stupak?
It's really hard to pinpoint. He's really good at pushing people and being motivational. He allowed me to try to be creative, when I don't think many chefs let their young cooks do that.
I remember the first thing he said to me: "You need to come up with a petit four." I was 21. He was very matter-of-fact about it, saying I needed to come up with a technique. It had to be new, and I had to master it, right off the bat. I ended up making something based off of a gin-and-tonic, and it ended up making the menu. It's super important to get that push and that support immediately from someone when you're starting out.
And after wd-50?
I went to travel in Spain, where I did some stages. Then I went to Noma three months later, in 2010. I just started off working in the pastry section, and then it ended up that the chef was leaving and that I could take over pastry.
How would you describe your approach to pastry compared with your predecessor?
We're constantly using Scandinavian ingredients — that hasn't changed. I guess it's my outlook and the result of my collaboration with René.
The most important thing for me is to make it super delicious without being too crazy. For example, I wouldn't use something extremely savory or too out there. I don't think off it as dessert per se but more as having a nice sweet course to end a savory meal.
And, since you just mentioned it, can you talk about how you collaborate with René?
Obviously, René's a huge influence on me and how I've developed as a chef. One of his things is that desserts can't be overly sweet, so my palate has changed since I've been here. And also, the idea of deliciousness over technical fireworks.
What's a good example?
One of my favorite ones, which I talked about at Mesamerica, was potato and plum. There's nothing crazy about it: it's just strips of potato purée and a plum compote. You just have to be mindful when you're making it, cooking the potatoes right and all of this. In essence, it's only a few things on the plate, and it's one of my best desserts.
That's a really good example I think, because when René told me he wanted a potato dessert, I immediately tried to attack it in a new way with different, more complicated techniques. I eventually figured out that the tastiest way was the simple purée and not an ice cream or anything else.
You were born into a Mexican family and grew up in the States. Is it ever a challenge or burden to have to draw exclusively from a region you didn't know three years ago?
No way. It's actually the opposite for me. When I first came here and tasted things like sea buckthorn or different berries I had never had, it was great. I imagine it's the same thing when you go somewhere and taste something you've never had. I have those experiences here constantly. You get this rush of ideas for what to do with it, since you don't have any idea what it is or have a familiarity with it in your background.
So it's like looking at things with a child's eye?
Yeah, a blank slate. It may not be the way that it's normally prepared, but you have no idea.
The cooks at Noma interact plenty with guests. Sometimes they greet diners as they walk in, and they usually present dishes. From your experience, do you think people know what to expect?
By now, so many people have read about the place, so they kind of know what to expect and are super excited about it. Now, for instance, we're doing a dessert with ants. I'm always a bit wary, for obvious reasons, when I go present it. But now I'll go bring it to the table, and they'll say, "Oh, there are the ants! Great!"
Which dessert is that?
We have an ice cream sandwich made with wild blueberry sorbet and green juniper ice cream. On the side, for lack of a better word, there's another sandwich. It's two nasturtium leaves sandwiched together with blueberry jam and an ant paste. You eat that as a kind of side dish, and it adds an intense acidity and surprisingly, it neutralizes the peppery flavor of the nasturtiums. The ants showing up on the menu is not a stunt or novelty, it's just a new flavor we've started using. It's basically hidden in that dessert.
Looking ahead, do you have plans to stick around?
I don't have plans to go back to the States. I'm going to be here for a little longer, for sure. People leave when they feel comfortable or have gotten into cruise control, and I definitely don't feel that way.
When I got here, my goal was to add something to the restaurant. Now, after I've been invited to Mesamerica and have gone around a bit, I want to let people know what's going on in the pastry section. There's so much more to learn, and now that I have Lars [Williams] in the test kitchen, I can pick up a lot from him as well.