InterviewAbu Dhabi

FACT Chats: Richard Sandoval, Restaurateur at VaKaVa

Richard Sandoval îs a name synonymous with the cuisine of Latin America, the Mexican-born celebrity chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval has been heralded for his “made from scratch” approach and passion for introducing Latin cuisine to the world. With over 50 restaurant concepts around the globe, including Mexico, Qatar, Serbia, Japan and the United States, we catch up with the culinary mastermind to discuss VaKaVa, his Abu Dhabi restaurant situated at Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers.


What can diners expect when dining at VaKaVa at Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers?

VaKaVa’s vibe is mischievous and sultry, incorporating bright, bold colours to convey her larger-than-life, playful personality and ornate mood lighting. A lively Lounge expands outdoors onto a sweeping terrace with panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf and is the perfect place to sip, savour and dance the night away with Latin themed music.


What are the signature dishes at VaKaVa and which is your favourite to prepare for guests?

The signature dishes of VaKaVa are ceviches, tiraditos and suviche rolls. These dishes are what make the restaurant special and unique. I really like to make the Amarillo ceviche. It’s a very fresh ceviche with fruity flavours.


Can you please describe your creative process when it comes to the creation of new dishes or a new menu? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

My inspiration comes from flavours and memories from my childhood with my grandmother and my mother. When I create a dish, I see all aspects – colours, flavours, textures – and I try to balance them as best as possible. I also draw inspiration from my travels throughout the world.


The dishes at VaKaVa focus on quality ingredients as well as exciting flavours and textures. Where do you source the restaurant’s ingredients and how much do you rely on locally sourced produce?

Many of the ingredients used are brought from our countries. Our chilis which come from Mexico and Peru, and the meat from Argentina. Nowadays, the local production of some products such as tomatoes, lettuce and cresses have increased a lot. Therefore, we are trying to incorporate them into our menu.


What do you think it is about the cuisine at VaKaVa that has resonated so much with Abu Dhabi diners?

VaKaVa will take our guests on a culinary adventure and expose them to elements, ingredients, tastes and techniques from Latin-America (and around the globe) to create a provocative sensory experience. Diners can expect everything from creative small plates of ceviche and suviche rolls to fresh grilled seafood, meats and everything in between. Our guests will be able to enjoy the adventurous dining culture of Latin America and beyond – from Mexico to Argentina, Brazil and Peru. Lands that are bursting with colours and spice.


What do you believe restaurants have to do to stay relevant and ensure success during these unprecedented times for the industry?

Adapt! A lot of our restaurants now have meal kits and are hosting virtual dinners. The industry has had to re-invent how they make profit – delivery, to-go and building outdoor dining structures. If you had told me that we’d be building tents and igloos outside the restaurants as the only means of dine-in a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. Times are crazy, but it’s important to stay positive.


With the rise of influencers and bloggers, what are your options on this new digital world where everyone has suddenly become a food critic?

I think it’s great – it gives everyone the power to have their voice heard. While I still have the ultimate respect for seasoned food critics that work for the media, you can’t ignore when a restaurant has a large organic following and tons of organic, positive reviews – they must be doing something right! Also, bloggers and influencers might come across a little-known restaurant and post about it to their followers, and the restaurant is suddenly recognised and profiting. It’s a great means of community uplift for lesser-known restaurants that don’t have the means to advertise.


What do you do to stay current on new trends and how do you feel about creating dishes purely for Instagram?

While I love sharing my travels and creating beautiful dishes, I’m so busy opening restaurants! I like to give the chefs at my restaurants the spotlight instead. You’ll see them featured frequently on my accounts.


If you could dine at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?

Noma in Copenhagen


What is your favourite cuisine to cook at home?

Mexican, of course!


What’s the greatest honour or compliment you’ve received as a chef?

The greatest honour as a chef is the opportunity to share my cuisine with people all over the world.


Was there one person who impacted your decision to become a chef and who are your culinary inspirations?

My grandmother made me want to become a chef. Growing up and cooking with her was my biggest inspiration. I also admire Nobu Matsuhisa for introducing Peruvian-Japanese cuisine.


Where are your favourite places to visit when you are here in Abu Dhabi?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi and finding the best Khuzi, the national dish of the UAE.


Any other launches coming up?

A food hall in Austin, Texas.


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David Tapley - Editor
Dubai-based editor for one of the region’s most fiercely local lifestyle publications across Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Qatar. Specialised in food, hospitality, arts, culture, and travel-related content.

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