Alex Sanchez, an acclaimed chef trained under some top names in the field – from Daniel Humm to Michael Mina – and has been pivotal in shaping India’s F&B quotient, especially in the stand-alone space. He helmed the culinary team at The Table, launched Mag Street Kitchen and won many accolades along the way including “Best Chef” and “Best Restaurant in India”. And yet, there’s an explicable sense of ease to his brand of F&B, right from walking in and interacting with the team to enjoying the food and drink. You can experience it for yourself at Americano in Mumbai, that Alex along with his partner Mallyeka Watsa, opened in March 2019. Meanwhile, here are some pearls of wisdom from this young and accomplished chef.
How did kitchens and cooking happen to you?
Like many people working in kitchens, I was a misfit. I never did particularly well in school and I dropped out of university after a year of partying and skipping classes. But I knew I needed money to support myself and I saw the restaurant business as a way to earn some quick cash without the need for experience. So I guess that shows how little I knew about what I was getting myself into. Nevertheless, I started making sandwiches at a small deli and the rest is… well, you know.
Is cooking in India different from say cooking elsewhere or is the clientele as educated/evolved?
It would be easy for me to list out the limitations with respect to being a chef in India–or, more specifically, a chef cooking Western food in India. But, the truth is, in any place, anywhere in the world, there will always be limitations. I have grown to learn that these limitations (whether self-imposed or not) are what help us define ourselves and what allows a restaurant like Americano to exist.
What are some of the things to consider when planning a restaurant menu?
As in life, balance is key. Hot, cold, light, rich. I plan a menu in such a way that someone should be able to taste their way through it and leave the restaurant feeling they’ve had a well-rounded meal and experience. Young chefs tend to overdo every dish on the menu because they are cooking with their ego. The older I get, the more I see the value in simple dishes like a beautifully dressed arugula salad. That simple salad, with its bitterness and delicate acidity, will refresh the palate and encourage the guest to eat more and ultimately lead to more enjoyment. We’re in the pleasure business.
What drink do you generally like to unwind with at the end of a workday?
I love a Negroni at the end of the day because it’s potent, it’s sweet enough to get the alcohol rushing through my bloodstream, and the sweetness is tamed by the bitterness which makes me feel manly and cool. Haha!
And while on it, what’s your comfort food/snack/dish?
I think there is a very common misconception that chefs eat really well. In fact, I’m always impressed by the chefs that manage to eat well, because I’ve had the most unusual eating habits for the majority of my 18-year career. That said, one thing chefs know how to do well is snack because most of our food intake comes in snack form, while standing during a shift. And there’s nothing I love more than a roast chicken. I like to shower it in salt and roast it in a pan with butter then finish it in the oven. If I’m cooking for others, I will carve the bird and slice it. If it’s just for me, I’ll stand at the counter and nibble at it with my hands like an animal.
What are your thoughts on fusion cooking and do you work with Indian spices in your fare?
The term “fusion” repulses me. I can’t say why other than the fact that it is programmed into my chef bones. Perhaps incorrectly so. If you look at most cuisines, there are nearly always influences from other cultures. Chillies and tomatoes are used in Indian cuisine, but where do we think they came from?! It’s its own sort of fusion. That said, there are no ingredients that are off-limits in my kitchen. If we can make something taste good and it fits within our cooking style and approach, we will use it.
How to judge a good pizza?
I wasn’t put here to determine what people should find enjoyment in. Ideally, I spend most of my time trying to cook things that people will like. But there will always be differing opinions and different approaches. Go to New York, the Mecca of pizza (sorry Naples), and you’ll get a different answer to this question from house to house. I like a pizza that has minimal toppings. For me, pizza is about the dough. It’s about the quality of the execution and the ingredients. Personally, I don’t like overly cheesy, overly topped pies, but I know a lot of people who would happily disagree.
What are the hallmark signs of a good F&B establishment that a person can perceive as a patron?
The most important thing to me, as in, the first thing I notice when I go anywhere, is that I should feel welcome and comfortable. Sometimes that means a nice greeting at the door by a smiling face. At other times that feeling is expressed through warm decor and ambience. And sometimes it’s just your favourite local place that has none of the above but still somehow makes you feel like you’re right where you should be. The next most important quality is that the establishment should feel unique. I don’t mean this in some grand way as if every restaurant should be the next Noma. What I mean to say is that it should feel like it is the unique expression of the owners, it should feel genuine.
Any advice for young aspiring F&B enthusiasts in India?
This business is very tough, but it can also be very rewarding, both personally and financially. The best piece of advice I can give is more of a reality check: don’t get into this business if you want to have much of a life outside of the business. To be successful requires borderline obsessive focus. If you’re not up at night thinking about how you can be better the next day, you’re probably not as into F&B as you think. And if you’re not that into it, your business will suffer and so will your bank account.