By Chris Mohney
Mexico City born and raised, Roberto Santibañez embarked on a classical French culinary education, then returned to Mexico to open a series of acclaimed restaurants in his hometown. He spent a few years in Texas racking up more praise, then relocated to New York in 2002 as culinary director of Rosa Mexicano. Since then, he’s published three cookbooks and moved on to his own Fonda restaurants in New York and Mi Vida in Washington DC. Santibañez’s latest venture in DC is The Grill, a forthcoming American restaurant with his Mi Vida partners.
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I was trained in France when I was younger. I lived in Europe for a while, too. I always loved Middle Eastern cooking, and very close members of my family were from Lebanon. My very best friend from childhood, who still is my best friend today, is a French guy from a French family in Mexico City. French cooking is what they used to do in his family—very little Mexican. Even in my family, there was always these two kinds of Mexican cooking going on in my grandma’s house—what my grandpa would eat and what everybody else would eat.
These different foods have been around all my life, and I’ve enjoyed them all. One of my principal passions is the cuisines of my country, and that’s why I have three cookbooks about it. I’ve been involved in it for many, many years. But I do love other cuisines.
Even so, Mexican food in America has evolved completely differently in California than it has in New York or Chicago. When you go to markets in Chicago, for example, or in New York, you find things that you don’t necessarily find in just any market in Los Angeles. Frankly, the people in LA, the Californian Mexicans that stayed there, the first thing they did was try and abolish all things Mexican. Forget about the culture. Make my sons and daughters assimilate into our new society. Mexican food is made with tomato paste and that’s that. I think that’s how the real, traditional Mexican cuisine in California was almost forgotten.
It’s amazing to go to a market in California and you don’t find any of the herbs that they use in the mountains in Puebla. But you certainly find them in New York, and you certainly find them in Chicago. Just walking in Sunset Park in New York, you find pipicha, which is an herb. You find the chiles that are used in Tabasco. You find all these things that you don’t find walking around LA.
I think Mexican food in America has taken different routes in different places. But Jesus, it has come a long way. Of course, we still sometimes get very annoying comments at Mi Vida, like, “Oh, it was expensive for Mexican.” That perception still hasn’t gone away. We deal with it every day. We buy the same ingredients as they buy everywhere else. We have the same fish purveyors that provide fish to Daniel Boulud. We buy Pat LaFrieda meat of the same caliber as everybody else. Why should our skirt steak be cheaper? And have you seen our portion size? We actually have to fight to provide you with the concept, the value. Because we are seen as Mexican, and because we need to be cheaper, according to many people in the public, we give you more so that you clearly have more steak than any other restaurant.
I actually think it is techniques that make our cuisines different. Like how we chop cilantro in Mexican cooking. We don’t pick the leaves off the cilantro to chop them. We chop the whole thing. Those are very important things in the flavor. Tomato sauce can be made with the same three ingredients in three different cultures. You make a tomato sauce in Spain with onions, garlic, and tomatoes. And you make it with the same three ingredients in Mexico and in Italy. The difference is in the technique, and the flavor difference and the texture difference comes from the technique. In France, they taught me all these techniques to transform the foods into the sauces and everything. Then I realized that my country has techniques for that, too. They’re just very different.
I do think that learning from all of the techniques around the world is very important, but so is focusing on the ingredient and letting the ingredient tell us what it needs. For example, my partners came and said we were opening The Grill, they said it would be an all-American restaurant. I got excited. We started talking about the concept and what they wanted. And I said, “You know what? Let me cook for you a couple of meals and see if that’s the direction of the food you want.” And I did, and they said, “Well, if you can do this all along the menu, that’s just fine. We’re happy with this.” Me taking on the new restaurant was a complete accidental pregnancy. I think it caught us all by surprise.
That first sample meal was slow-braised lamb shank with a demi-glace with port and mushrooms over a parsnip mash, which was absolutely delicious. We also had a piece of halibut on saffron risotto, which is actually going to be on our menu. The lamb shank is also going to be on the menu.
Then I had to show them that I could do a really, really good burger, right? It’s an all-American restaurant. I did a burger based on one of my grandma’s recipes for something she would call brown onion sauce, which is basically five pounds of onions brought to two cups of a very dark, almost black paste. I mean, you can spread that on anything. It’s the most delicious thing.
So I did the famous brown onion sauce, and I put a scoop on top of the burger. I made an aioli with smoked Pimenton el Angel, which I used on the bottom. And then I made some dehydrated tomatoes that I first macerated in Champagne vinegar with a little bit of brown sugar. So the tomatoes already have extra acidity and extra sugar, which makes them amazingly delicious when dehydrated. I made a burger mixed with half grass-fed local beef from Roseda Farm, near Washington. They’re very famous. It was a little lean, so I mixed in a little bit of 80-20 house ground chuck for a little fat. It was a stunning burger. And my partners were like, “Well, we hope this is the burger for The Grill.” And I said, “It is now!”
The way I saw this food, I needed my American friends to eat it. Some dishes carry cultural weight. You recognize the flavor. We were doing an imitation of a mud pie—of course, we made all these super-sophisticated versions. One of our American partners was like, “No, it doesn’t taste like it should. It should taste a little … cheaper. It should taste a little bit more artificially vanilla.” When I do American staples like the burger, I can have it myself and think it’s great. But if you guys don’t like it, then it’s not!
The process behind all that is taking on very traditional things and researching a lot about them. It’s intense research. I buy lots of cookbooks. I always insist that not everything is on the internet. There are French recipes from the 17th century that have never made it to the internet, and you need the books to read them.
For example, oysters Rockefeller are an American creation. They are based on a French mixture of butter with tarragon and chervil. Nowadays you’ll see an oysters Rockefeller that basically has béchamel with spinach. That’s fucking disgusting in many, many ways. You know, this soggy mess with a soggy oyster. It’s unbelievable. So I did my research and came up with the most traditional New Orleans but French way to make it, which is butter, a lot of tarragon and chervil, and parsley. That’s what makes the oysters green. You know, a teaspoon of this butter onto the oyster with some croutons on top. It’s so clean and so flavorful, that hint of anise seed that hits you, that aromatizes is the oyster. That’s so wonderful. I’m so happy.
Now of course, with the pandemic, it’s just been incredible. At the beginning, we had to lay off so many people. Plans for the Grill are on hold, which I’m fine with. The other restaurants are still open for delivery and pick-up with a reduced staff. Once we hopefully get the funds for these loans, we’ll continue to do just that, but with a little bit more staff, with a little bit better conditions for everybody. Getting a dishwasher for every shift will be nice. Right now, we only have one. We always made our tortillas by hand and with fresh masa. We stopped that. We are just working with store-bought tortillas. We will bring the tortilla ladies back on. That’ll make it better. I will feel better then. Hopefully this will work, you know?
There’s been a lot of social media contact with our guests who are very appreciative and very happy that we’re still open. They send messages through Instagram—you know, “Go, guys!” Because we have been allowed to sell alcohol, people send pictures of their little plastic box with guacamole and a margarita in a plastic container. It’s been fantastic to see that much love. It’s amazing that people still have time to write reviews. They simply go on and say, “We’re so glad that you guys are open,” and they give you five stars. It’s just been really, really wonderful to see that.
It’s been crazy in our business. After the mandate, we’ve heard about a lot of people getting sick in our business. We share tables with hundreds of people a day. Everybody shakes hands with everybody. I think our industry—the pandemic has really, really hit it hard, not only economically. A lot of losses. A lot of people. You hear of restaurant owners, you hear of waiters and bartenders. Everybody has been hit incredibly hard.
My own partner has been sick. I’ve been home with him for probably three weeks—it started three weeks back, but he’s been sick two weeks. So that’s all I’ve been doing. Fortunately, things have been improving, but we’ve had days there with the phone in hand, ready to run out to the hospital. It’s been two weeks now of nothing else but focusing that he gets better, and he’s doing well. We’re trying to turn the corner. I think we are. We’ve have two or three days, almost, with no fever, and the doctors believe we are turning the corner. It’s been really stressful for me, but now things are so much better I can break the news without crying.