Chef Sue Torres on Ten Years of Success with Suenos

Sue Torres has held Suenos at a level of success for ten years, and she hasn’t opened a second restaurant anywhere else at any time. Instead, she has the kind of faith in her staff that only comes with a long restaurant run, so that she can sometimes leave the kitchen to take an unrelated cooking class or go on a hike, where she says much of her creativity stems. She also found her training in Mexican cuisine from a unique and humble source, and continues to build her menus from trusting the skills and opinions of the cooks in her kitchen.

And while clocking in at the restaurant at 7 a.m. for their new brunch menu doesn’t exactly make her exhausted body jump for joy, she still finds sharing her kitchen and continuing to learn alongside her staff energizing; “Making staff meal for everyone on Saturdays and Sundays is fun, us just eating the foods I enjoy. Simple pleasures. It makes it all worth it at the end of the day.”

There’s often a debate about what “authentic” Mexican food is, and if we should aspire to it. Where is the root of your style of Mexican cooking? For me Mexican cuisine starts in the homes of my cooks mothers and grandmothers, so they’re the foundation, the base, that I have learned from. It’s in the technique and the equipment.

I don’t know many chefs who would put their ego aside to admit that they learned from the relatives of their own cooks. What’s fantastic is I didn’t know much about Mexican food when I started cooking it; my background was Southwest, Italian, French, Mediterranean. Here I was cooking to impress my cooks. I would give them a dish that I was thinking of for a special and be like, “Okay, what do you think of that?” I’d ask them what they’d put in a dish or what their favorite Sunday meal was. I was constantly involving and asking them. And after working with these cooks for over a year they were like, “You need to go see my mom. Go there and she’s going to show you some things.” And I was like, “All right, I’m in.”

So you literally learned from them? I went to Mexico and just intruded on their families. And they were great! We’d either go to a farmers’ market or go to cousins. My prep cook and one of my line cooks were from Morelos, and what I loved about their town was the incredible community that went into making one dish; “I’m going to my Tio’s house to shake a tree and get the avocados that are ripe, and then I’m going to my primo’s house to pick some tomatoes.” There was just this circle of everybody sharing and everyone knew each other. So it was just incredible. And then always on the last day I would cook for them.

How was that received? They loved it! On one trip in Morelos my prep guy happened to be in Mexico when I was there visiting, and I’d forgotten something we had to get at the store. So I told his sister, “Hey, let me tell Roberto to keep an eye on my chicken in the oven.” And she said, “Oh no, Roberto doesn’t cook.” And I was like, “Yes, he does, what do you think he does for me, he’s my cook! He cooks!” Roberto’s response was, “Oh noooooo, man! This is my home and you can’t take my dignity away from me! I am a man, I cannot cook! If I cook then my mom and my sisters are going to expect me to cook!” It was really fun. It was a good time.

You’ve had Suenos for about ten years now and haven’t opened a second restaurant, which is rather uncommon in today’s culinary scene. What does that root do for you? Well, for me the main thing is happiness, and my happiness comes through food and cooking. My greatest joy comes from putting my hands into the food, whether it taking something from a delivery and being totally inspired, just thinking of all the different ways I’m going to cook. If I were to expand on the level of an empire I’d have less of a connection to the food; that falls into the hands of your sous chefs and your chef de cuisines. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m at my happiest when I’m creating and cooking.

And with one restaurant I can have a good quality of life where I’m not stuck to the stove. On a randomly beautiful day I can say, “You know what, I’m going to go on a hike today!” My cooks can handle it. And for me that’s also being creative, because I’m most creative when I’m in an outdoor environment.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to choose that. Where did this connection with cooking start? I think it started basically at the dinner table—eating was sort of the start of it all. The gratification of Sunday meatballs. It was an appreciation of the food that was put in front of me, and the connection to food that my father and grandfather gave me. On my Italian side there was always a beautiful, abundant garden. We would go fish and crabbing a lot. And there’s nothing better than going crabbing with grandpa and knowing that grandma has a pot of tomato sauce on the fire and the pot is ready for when we come back. It’s the simple pleasures of food that I think started it all for me.

Did something from that time particularly stick with you that you might have not expected? There was a part that I didn’t always enjoy—sourcing the best ingredients. My mother would take me to one butcher for our chopped meat and another for the sausage. And I’d be like, “Ma, we just came from the butcher, why couldn’t we get the sausage there? Why did we just go twenty minutes here and then thirty minutes there?” She was like, “You don’t understand. This butcher has the best sausage and that butcher has the best ground beef. He’ll grind it in front of me, he’ll use the fat count that I want…. And, besides, you never complain when you’re eating.” And I was like, okay, point taken.

Do you now retain that respect? Absolutely. Every step that food takes to when it’s cooked and plated is with joy, with love. If it’s not I think people can actually taste the difference.

What’s the balance in your kitchen now? Since you’ve had just the one restaurant, have you had cooks here since the beginning? I have one cook who’s been here since we opened—he remembers recipes that I’ve forgotten ten years ago—and we have a very good relationship and open dialogue. And then my other cook has been here eight and a half years. So that core foundation gives me a sense of security in that they know exactly how I want things. If I give them the ingredients in a dish I’m confident they know my palate and will make it pretty much exactly how I want it. So that is a very good thing for me.

What about culinary kids coming through? Do you find less students take Mexican cooking as seriously as they would French or Italian? I think in some levels that’s an individual thing. But I will say that Mexican cuisine is one of the hardest cuisines to cook, and it’s not getting credit for what it is. Mario Batali is a great chef because he taught Americans in New York that Italian food is not just red sauce and pasta. “Let me show you all the regions of Italy and let me show you how diverse each is from one town to the next.” The same is true with Mexico.

Do you feel like we’re at least on the rise in understanding? Yes. And I think it has to start with the writers who are writing about Mexican restaurants to explore Mexicomore. Not to explore the touristy parts, but to get deep into the heart of the country by branching off. And having experiences and understanding what Mexican food is. Because that’s a big part of it—having something to relate to not just from the Mexican restaurants in New York or around the U.S. but in Mexico. I love when people come in here and go, “This is really good Mexican food. And I would know, because I’m from California!” It’s one of the biggest backhanded compliments I get.