The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

In the Kitchen with Chef Roberto Santibañez

In the Kitchen with Chef Roberto Santibañez

In the Kitchen

April 25, 2010

Chef Roberto Santibañez’s love of cooking began when he was a young boy learning to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen in Mexico City. Trained at Paris’s renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, Santibañez opened several highly acclaimed restaurants in Mexico City and spent four years as executive chef at Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas. At Fonda, his new restaurant in Brooklyn, Santibañez brings his flair for creative and healthy Mexican food to a contemporary audience.

What is the main focus of your cooking?
 
The main focus of my cooking is to demonstrate to people that there are all these other facets and wonderful things about Mexican cooking – other than the traditional fare that most people think of. Well-executed Mexican food is one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. A mushroom quesadilla or a spoonful of salsa are both wholesome nutritious snacks. When people in America think of Mexican food, they think of fried chimichangas, with everything swimming in cheese. That’s not good for you. The kind of food we make is good for you. Our guests recognize that we take pleasure in our cooking. We recently made vegetable enchiladas with sautéed mushrooms, spinach and corn kernels, inside tortillas with beautiful tomato sides. They were really popular.

Is there a particular nutritional focus of your menus?

Everything we do is based on vegetables – all of our sauces, moles, everything. Our cuisine is pretty healthy. A lot of people say that Mexicans don’t eat a lot of salads, but two tablespoons of pico de gallo or salsa verde contain a lot of vegetables. It’s just in a different format than how Americans usually consume them.

What is your relationship with local farmers?

Every day we try to make a new relationship with local farmers. We also work with our local purveyors to make sure they are getting local vegetables and meats, when possible. We work hard to make sure that our fish are certified and come from fisheries that are clean and have good, sustainable practices. We buy natural chicken and pork as well. We try to be organic whenever possible.
  
What are the major concerns today of your patrons when it comes to dining out? And how are you addressing them?
 
Dietary concerns are number one. Our patrons are focusing on how much butter is in the dish and how much cream there is, and so one. You hear this more and more. People are also more aware of their allergies now and more aware of other health issues in general. So we try to address all of these concerns and cook accordingly. But I will also say that people tend, at times, to take these concerns to extremes. Because eating healthy is important, but there has to be chocolate and ice cream in the world. We need to focus on teaching balance instead of restricting ourselves entirely.

How important is sustainability?

Sustainability is something we all need to take seriously, especially as restaurateurs and food industry people. It has to start somewhere and we are an important piece of the puzzle. We should all try to buy from sustainable growers. In fact, we recently changed our wine list. Now almost all of our wines come from organic vineyards on sustainable farms. I’m so happy that we were able to make that move.

How important is traceability?

When the wait staff comes to me and tells me that the woman at table 34 wants to know where the fish came from, we have to know. Everyone is concerned about traceability these days. We like to know where things come from, that they were produced in a safe manner, and that they haven’t traveled too far to get here.
 
What steps does your restaurant take toward conservation?

We recycle all of our paper, print all menus in recyclable paper, and try to recycle things as much as possible. All of our take-out boxes are biodegradable. They’re not pretty, but we get phone calls from our customers saying that they love them and they’re glad we’ve switched to a greener material. We also do everything we can to save energy in the kitchen and restaurant.