The fun-loving chef ripping up the rulebook and transforming Mexican cuisine
When Cosme first entered The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017, Daniela Soto-Innes was best known as a protégée of Enrique Olvera, the chef with whom she opened the modern Mexican restaurant in New York in 2014. In 2016, at age 25, she had won a Rising Star Award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. Three years on, she has been shortlisted in the same foundation’s Best Chef category alongside the likes of Alex Stupak, who she says “opened the door for this type of Mexican food in New York”. At just 28, she is the youngest winner of The World’s Best Female Chef Award, and it is fair to say her star has risen.
But Soto-Innes is not overly motivated by awards. The 28-year-old, who grew up in Houston, Texas, says Cosme is more of a “cultural institution” than a restaurant, and keeping a happy team of staff from all corners of the world is central to delivering her consistently world-beating Mexican-influenced cuisine. Rather than following a set idea of what fine dining should be or how a kitchen should work, Soto-Innes follows her own rules. In her kitchen, staff don’t necessarily have formal training, but they learn all the skills they need under her careful tuition. There’s no rule of silence – hers is a vibrant kitchen where music plays and staff warm up with exercises pre service. And the menu itself is fuss-free à la carte, with sharing plates that put an emphasis on flavour.
Cosme's crab infladita (image: Kelt T)
After four years at Cosme, Soto-Innes is now paring back her dishes, evolving her cooking with simpler concepts and cleaner flavours. It was always the opposite of Tex Mex, but her cuisine is not simply modern Mexican in the US – it is something unique or, in her own words, “another state of Mexico”. On the plate, this translates to crab infladitas – a “beautiful mistake” that happens when a tortilla inflates when frying – and light, fresh dishes like razor clam or fluke tostadas. Then there are classics that have been on the menu since the beginning, like Soto-Innes’s showstopping duck carnitas and her signature corn husk meringue dessert.
While Soto-Innes still runs the kitchen at Cosme, in 2017 she and Olvera opened Atla, an all-day casual eatery serving elegant Mexican classics like ranchero eggs and quesadillas in New York’s NoHo district. Later this year, the duo will make their first foray onto the West Coast, opening adjoined restaurants Damian (serving Japanese-influenced Mexican) and Ditroit (a taquería) in Los Angeles. Like Cosme and Atla, both new restaurants are likely to carry the minimalist, Alonso de Garay-designed decors and clean flavours that are typical of the Soto-Innes-Olvera partnership, but each with its own LA identity.
Soto-Innes is known for her fun-loving demeanour, but behind the party-girl exterior is a serious, straight-talking chef with business acumen and bundles of talent. It is perhaps the mix of the two that has allowed her to change the game in her restaurants, giving opportunities to mostly immigrant cooks ranging in age from 20 to 65, who she says would otherwise likely be driving taxis and working in laundromats. She thrives on empowering her staff and treating every personality differently, and says her relative youth is something to embrace rather than feel ashamed of. In an industry dominated by men, she also runs a kitchen that is two-thirds made up by women.
By winning The World’s Best Female Chef Award, Soto-Innes says she hopes to use the platform to help inspire and support people of all ages, races and nationalities in becoming cooks. With her fresh, inclusive approach and her seemingly effortless success, she is sure to inspire many.