A native of Mexico City, chef Roberto Santibañez grew up in his grandmother’s kitchen, where he learned that cooking does not always have to be by the book. His innovative style led him to create many successful contemporary Mexican restaurants, including one of our favorites, Park Slope’s Fonda—which has now has locations in Manhattan’s East Village and Chelsea as well.
Santibañez graduated from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He returned home to Mexico City and founded three highly acclaimed restaurants before serving four years as executive chef at Fonda San Miguel in Austin. He spent another five years as culinary director of NYC’s Rosa Mexicano restaurants before opening the first of his local Fonda restaurants, in 2009.
Santibañez is also a celebrated cookbook author. His first release, Rosa’s New Mexican Table, was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Book Award. His second, Truly Mexican, was named a New York Times notable cookbook in 2011. Food & Wine honored his third, Tacos, Tortas and Tamales, as one of the best cookbooks of 2012. He graciously took the time to answer a few of our questions about the restaurant scene in NYC.
What was your first job cooking in New York City? Robert Santibañez: In 1997, I worked at Domingo’s restaurant (owned by Placido Domingo and Josefina Howard, a legend in the Mexican food world). It was amazing! In those days we use to be old school. We worked in their kitchens from 8am until midnight, and I had almost no time off. It was crazy, but I was happy.
How is NYC different from other places you’ve cooked? RS: It is the most competitive place in the world to run a business. Diners have hundreds of options all around them.
What are some places in NYC that inspire you as a chef? RS: The City itself. Every block is full of different places to eat food. I love how energetic, dynamic and constantly evolving New York’s food industry is.
What’s been your most embarrassing moment as a chef? RS: I was teaching a class on how to make tortillas, which I am generally good at. I couldn’t get one right that day. It took me forever to warm up to it.
What impact has the LGBTQ community had on the culinary world in NYC? RS: The community has opened fabulous restaurants with great food and sophisticated atmospheres.
Do you have any tips for people coming to eat in NYC for the first time? RS: Instead of the usual tourist standbys, look for the great neighborhood restaurants.
What is one dish every visitor has to try at your restaurant? RS: Enchiladas de mole negro—chicken enchiladas covered in a Oaxacan black mole sauce that is incredibly complex and delicious.
Fonda’s East Village location is participating in NYC Restaurant Week® Winter 2018, January 22–February 9.