Food News

Meso Maya's Nico Sanchez on the Grind of Running His Own Place and His Gameday Menu

Today we wrap up the last of our Three-Course Meal interview with Chef Nico Sanchez at Meso Maya, the newish Mexican restaurant at Preson and Forest. In part one we learned about his background. Part two dabbled in the Dallas restaurant scene and the real Mex-Mex movement. Now for a little look into the business of running things.

What's the hardest part about starting a new restaurant? Well, when owner Mike Karns came to me with this, I had been waiting for this type of opportunity -- a chef-driven restaurant. I took two months off to really put on paper what I wanted this restaurant to be. We were thinking about the same thing. When I presented the menu to him, from the first draft to the last, we took two things off the menu. And those were because he wasn't like "wow." Unless it was "wow," I didn't want it on there.

He had a lot of confidence in me, and the fact that we had the same idea in mind, we got here quick. To have never met and three months later open this restaurant was amazing.

What was the hardest part about getting ready for the first day of business? Training the cooks how to make all the sauces. And educating the servers on all our dishes, including preparation and ingredients, which was a lot of work, but something they had to get right.

When the cooks mess up do you throw things at them? No, I don't throw things. (Not laughing.) I've been there before. I was a cook, so I know what I hate from a chef and what I don't. I'm a little hard on them and sometimes I'll push them. I know it makes them mad, but we have to have consistency in the kitchen. I've had cooks tell me, "I don't like you, but you've made me a better cook. Let's do this." And those are the ones that stay around for years.

I joke with them a lot, too. It's a balance. That's the tricky part.

Do the servers always get it right? I've told the serves to answer as many customer questions as they can, but if they're not sure, to come back and ask me. Because customers can tell if they don't really know the answer. If they're not confident, they'll see that. So, I tell them, "Don't fake it. Come ask me." Sometimes I'll go to a table and have a conversation with a guest if I need to.

Do you like to interact with your customers? I love to. I go out to tables all the time, but I make it brief. If they want me to alter a dish for them, I might go out and try to explain to them my idea behind it. Of course, without insulting them. If they still want it a certain way, I'll do it. Sometimes they'll trust me though, and then they always like it. But I make it quick, and I don't linger.

What do you gain from going to tables? Well, I actually learn a lot. Because of customer's questions I'm already making changes to my menu. If I get the same request all the time, then the customers are telling me they want something else. For instance, people always want the carne asada cooked well, when it really should be served rare. But instead of trying to change their minds, because they know what they want, I'm putting a steak on the menu. That's what they want and we can definitely make a steak they're going to love, so it's going on the menu.

What kind of days and hours are you keeping here in the infancy of this restaurant? Everyday, about 9 a.m. until 10 p.m., but I took a day off last week.

Are you a Cowboys fan? Of course, a huge one.

Are you going to watch the game against the Lions Sunday or will you be working? No, I'm taking that day off (smiles).

What's on the game-day menu at the Sanchez house? Easy. Carne asada with fresh salsa and guacamole. A little spicy meat and a cold beer (his most animated moment of the interview is happening right now). That's the good life. That's perfect.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.

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