Introducing Chef: Rory Sandoval

Friday Sep. 30th, 2011

My first memory of cooking and kitchens was making stone soup in Montessori school. We read a story about a soup with stones in it and everyone brought something to put in the soup the next day. I brought tri colored rotini pasta that my mother helped me to pick out. I was three years old. I still remember the smell of the soup in the kitchen and the reward of eating something that I had cooked.
Cooking always came easily to me. It was the only thing that I didn’t have to battle for. At five years old in cub scouts I remember flipping pancakes in the air as high as I could and they always landed in the pan. During Home Economics in middle school I couldn’t understand why everyone around me was having so much trouble baking brownies or making perfect, softly scrambled eggs and nicely cooked bacon. The first time I made hollandaise sauce, the cook that told me how to make it was pissed because my sauce was perfect the first time, with no recipe, and it took him years to perfect his. I still to this day, have never broken a hollandaise.

My first day in the kitchen was after a Sunday brunch as a dishwasher. I was completely over whelmed by the massive pile of dishes, pots, pans, buffet equipment, that I was required to clean. I was paralyzed and didn’t know what to do or where to start. One of the cooks whom recently moved up from the dish pit came over to assist me. She was very aggressive, moved fast and in an instant it became clear to me. Either you do the dishes, or the dishes do you. This is something that I tell young cooks and dishwashers that are new to the business. Who is in charge of this station? “Are you running this station, or is this station running you???” I took this view and approach from that day forward and always had the bull by the horns.

The first five years in the kitchen went quickly. Two years in Martin’s Café with Joe Colvin, then on to the Winchester in the Murray Hotel for 18 months, followed by another 18 months at the Chico Hot Springs dining room where I left as the p.m. sous chef at the age of 19. I left town with 900 dollars, a broken heart, what I could fit in my car and a dream of becoming a chef. My destination was Napa Valley, Ca. I got there, rented a room, and started looking for work. I remember walking around the grocery store fiddling with the 17 cents in my pocket wishing I could buy a donut. Within days I landed a morning job at a pizza place, just to get a paycheck going, and began trying to get into an exceptional kitchen.

After many visits, multiple interviews, and pleading with the chef for an unpaid trial, Richard Reddington of the Relais & Chauteu property Aberge du Soliel gave me an opportunity as a butcher in the Michelin kitchen. I was no ordinary butcher. My cuts were perfect, I made the prepared proteins accessible and my station was immaculate. I would not just wipe down the counter of the butcher station before I left, like my partner butcher did. I would scrub the counter, the wall, the floor, the inside of the refrigerator, clean the fridge gaskets, squeeze fresh lemons and twist fresh herbs to be left in the cooler so when the chef went through my station it would be clean, sanitary and odor free. I heard people in passing say, “Who IS this guy”. After six weeks the chef brought me to his office and said he was going to teach me to cook. By the time I left I had worked my way from Garde Manager (salads and cold apps), to Hot Apps, to Entrementier (veg cook), Poissnnier (fish cook), Saucier (sauce and meat cook), and finished working rounds filling in for the other cooks. After the untimely death of my brother Ted, I saw it best to return home for a time and morn his passing.

My arrival, I felt was unwelcome. It felt great to be back in the mountains of Montana but I could not find kitchen work and it was not for a lack of trying. I must have applied at twenty different restaurants in the Bozeman area. I left on good terms at my previous Montana jobs but I moved in with my brother in Bozeman and my car broke down as soon as I arrived in town. It was an ‘88 Honda that needed an engine so I was on a bike and needed something within riding distance. After 10 weeks I used the last of my savings taking a course in bartending because they guaranteed job placement. I was not placed. I was broke and desperate. I began applying to fast food restaurants and cleaning companies. At long last Klean King, a carpet cleaning and janitorial company hired me as a night janitor for minimum wage. I mopped floors, scrubbed stinky bathrooms and toilets, took out the garbage, and all things required of a janitor. It was a long cold winter. This is where I met my wife Letica.
All the while I was looking for a kitchen job. When I saw a sous chef position available at Montana Ale Works, I applied, and reapplied, and checked on my application, and asked to speak to the chef. After five lengthy interviews the chef told me that he didn’t think that I took my career seriously because I was working as a janitor. As I sat across for him I thought to myself “If you only knew” and all this coming from a middle aged chef wearing hot chili pepper pants. I was not hired as a sous chef but as a cook. Within six months I was the sous chef and within a year the chef quit. I just started doing the job. No one else was going to do it. After a couple of weeks I convinced the owners to give me a three month trial as the chef. The GM at the time said “We don’t need a chef. The food is figured out”. I took the ball and ran with it. I improved the quality of food, created a positive kitchen culture, cleaned the place up, and reduced the controllable costs of the kitchen. After three months the owners agreed that a chef was required and I was offered a permanent position as the Executive Chef at Montana Ale Works. I was 24 years old and in charge of one of the busiest kitchens in Montana.

I have always loved Montana and consider it to be my home. I could have easily stayed in this position and still be there today, but I was thirsty for knowledge and wanted the experience of a high profile “Big City Chef.” So, I went after it. A colleague of mine that I worked with in California had just finished working for Thomas Keller at New Yorks “Per Se” and excepted a chef job in Portland, Oregon. I felt this was the opportunity that I was looking for, so I packed my bags and moved to Portland. In the next 20 months I learned nearly as much about food as the years before combined. I defined my style and matured as a chef. I became confident in my cooking and let the food speak for itself instead of “getting fancy.” After a year and eight months, the owner of Georgio’s opened a second location called Lolo and I was offered the chef position. The restaurant opened not long before the great recession hit and I got a crash course in managing a restaurant with no cash. I carried the place on my back and steered it clear of the rocks. I put my heart and soul into the food and my love and faith into the business. After three years and no chance at a partnership, it was time to move on.

We would have loved to move back to Montana, but I did not know how to get back there. I already ran one of the biggest kitchens in the state and the only person I was willing to work for was Burke Moran. I had touched base with Burke of Finally Restaurant Group in Montana and he did not have a position in the window of time I required. Convenience for my family required me to find work in Portland. We liked the city and it made the best sense to stay. I sent my resume out to a hundred different places. I had dozens of good interviews, a few terrible ones that I learned from, I talked with first time restaurant owners not only out of hiring me but out of the business altogether and still nothing. So I expanded my search out of state. After a trip to California renewing past ties and reestablishing contacts I landed an interview for a sous chef position at Michael Mina Bellagio in Las Vegas. I told the owner of Lolo about the interview and considering his confidence that I would get a job offer insisted on my resignation before I flew out for the interview. I put the livelihood of my family on the line for a single turn at the wheel. I gambled everything going to Vegas and didn’t put a single quarter in the machine while I was there. I pulled off the five course tasting of my life and had a great interview. I did not get the job. The Chef felt I was overqualified and I had a second interview at the St. Regis in Dana Point Ca. for the Executive Chef position at Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern. I took what I learned from the Las Vegas tasting and redefined what I was capable of. I got an offer for the position after the first course of five.

Four weeks later, at the age of 30, I was in Orange County, Ca. Forbes five star hotel, five star spa, and four star restaurant. I was in paradise.  I had arrived. I was well on my way to making six figures a year. This was the job that young cooks and culinary students dream of achieving.  Yet all the while I missed Montana, the mountains, and felt out of place. I had proven my ability to fulfill and exceed the expectations for my position but struggled to find meaning in it. During a press training session I was asked what inspired me about my position. I was a deer in the headlights. I had nothing substantial or meaningful to say. This was when I called Burke Moran of Finally Restaurant Group in Livingston Montana.
We had talked about once a year for the past three years. He knew me by reputation and both of my brothers worked for the restaurant group. I asked for a position that did not exist and gave him a lengthy proposal detailing my qualifications for the non-existent position. So he created it. I was confident, inspired by the growth and success of the Group and he admired my accomplishments as a chef over the last seven years. Burke’s father, who was also a restaurateur, had a bad experience with a Corporate Chef, and the Group referred to chefs as the “C word”. All that I can say about that is, this is not the first time someone has told me they don’t need a Chef.

Burke and I came into an agreement and I was granted a working trial as the Chef of Finally Restaurant Group. The Group operates a total of 9 restaurants and employs six hundred. Five Rib & Chop Houses in MT and WY Two T.J. Ribs in Baton Rouge, La., One Ninfa’s also in Baton Rouge. And last but not least Rio Sabina’s of Belgrade Montana. The first mission in terms of my contract required a rebranding of the Rio Sabina’s restaurant concept. The restaurant had a solid foundation but, required a higher level of standards regarding food & beverage quality, consistency, and restaurant cleanliness to achieve explosive growth. The menu offering was a little tired and conceptually confused. There was a portion of the menu that was exceptional but Rio Sabina’s was seeking an identity of its own. Rio Sabina’s new menu is a culmination of the techniques that I have learned and the ingredients I have discovered. It all comes together at a price point that everyone can afford and in an environment that anyone will enjoy.