Although it only opened a few years ago, Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar has conquered the stomachs of Valley residents, with its menu of Pan Latin cuisine, which artfully combines the distinct flavors of South and Central America with ingredients rooted in the Japanese and Chinese Peruvian cultures.
Not to rest on their laurels, celebrity chef Richard Sandoval and Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar executive chef Forest Hamrick recently put their heads together on an innovative new menu that boasts whole branzino frito, char siou braised beef short rib, ceviche mixto, ancient grain salad and ropa vieja empanadas.
Last month, as they put the finishing touches on everything from ceviche to sea bass, The Entertainer! was given a behind-the-scenes look at the method behind their mouthwatering madness.
Richard, take us back to the beginning – how did you get your start as a chef?
Growing up in Mexico City, I would join my grandmother in the kitchen and gather around her large table with family to enjoy lively Mexican feasts prepared from scratch.
From her, I learned to respect fresh, authentic, ingredients and create the vibrant flavors that turned family dinners into celebrated events. Meanwhile, my restaurateur father—owner of Madeiras in Acapulco and Villa Fiore also in Acapulco—imparted lessons in service and restaurant management.
Their passion was contagious. So much so, that even though I would initially grow up to be a professional tennis player touring the world participating in prestigious matches, I had such a passion for food that I decided to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation, I gained the attention of New Yorkers when I opened Savann. By 1997, I opened Maya, my flagship modern Mexican restaurant in New York.
Richard Sandoval Restaurants (RSR) is now a leading international restaurant group with over 40 concepts spanning the globe.
Richard, what inspired you to create the Toro concept? And how has is grown in recent years?
My inspiration was the meals I remember enjoying at my grandmother’s house every Sunday. The whole family would get together and we would enjoy my grandmothers cooking. The dishes were served family-style and we would all enjoy with great wines and tequilas. I’ll never forget the joy of sitting around the table enjoying great food and sharing stories. I wanted to create a casual restaurant with a sharing menu where friends and family could come and share small plates in a great atmosphere.
Forest, how did you get your start?
I didn’t set out to become a chef. In fact, I initially went to school for psychology, and then nursing. It wasn’t until I took a part-time job at an oyster bar in San Diego that I found my calling, though you would never guess it from week one. On one of my first days on the job, which happened to be the same week as my wedding, I was eager to show I could shuck an oyster with the best of them. The result? I ran the knife all the way up that oyster, but neglected to stop once I hit my fingers. Thankfully, my kitchen colleagues sprang into action, using coffee grounds and an onion peel of all things to stop the bleeding so I could get to the emergency room. Two days later, with my hand wrapped up and stiches in place, I walked down the aisle to marry the love of my life. It has all been uphill from there, in more ways than one.
Forest, tell us about your journey to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and to Toro?
After a few years shucking oysters—which I did master, by the way—I took a chance and moved to Arizona to enroll in culinary school. At the time, you had to complete an externship as part of the program. I got lucky, securing the externship of a lifetime at Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn. There, I met my first real mentor in Chef Patrick Poblete. I would stay on with Lon’s well after the graduation—for several years, in fact, eventually becoming their sous chef. From there, I helped open a few spots in Scottsdale before joining the Princess team in 2003. All these years later, I am still here!
Forest, you must have some amazing culinary stories from your decade-plus at the Princess!
I’ve had the pleasure of working with master chef Richard Sandoval for so many years at both La Hacienda and Toro, so the stories abound. A few years ago, I traveled with him to the James Beard house in New York City. Perhaps the only thing that topped that was traveling to Mexico to prepare a feast for the governor of Puebla, who was hosting 300 world leaders in his city.
Richard, how do you go about developing a new menu at any of your concepts with the in-house talent? Take us through the process?
I enjoy developing menus seasonally and locally—so first we discuss ingredients which will be in season, then we discuss direction we want to take (meaning any inspiration we might have from recent travels visiting restaurants etc.), then we discuss ideas. After that, we get together and try the dishes and discuss presentation, flavor profile and technique. Once we make these adjustments, we taste again to finalize and add to the menu. We also have what we call “test kitchen” menus where the chefs take a trip to certain countries to get inspiration for dishes. Upon their return, we taste the dishes they have created from their trips (typically 30 dishes) then we discuss and make adjustments. Typically, about five dishes will make the cut.
Forest, what would our readers be surprised to know about you?
I’ve been visiting Mexico for 40-plus years and have both spoken and written the language fluently my entire life. In fact, I speak better than many of my Mexican friends. My wife, who is Hispanic, says I have the “heart of a Mexican the body of an American.”
Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar, Scottsdale Fairmont Princess, 7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale, 480.585.4848, scottsdaleprincess.com.