From an early age, Juan Vasquez-Santos knew he wanted to spend his life behind kitchen doors.
He cherished working at his family’s restaurant, El Toro, while growing up in Spain.
The renowned chef recalls washing dishes and watching his grandmother cook beside him, admiring her devotion to the craft.
Taking the time to perfect each dish, his grandma approached cooking with a deep sense of pride, Santos explains.
And it wasn’t long before he did, too.
“I remember one time I saw my grandma making paella, and to me everything was looking so easy,” Santo remembers. “I started looking at how she was cutting the vegetables, and I could see she had a passion to do the cooking.
“Little by little, she incorporated all these flavors and ingredients until she got the final product,” he continues. “It really hit me right in my heart—from that moment on, I wanted to cook.”
With more than 30 national and global culinary jobs under his belt—including a stint at Colorado’s legendary Stanley Hotel and an apprenticeship in Brazil—Santos is now bringing his talents to Chandler.
The food aficionado is the executive chef at Cafe MeSo, a Mediterranean- and Southwestern-inspired restaurant tucked inside the new Marriott Phoenix Chandler.
The eatery, which opened last November, offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, combining flavors of mouth-watering Mexican spices with tastes from Italy and Spain, among other blends.
Signature menu items include flatbread pizza, seared salmon quinoa and pan-roasted filet.
The average dinner entree rings in between $24 and $36.
“It’s a higher-end place, so we appeal to the Marriott’s Award Traveler and typically that type of person who has some disposable income,” says Paul Church, Marriott Phoenix Chandler’s food and beverage director.
“We want to appeal to that type of person that is going to enjoy some of the finer things when it comes to beer, wine and liquor,” he continues. “The higher-end food will complement that as well.”
The cafe sources local ingredients from companies like Sterns Produce and Santa Monica Seafood, and offers baked goods from scratch.
Although the menu is simple, Church says, it doesn’t sacrifice in quality.
“You don’t want to overcomplicate quality food,” he expresses. “We have fresh ingredients made by people who have a passion for food.”
The cool-toned dining area exudes an inviting, casual atmosphere with a Southwestern flare, boasting mountain views and a cozy fireplace.
But what really drives in the traffic, the food and beverage director says, is the bar.
“Many of the small bites, plates and tapas items at the bar have been really popular,” Church reveals. “It is in the center and a grand impression.”
The full-service bar features an L-shaped, stone countertop with ceiling-high cabinets.
It offers more than 30 different types of tequilas, high-end bourbons, vodka, gin and scotch.
For those preferring something slightly more low-key, have no fear.
The bar also sells local tap beers and several tap wines, including Arizona Stronghold red and white blends, SanTan Brewing Company beverages and Grand Canyon Brewing Company IPAs.
Santos, who has been onboard since before the restaurant’s construction, says the cafe is a point of pride for the new hotel—thanks to the dedication of its employees.
“I think the secret ingredient will be our people,” the chef says. “They are devoted, they’re excited and they want to take it to the next level.
“I can share my passion with my kitchen crew,” he adds. “I’ve been a chef for almost 30 years, but I really enjoy what I do for a living.
“We’re looking forward to doing something new every day and pleasing our customers,” he states.
The restaurant is adjusting a few menu items, Santos conveys, including adding new quinoa salad variations and grilled chicken quesadillas.
For now, the Spanish native says he is looking forward to serving the people of Chandler while continuing to fine tune his skill.
“It can be stressful, but I like to teach people and share the passion,” he says. “I always tell my employees that with cooking, you need to just embrace it because it’s common sense.
“Don’t be afraid to cook,” he adds. “Because the only way you’re going to learn is to make mistakes.”
Cafe MeSo, 1600 S. Price Road, Chandler, 480.732.1600, bit.ly/2wYoPXl.