The Copenhagen taqueria Hija (pronounced ‘ee-kah’) de Sanchez is the creation of Rosio Sanchez, the 31-year-old Noma alumnus from the south side of Chicago and one of the most exciting young chefs in Europe. It’s hard to think of a better version of Mexican street food anywhere on the continent. Its brilliance is the result of Sanchez’s pedigree as a chef and the importance she and her team place on importing Mexican ingredients – including the chillies and the corn, from Oaxaca, which they cook and stone-grind on-site to make fresh tortillas every day.
In March 2016, they opened at a second location where as well as tacos (carnitas, mole, queso fresco), paletas (ice-pops) and churros with liquorice salt, freeze-dried blackcurrant and cajeta (caramel), there are tacos al pastor (the Mexican version of a shawarma) – marinated pork basted with roasted pineapple.
“What we’re doing is extremely rare,” explains Rosio, “we make everything!” But it seems less a self-gratifying DIY effort or marketing shtick, and more out of necessity. “In the States or in Mexico, the quality of the products you can buy means that if you did it yourself, you’d be overworking, but in Europe there’s nothing around,” she says. Especially corn. And it’s all about the corn. It was something she tested rigorously, and found the masa (dough) made from European varieties consistently failed to produce a tortilla that met her expectations. Settling for second best is not something that Rosio does.
Her story starts in the USA, where she was born to Mexican parents. At 19, she attended the Cordon Bleu cookery school in Chicago to study pastry. Why? “I just love desserts, I love sweet things,” she says without hesitation. That love (and education) took her to wd~50, Wiley Dufresne’s Michelin-starred temple of molecular gastronomy in New York City where she spent three years as pastry sous chef. The basis of Wiley’s cuisine, she says, was technique
– a challenging culture that always asked, “What can we do that’s never been done before?”. Beyond that, Wiley encouraged curiosity in his chefs, to take inspiration from the outside. He granted them all access to his office library, and it was here that Sanchez first remembers encountering Noma, and René Redzepi’s seminal book, Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine.
The same spirit of curiosity took Rosio to Europe at the age of 23. “I wanted to explore, to have new experiences and to push myself with flavours that I’d never had before,” she says. She was in Spain when she learned of a vacancy at Noma, the kind of opportunity she had hoped her adventure would spring. And, after having pushed the boundaries of what was technically possible at wd~50, she relished the chance to learn the intricacies of an entirely unknown cuisine. (Albeit at a restaurant that was rapidly receiving the highest international acclaim.) Indeed, while Sanchez was there, it would become the ‘World’s Best Restaurant’.
Sanchez’s specialism in pastry meant that’s where she theoretically slotted in at Noma. But what she quickly realized, and relished, was the kitchen’s fluid approach to traditional ‘sections’. “Everyone helped everyone. Everything was interconnected which gave it an unique energy and excitement,” she says. This ethos of shared responsibility extended to the whole restaurant – a fundamental that Sanchez seems to cherish. “When as chefs you’re serving the customers, you begin to learn what the hell is happening in the restaurant!” You’re not just plating a dish and ignoring what happens to it, in other words.
She then says, seriously, “At Noma you pretty much learn how to run a restaurant.” I asked her, semi-jokingly, if it teaches you how to open a taco stall. She laughed before answering, emphatically, “Yes.” Given the many new ways people appreciate food – whether from an internationally-acclaimed restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall – all that matters and what earns an enterprise respect is whether or not it’s any good. Traditional signifiers – stars, tablecloths, song-and-dance – of what’s good matter less. The playing field has been levelled and it has liberated highly-qualified professional chefs like Rosio to cook whatever, wherever and however they wish. The way she puts it: “We’re not doing anything less; it’s just a different form of organising.”
Beyond re-connecting to her past and her first memories of tacos and paletas on 26th Street in Chicago, Sanchez has also found a sense of purpose in her new home. Though Copenhagen is now one of the best restaurant cities in the world, it isn’t necessarily one of the best food cities. Sanchez laments the dearth of ethnic food: “Fine dining is covered but there’s no good Thai food, for example,” she says.
It’s in this context that she imagined her own taco stand. And apart from wanting to sate a personal craving – “my fix is now dealt with” – she wanted to “do something that was so lacking and to provide for customers who might come back two or three times a week.” She’s proud of adding something that she says “was needed, and that’s really something that makes me happy.”
Her decision has been wholly vindicated. Since opening in June 2015, after nearly seven years at Noma, she has gained the approval not just of former employers (René, an apparently ever-present influence, encouraged Rosio to open her own taqueria), but of an international milieu of who we might call the world’s best chefs – from Massimo Bottura, to Alex Atala and Daniela Soto-Innes. All have appeared as guest chefs on her stall in the ‘Amigo de Sanchez’ collaboration series. Staying relevant, always learning and having fun. It’s this and the culture of shared knowledge that’s kept Sanchez in Copenhagen.
That’s not to say she’s sitting still. I spoke to Rosio from Tulum, where she’s on a research trip – “deciding how many ovens we need” – for the Noma Mexico pop-up which will open there in April. “Right now, rejoining and collaborating with my old team, I feel really lucky,” she says.To be in Mexico, steering one of the most influential chefs in a generation might seem like a career pinnacle. The sense with Rosio, though, is that there’s much more to come.