For many people, 2016 will be a year to forget. But for a young chef in New York City it was a one to savour. Daniela (Dani) Soto-Innes, 25-year-old chef de cuisine of modern Mexican restaurant Cosme, in the Flatiron district, was given the prestigious James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year just eighteen months after opening with her longtime mentor and collaborator Enrique Olvera. The restaurant, which fuses Mexican dry ingredients – corn, beans and chillies – and great local products, also entered the world’s top 100 for the first time.
They are the kind of accolades that not only dramatically raise a chef’s profile but the formal cachet attached to it invites a new level of scrutiny. Suddenly the world is watching. But, for a relentless learner like Dani, the award (and accompanying status) is met with a mixture of shock, pride and polite indifference. “A lot more people know who I am now but that just helps reinforce to me that I can’t stop – I’ve got to keep getting better. Prizes don’t mean anything,” she says. On learning that she had been nominated, she arrived at the ceremony with a small bottle
of mezcal, ready to cheer on her friends, never expecting her own name to be called out. When it was, she recalls thinking “I’m not going up there! I so wasn’t expecting it to be me.”
In the time it takes to speak about the effect the award has had on her career in the six months since, she demonstrates the focus that marks out those who reach the top of their profession. She says that more than awards, what matters to her is, “how happy my staff are, how full the restaurant is and how good our food is.” If an award has a positive effect on any of those things, then great, but that “if it changes you [regardless], then that’s stupid.”
Even if that’s a PR-prepared answer that intentionally conceals the recognition of its importance, it’s an answer that matches the facile line of questioning that inevitably follows a high-profile award, and the sudden interest in an apparently new talent. Dani Soto-Innes is justified in thinking that there’s much more to her than merely the current James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Born in Mexico City in 1991, with a move to Texas at the age of 12, by 15 she had her first professional role in a kitchen at the Woodlands Waterway Marriot Hotel. At 18 Dani enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin. But food and cooking has always been an important part of her life, both culturally and among her immediate family. “Food culture is so strong in Mexico: the trucks, the restaurants…” she says, “you can’t avoid it!” Though her mum, who had designs on becoming a chef, became a lawyer, there was a strong tradition of working professionally in food in the family. Her great grandmother had a cookery school in Italy, while her grandmother managed a bakery. Dani felt an affinity for the craft and at Montessori school – “where they focus on kids’ creativity rather than grades” – a cookery class was created especially for her – an enthusiastic, budding young cook. She’d been taking extra curricular cookery classes since the age of five.
Even though she’s now just 25, and despite her insistence that “she doesn’t know anything”, ‘budding’ is no longer an apt adjective. ‘Enthusiastic’, however, is. She’s indefatigable in the kitchen and in her million-miles-per-hour potted autobiography on the phone. It’s not hard to imagine the same zeal and infectious passion – together with loyalty and integrity – underpinning the familial spirit and high achievement in Cosme’s basement kitchen.
“I have a lot of energy,” she says. It has meant that she has found the leadership and managerial business of kitchens a challenge, initially. “I need to keep myself busy and I wanted to have my butt kicked – I needed more.” She was referring to the time, after her first sous-chef role at 20 or 21 at Triniti and later, under her first mentor Chris Shepherd at Underbelly, both in Houston, Texas. There she learnt how to cook, about provenance, and also whole animal butchery. But “starting at 5am and finishing at 2am, I always found myself in the shit and quickly realised I didn’t know how to delegate,” she says, ingenuously.
Perhaps realising that, a victim of her own success, she’d risen too rapidly, she wanted to go back to being told what to do, and so decided to write to people she admired. One of them was Mexico’s leading chef, Enrique Olvera, then with his sole, now his flagship restaurant, Pujol, in Mexico City. (At the time, it was the third highest-ranked restaurant on “Latin America’s 50 Best” list.) To Dani’s surprise he wrote back the following day with an invitation to take a stage at the restaurant. She intended to stay for the weekend but was there for six months. “We got on really well,” she says. Well enough for him to give her the opportunity to open his restaurant in New York in 2014, a project in which they’re effectively partners.
She’s got to grips with running the kitchen now too, albeit in her own way. Keeping morale high when doing 300 covers a day is a priority. There’s an eclectic playlist to keep spirits up: “We have plenty of good jams – Reggaeton, ’80s, ’70s, hip-hop, a little Madonna, some Journey, and they hate it at the end of the night when I play Pink Floyd,” she says, laughing. But the key? “Stretches and squats, pre-service. If I have weak cooks, they won’t be fast,” she says. “I make them sweat. Are you kidding me? How am I gonna make this the slickest kitchen in NYC?! We’re such a strong family that when you come to Cosme it feels like my home, not a restaurant.”
At the end of the next American Presidential term, Dani won’t yet be 30-years-old. The challenges facing a young Mexican woman have been made all too clear, but she’s thrived in an industry once characterised by macho culture through purity of purpose, appetite to learn, and a warm-spirited embrace of togetherness. This inspiring young leader can be an example to all.
DANI IN SHORT
Favourite dish: Tacos, any kind, or quesadillas
Favourite drink: mezcal, tecate or gin and tonic
Most memorable meal: Osso, Peru
Chef you admire most: Pascal Barbot (L’Astrance, Paris)
Guilty pleasure: Chocolate ice cream
DANI’S GUIDE TO NYC
• Lilia, Italian – Williamsburg, Brooklyn, lilianewyork.com
• Vanessa’s, Dumplings – various, Brooklyn, vanessas.com
• Los Tacos No.1, Tacos – Chelsea, Manhattan, lostacos1.com
• Uncle Boons, Thai – Nolita, Manhattan, uncleboons.com
• Nomad, By Daniel Humm – Nomad, Manhattan, thenomadhotel.com