Mario Sandoval Is The One To Watch In Madrid

Humanes is a gritty little industrial town located 30 km south of Madrid. It's hardly on the tourist route. The guidebooks? Not a chance. But it's here where chef Mario Sandoval has made a huge name for himself at familial Restaurante Coque. He's earned a coveted Michelin star and last week was awarded a National Gastronomy Award, one of the country's highest culinary honors. It's not the type of acclaim that Sandoval's grandparents set out for when they opened the restaurant four decades ago, serving rustic fare prepared in a central hearth that is still used today.

"We define ourselves as a family who loves to do what we do," he tells me in soft-spoken Spanish after I've finished an epic three-and-a-half hour lunch that started in the restaurant's wine cellar, where I plucked sweet and savory canapés from a series of metal sculptures while cava was poured. We then took an elevator to the restaurant's kitchen, where the chef plated a few dishes and showed us that wood-burning oven, which was blistering a suckling pig that we would tear into approximately 85 minutes later. We finished in the upstairs dining room where our meal officially began, taking us through hits like poached turbot and a seafood stew served in a hollowed-out rock. The piglet course to close the meal was one of the best bites I had during my entire time in Spain.

And all of this pageantry — from wine cellar to kitchen to dining room to the den where sherry and platters of desserts were presented — wasn't special treatment for a journalist in the house. (Disclosure: I was driven there by the restaurant's PR representative and was a guest of the house.) This is how a meal at Coque goes down, for all guests. And for €80 (€110 when "harmonized with wine"), by all means make the drive! Or be driven. You can swing the cab fare. While sipping very good coffee, I chatted with Mario about his place in the Spanish culinary universe.

What gets you up in the morning?

I love what we do. I came from generations of parents and grandparents who cooked. We started in gastronomy very low, on the bottom, providing food for people in the countryside and doing very basic catering. Now we are on the top and I never thought we would be here. For us, this is amazing.

What is it like to work in Madrid? Competitive?

In terms of the culinary scene, the impression in the United States is that Madrid does not compare to the Vasco region. But we believe in a few years the cooks of the next generation will be working in Madrid.

Right. In America, we have the perception that Northern Spain is where all the best chefs are. We worship names like Adria and Arzak. Is it really better, or all perception?

When Juan Mari and his daughter founded Arzak in '76, they [aligned] with Nouvelle Cuisine. But the first restaurant to receive three stars in Spain was in Madrid, called Zalacain many years ago. In the North, they had a stronger French influence and there was a stronger relationship and had each other more. There was like a clan of chefs up there who bounced ideas and techniques with one another. Now there is a whole younger generation in the South, for instance Dani García in Andalusia and Quique Dacosta in Valencia are re-balancing it. In 10 years, the regions should be fully balanced culinary wise.

Getting this recognition of one Michelin star, maybe two in the future. Did you ever think this was going to happen to your family venture?

Well, it is good that we are focused, but I think the awards are the rewards for the work and the effort. When we got the first star, we did not feel we were prepared for it. Now we feel that we are ready for the second star.

Let's talk about the concept here, with diners starting in the cellar and then going to the kitchen then the dining room. What inspired you to set up your restaurant like this?

One of the inspirations was when I visited Grant Achatz in Chicago. When I sat down in the restaurant [Alinea], two waiters invited me to the kitchen and prepared me a drink and I felt very special. I had the space and I wanted to make my customers feel as special as the way I did in Chicago. The effort is special for the guest and I want to give them an experience when they come out here.

Is it difficult that your restaurant is a bit isolated from Madrid?

It is a challenge Monday through Friday, while Saturday and Sunday are more normal. The positive is when the guest comes, they are in no rush and have the time to simply come and enjoy the food. It is a destination. The other advantage is that we are close to a garden where we have the food and all the raw materials very close to us on our own farm that would not be possible in Madrid.

Oh, nice, tell me about the garden...

Before we started using the garden, we outsourced our products and did not know where they came from, or their origin. Were they Colombian or from America? We then began to use a research laboratory in Madrid where we brought the seeds of these traditional vegetables to trace back their DNA to see their origins, how they were raised and grown.

You prepared a course that the server called something like "moss crustacean with flowing seaweed." In your words, what are you doing there?

I wanted to recreate a piece of a coral reef here. We love the sea so much and thanks to the markets we have the fantastic opportunity of getting ahold of these fantastic products like fish. It would be even better to give you the sea to look at, but we can't do that.

Are you paying a lot of money for the seafood in Madrid, which is pretty landlocked? Is it more than New York City?