Dining at Cosme is an experience that proves simplicity is key. The dishes are undeniably rooted in Mexican tradition, yet inventive and reflective of their New York City backdrop. The dining room is upscale and modern, yet minimal and comfortable. The ingredients are sourced locally with only a handful appearing on each plate, but deep flavors tell a story of thoughtful execution. Since opening its doors two years ago, Cosme has earned a long list of awards and stellar reviews (along with a visit from President Obama), and the only thing they're lacking is what you'd expect to see with such success: ego. We saw this as we spent an afternoon trailing Cosme's 26-year old chef de cuisine, Daniela Soto-Innes. Despite being named this year's James Beard Rising Star Chef, she is as down-to-earth as can be, and brims with love and appreciation for everyone in her kitchen. While dodging flames and skillets of ducks, we learned about how Daniela helped build one of New York City's best restaurants, how her childhood memories in Mexico City inspired Cosme's most popular dishes, and her philosophies on being a good chef both in and out of the kitchen.
We'd love to hear about how you got involved with Cosme from the start - how did you wind up here?
About four and a half years ago, I was working for Chris Shepherd in Houston, and I felt like I needed to try something new. That didn't necessarily mean making more money or becoming a chef somewhere else – I just wanted to get my butt kicked. My mother suggested I write to someone I really, really admire and who I thought might be impossible to work for. Growing up in Mexico City, we'd go to this amazing restaurant, Pujol, owned by Enrique Olvera – so he was the first person I thought of. I thought he'd never write me back, but he wrote me back the next day, and said I could come hang out at Pujol whenever. I really loved my job with Chris and wasn't ready to leave yet, so I decided that a weekend stage in Mexico would be perfect. Going back to Mexico City to cook was so exciting for me because I'd never worked in a Mexican kitchen before. My heart was so happy, and I felt like a little kid in a candy store while I was there. When the weekend was over, Enrique insisted that I stay longer. I called Chris to let him know I was staying, and that weekend turned into five months. I had to go back to Houston (U.S. citizens can't stay longer than six months at a time) but I eventually returned to Pujol for a second stint. After six months, I had to tell Enrique I was leaving again. But this time, he told me that he was starting a new project in New York, and he wanted me to be in charge of it. That’s how I found out about Cosme – literally on my last day at Pujol. Then everything happened really fast. The following week, I was standing here, looking at a sign that said, “Gentleman’s Dance Club Cabaret”. This used to be a strip club. There were booths everywhere, but there were no walls, no ceilings – nothing. It was insane. The investors, Enrique, and I all had different backgrounds, but we understood what we liked from the U.S., and we understood what we liked from Mexico. It was a very cool match. We were so excited to do something different in New York City.
How did the menu develop?
The menu has changed so many times from the beginning. At first, we wanted to make it like Pujol, but that didn't happen. We started listening to people around us and seeing what was available at the markets. The menu started developing in a way that yes, it’s Mexican food, but it’s contemporary Mexican food in New York City. You can't replicate the dishes that you'd do in Mexico because you just don't have the same product. We created our own identity, but we evolve with whatever product we have around us. Our roots will always be Mexican.
We notice you use only two types of bowls and plates at Cosme. What's the philosophy behind that?
Less is more. In the beginning, I thought we should have more plates in all different shapes and sizes, but then we realized we're cooking for 300 people a night. Which is awesome, but we realized that the less we have to work with, the more we can focus on the food. So we just have two types of bowls: one small and one big. We have two types of plates: one small and one big. Don’t get me wrong, I love plates, but we believe simplicity is key. We don't want to be focusing on plating 35 things. It's more about the sauces. Our sauces can take a whole day to make. Our mole takes two days to make. We're about the process, and the thought that goes into each dish. It's like relaxing on your day off – when you have a really simple day, you’re the happiest and most comfortable. We want people to feel the same way about our food. Less is more.
You're responsible for both of Cosme's iconic dishes that we see all over Instagram – the duck carnitas and the corn husk meringue. What was the inspiration behind those dishes?
I’m really into whole animals because of the time I spent in Texas, and because of Chef Chris, so at first I just brought ducks in for fun and for the staff. I sent Enrique a picture of all these ducks hanging off a rack – he always answers me back with either a “Boo" or a "Pro” – and he said "Pro!". I decided I'd use them to make duck carnitas for family meal. Enrique’s wife, Allegra, came in for dinner later that night and we had an extra duck leftover from the meal. I love cast-irons, so I served it to her in a sizzling hot cast-iron at the table, medieval-style. It was just duck topped with a Mexican salad – a lot of our dishes use a salad of onions, cilantro and serrano peppers. That’s like our garden. Anyway, Allegra called me over to their table and told me it was the best thing she had all night. And then Enrique said, “Soto. We must put this on the menu." It turned out to be the best-worst idea because now our walk-in is filled with ducks. I mean, it's New York City! Our walk-in is not big. It was really funny – we bickered a lot over what to do with the ducks, but they’re like our babies now. And people went crazy over them. We started off selling five ducks a night, then ten, then thirty... and now we're doing sixty to seventy ducks a night. It’s insane.
Daniela prepares the duck carnitas, the most popular dish on Cosme's menu. They are served with a basket of warm housemade tortillas and two types of salsa – a salsa verde and a salsa de arbol.
As for the meringue, I have the biggest sweet tooth. When Enrique had us go back to Mexico City to do some recipe testing at Pujol, all I could think of doing was a freakin' meringue. When I was growing up in Mexico City, my parents were really busy lawyers and there would be times when my father forget to pick me and my sisters up from school, for like two or three hours. To make it up to us, he'd bring a whole bag of meringues stuffed with whipped cream from a local bakery. So we'd come home late with a full bag of meringues each, all smashed up, but we had to wait till after dinner to eat them. And for dinner, my mom would make my favorite soup – with sweet corn, onions, garlic, and milk. Just a simple corn soup. Combining the ingredients of the meringue and corn soup – without the garlic and onions, of course – created a dish that represents my parents and my childhood. For me, feeling like a kid again is the most incredible feeling. My mom came when Cosme first opened, and she cried when she ate the meringue. And she’s not a sentimental person at all. My mom is such a good cook, so I was super nervous for her to try my food. But she loved it.
Daniela prepares Cosme's signature dessert – a corn husk meringue filled with burnt vanilla cream and sweet corn mascarpone mousse.
What's your favorite item on the menu?
Any dessert. Especially whenever I’m stressed… I love ice cream. I also love the raw fish with the finger limes. They're like Pop Rocks, they just burst in your mouth. The lobster is really good too. It’s just raw lobster with ginger. We focus on the product. We respect product so much and we believe we shouldn’t do much to it.
Daniela prepares a dish of raw wild striped bass from Montauk, with poblano, finger limes, black lime, and avocado. She also plates another personal favorite of hers – lobster served with shiso, ginger mojo, and brown butter. Both are served on large Coupe plates from Heath Ceramics.
Huge congrats on being named the James Beard Rising Star Chef of 2016! Has that changed you as a chef at all?
Not at all. Just a little more pressure, of course. I feel very grateful and it’s really such an honor, but it doesn’t mean anything to me otherwise. Fame comes and goes in two minutes. I’m still a person, I’m still a cook. Happiness to me is the most important thing. You can win all these awards but you still need to make sure that your staff is happy. I was so happy when I received it, and I got letters from all these really incredible chefs, but the most incredible moment for me was when I came to work and all my cooks hugged me. That was better than receiving any James Beard award. They were just so supportive. I know I'm super young – I'm 26 – but I basically grew up in kitchens and it feels like I've been doing this for such a long time. And I remember being in the kitchen a lot and being scared of the chef – out of respect, obviously, but it can also just be scary. I'm not saying I never get mad. I can be scary too, but I want my cooks to see who I am. That's why I don't wear a chef coat. I just focus on having fun.
What advice can you share to culivate our readers?
To me, the most important thing is using the right purveyor. And focus on what you like, not what you see. A lot of people get inspired by what people are doing on television, and assume that's "the thing" right now. No, the "thing" right now is what you like, not what you see other people doing. It's good to know what's out there, but focus on your own kitchen. Focus on being true to yourself because if not, you’re never going to be a good cook.
It's also useful to Google what vegetables are new. Don't just assume that the vegetables you see on your plate at restaurants are the only ones to know. I’m a huge fan of Dan Barber because he talks about what the latest is with vegetables. I mean, he created a squash! That no one has ever seen before! That's pretty awesome.
Oh, and for enhancing flavor... I love acidity. I love lime. On average, we use 4 limes for every person who comes to Cosme.
The kitchen at Cosme prepares over sixty ducks every night, always served in a sizzling cast-iron skillet and accompanied by David Mellor cutlery.
Kitchen Snapshot – Chef Daniela Soto-Innes
Go-to homemade meal for guests: umm... they cook for me!
Culinary quirk: Every time I go into the kitchen, before I even say hi to anyone, I always steal ice cream from my pastry chef. She'll hear the drawer opening and she knows it's me.
I can't live without: spoons. I’m obsessed. At home, I have a cabinet with five different drawers full of spoons. Every time I travel, I always stop by a vintage shop and buy a bunch of spoons. And I know the story behind each spoon, like who gave it to me or where I got it. Also, ask one of my cooks what happens if they don’t have spoons at their station. I freak out. You should always have like thirty spoons – if you don’t have spoons at your station, that means you’re not tasting the food. The most important thing in the kitchen is to taste your food, and you taste it with a spoon.
I never use: tweezers. I hate tweezers. They're useful for some things, like if you accidentally drop something in a broth and need to take it out. But little tweezers freak me out. I was taught to cook with my hands and a spoon. You don’t pluck a cow with tweezers. It’s not natural.