Chef Samantha Sanz – A Series of Fortunate Events
Passionate. Talented. Driven. These are just a few words I’d use to describe Samantha (Sam) Sanz, chef du cuisine at the Scottsdale Four Seasons’ highly acclaimed Talavera restaurant. Sam says that it was kind of one fortuitous step after another that lead her to where she is today; and it all started in a small-town restaurant in Nogales, Mexico.
“We all grew up in the restaurant,” she says, referring to her siblings, parents, cousins, and grandparents. “It’s called Trocadero, and has been open for almost 60 years. My grandmother and grandfather founded it when they were younger. As kids, we were running around, and I was always interested in whatever the cooks were making. I’d make gorditas, and I’d help out here and there, but mostly it was, ‘Kids! Get out of here and let us do business.’”
When Sam was 10 years old, she was given the opportunity to actually start helping out in the kitchen—but not the restaurant’s—her family’s. “My dad had really high cholesterol, so my mom told him he was going to eat at home every day, but she was in the restaurant, so she had no time to be there taking care of him. She was like, ‘Sam, you’re hired as a cook.’ So I would cook healthy food for my dad every single day.” Whether it was chicken with mole and rice, or chop suey, the young, aspiring chef took her job seriously, and loved learning under her mother’s tutelage. “I would call my mom and say, ‘Okay, what am I supposed to do for this recipe?’ And she’d say, ‘Chop this; sautee that.’ So that’s when I really started cooking.”
Interestingly enough, Sam’s mother did not want her to pursue cooking as a career. Instead, she envisioned Sam as a lawyer. When she was in her teens, to appease her mother, Sam took a job in the courthouse, but it just wasn’t for her. “I hated it,” Sam shakes her head. “My mom sent me to the courthouse thinking maybe I would get into it, but, No—no way. I’ve always been super creative; I’ve always had my projects. I was like, ‘I can’t be microfiching files all day.’”
In 2008 she moved to Scottsdale and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu (now the Scottsdale Culinary Institute), and flourished. She was finally, actively pursuing her passion. Not only that, but she was good. Being immersed in the restaurant business all her life, learning to cook young, and displaying focus and drive, she soon became one of the stand-out students. So much so, that when Elements restaurant (at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort) asked Le Cordon Bleu for some kitchen help during Super Bowl weekend, it was Sam they sent.
“It was the craziest experience of my life,” she recalls. “I can still remember it—vividly—because it was the first time I was exposed to a professional kitchen outside the kitchens at the [culinary] school, and those are pretty, compared to how a real restaurant is. There were people running everywhere; it was chaos.” She prepped and hustled all day, and amazingly, at the end of it, executive chef Beau MacMillan (of Food Network Star fame) offered her a job at the restaurant.
Sam’s three years at Elements provided valuable experience and some necessary toughening up, and as with most young cooks, she had to work her way up. “I started working there at a really low level—pantry, salads—and my goal was to conquer it so that I could be in the hot line right away, because I would see the guys in the hot line and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how they do this! It’s so amazing.’” Three months later, Sam was working the hot line. “I was setting myself goals like, in this much time I’m going to work at this station; in this much time I’m going to work at that station; in three years I’m going to be a cook 1 (senior cook).”
Sam admits that she was bullied frequently, and would often go home after a shift and cry. “I was 18 at this time. I was a really young girl, from a different country, and English is my second language—I was not as comfortable speaking English as I am now, and I was now exposed to something completely different from what I’d experienced before. The other cooks saw that I was talented, so they wanted to make sure I had a tough skin. The guys were mean to me, but at the same time they would teach me.” One even pulled her aside eventually to tell her that the cooks saw her potential, and wanted her to be able to make it other places. By the time Sam left Elements, three years later, her bullying days were over, and she had indeed risen to the level of cook 1.
It was at this time that Sam decided she needed to do some soul searching. “After I left Elements, I didn’t know what to do anymore, because I was seeing my friends post pictures on Facebook of them partying, traveling—college-years stuff—and I was just working all the time. So I was kind of in a dark spot; I felt like a hamster in a wheel, and that’s when I decided to sell everything and move to Paris.”
Sam had been to Europe before; for her quinceañera in fact, and says she fell in love with it. “I always set myself goals, and I told myself that at some point in my life I was going to live in Europe.” The experience almost proved to be something you’d see in a movie: young, discontented girl sells everything and moves to Paris; becomes a nanny; wanders through beautiful markets; meets exciting new people; eventually finds her joy re-kindled.
“I lived there for a year,” Sam says, “and I fell in love with food again. How could I not in Paris? It’s the purest and rawest form of food, and it’s delicious. I learned that simplicity is the key. I would go into the markets and see the beautiful, fresh produce and the bread and cheese. Plus, I was cooking for the kids every day, and my goal was to make them eat healthier. When I got there they were only eating chopped tomatoes with olive oil, plain pasta, and a piece of cold ham. Eventually I got them to eat vegetables; so I was taking care of my boys. It was a super cool experience to find myself.”
When Sam returned to Phoenix, she was welcomed back to Elements at the Sanctuary and they soon promoted her to supervisor. It gave her a new perspective on the running of a restaurant, and provided interesting and useful information, but her heart was in the kitchen. She wanted to be cooking. She started to feel restless again.
It was at this time that a cook-friend reached out to Sam to ask for help with a complicated menu she was to master at Virtù Honest Craft, in Scottsdale. “She showed me the menu, and a lot of it was in Italian, and it looked so cool and different—like nothing I had seen before here in Phoenix.” Sam was eager to try the food, and was excited when she was invited to a ‘Friends and Family’ night at the restaurant. The event brought in mass crowds; so much so, that unfortunately, according to Sam, the food suffered. She told herself that she’d give the place another try after about a month, because she could see that the kitchen was understaffed, and understood that they weren’t able to do their best that night.
Sam would indeed return to the restaurant soon; but not as a patron, as a cook. The day after her dining experience, the friend she’d helped with the menu contacted Sam and asked her if she’d like a job at Virtù. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I want right now’. But she gave me the chef’s number, so I contacted him.” She and executive chef Gio Osso got to talking and formed an immediate connection.
“He offered me the position and said, ‘I want to hire you as my cook, but when more cooks come in, you’re going to be one of my sous chefs.’” Sam was shocked and delighted that she would be offered a sous chef position at such a cool, upcoming restaurant, especially with her still being relatively new to the industry. “I went all-in,” she recalls. “We were changing the menu all the time, and then at some point Howard Seftel (renowned restaurant critic) came in and gave us a great review and they put us into Esquire Magazine’s ‘Best New Restaurants’ in America.”
The achievement was amazing for the restaurant, but not so much for Sam. “After that we started getting so busy. Everything changed. It wasn’t as food-driven—more, ‘Let’s just get it done’. Then we were nominated for a James Beard Award and got even busier. So in a nutshell, Virtù was probably some of the hardest work I ever had to do, because it was such a small restaurant, it became my restaurant too, and I was taking a lot of pride in it, but it felt like I wasn’t feeding my soul there anymore.”
It was hard to part from the restaurant—and from Chef Osso, whom she still considers one of her dear friends and mentors, but she knew that if she couldn’t invest herself in it 100%, it was better for everyone if she moved on.
ANOTHER DOOR OPENS
Once again Sam found herself without a job or a plan, but true to form, the universe was ready to open another door for her. The very same day that she quit Virtù, there was an article in the Arizona Republic about Oaxacan cuisine, written by Mel Mecinas, executive chef at Talavera. The article inspired her. “It was beautiful,” she says. Sam had met the notable chef before, and felt moved to reach out to him. “So I texted him and was like, ‘Hey Chef, just so you know, I’m really proud of who you are; you’re Mexican, you started as a dish washer, and now you’re executive chef at the Four Seasons—that’s amazing. You’re a hero.’”
Ever the determined one, Sam asked Chef Mecinas for a position in his kitchen. “My intention was as a cook, but the next day, he told me that the chef de cuisine position had just opened up, and he wanted me to apply.” It was the biggest opportunity of her career, and keep in mind, she was only 26 years old. Sam actually holds the title as the youngest female chef du cuisine currently working at any North American Four Seasons properties.
The application process was rigorous, involving multiple food tastings and interviews. “The process took like a month. It was mentally draining. I was like, ‘What’s taking so long?—Pick me! Pick me!’” And, of course, they did. “So I get to the Four Seasons and it’s so many people, so many names, so much information—you’re running a restaurant this big in a property that serves 300 people. It was crazy. I was having headaches every day from information overload. I got a hold of it eventually, and Chef Mel was a great mentor, he taught me a lot.”
“TALAVERA IS YOURS”
A year into her time at Talavera (just last year, in fact), Mecinas pulled Sam aside to share some news. “He invited me to sit with him in Talavera, in the middle of the day, and the sommelier served us both some wine, and Mel said, ‘I think this is going to be a hard conversation for you—I’m leaving Talavera, and it’s yours.’” Sam was both devastated, because she and Mecinas had formed a very strong bond, and honored. The girl who used to be yelled at to get out of the kitchen, was now being given full control of a restaurant at the Four Seasons.
“So I took Talavera and started working on the concept of the menu I wanted to create. What is it? What are we doing with it? And I took a Latin spin on it, drawing from my heritage. It was the first menu that was all mine, and I was so happy. I told the cooks, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and they believed in the concept and were excited about it.”
She wanted to menu to be as aesthetically pleasing as it was delicious. “I try to use as many colors as possible. Colors are exciting, and the plate is your canvas, and I taught that to the cooks. I wanted to give new life to recipes—freshen things up.” Even though Talavera is a steakhouse, Sam loves to incorporate unique specialty dishes, using culinary influences from around the world, whenever she can. “I use a lot of Latin cooking; Spanish, Mediterranean, so it’s a journey of what I’ve learned—who I’ve become. It’s the story of who I am as a chef.”
I knew it was almost silly to ask, but I wondered if she had any specific plans for the future. “Four Seasons has been amazing to me,” says this young, culinary phenom. “I’m really happy here right now, and I’m really growing, and I’m getting a lot of positive feedback. It’s a different stage of my life as a chef. I really want to get it a little more exposure, so I’ll just stay at Talavera until the next thing comes up.”
And I have no doubt that the universe is waiting, hand on the knob, to open that next door for her.