Daniela Soto-Innes is an acclaimed chef who has worked at some of the world’s best restaurants. She won the James Beard “Rising Star Chef” award in 2016; and since then, she’s staked her claim as an innovative creative leader, leveraging her world experience and her Mexican heritage to create magical culinary experiences for Texans and New Yorkers alike. Despite wild success at such a young age, Soto-Innes remains focused on learning and collaboration. Her kitchen requires humility for entry, and she has cultivated a leadership style that allows chefs to have fun in an industry that can often be cutthroat. That’s not to say she isn’t tough; she has high standards for excellence, but she’s carved a place to mentor up-and-coming chefs and combined it with an authenticity that can be hard to find these days. We’re honored to feature Daniela Soto-Innes as this month’s mujer.
Talk to us a little bit about your childhood; how you first got interested in cooking, generally, and what elements of food spoke to you growing up.
I grew up in Mexico City, when I was 12 years old I moved to the US and lived in Houston and Austin and started cooking when I was 14 years old. I come from a line of women that love to cook and cook for a living. My great grandma loved to cook, and she was always baking at home. My grandma had a lot of different careers and one of them was baking, and I grew up literally watching her bake. And my mom just loves food and is always cooking in the house, so it was definitely a natural thing for me to cook. Then I went to culinary school in Austin, Texas and traveled a lot and worked under a lot of different chefs. [Eventually,] I moved back to Mexico City and then moved to New York for Mexico City and now I live in Lummi Island.
You talk a lot about becoming a sous chef, being young, and taking on the world one kitchen at a time; but also how you suffered from burnout at that time. Talk to us a bit about that time in your life, how you managed to grow from that experience, and what it taught you about balance.
My first sous chef job was when I was 19 years old in Houston, Texas. I don’t like to say I’ve ever suffered from burnout, I like to say more that I learned from it. I think that when you are young you want to take over [all possible] opportunities. Sometimes when you don’t have the proper mentor to guide you in terms of where you’re going, you burn out, and this is the type of industry where that happens. But, you know, I learn from it, and it’s always like an experience that when something bad happens and something inadvertent, you grow from it and you make sure that it doesn’t happen for the people that work for you. You guide them through the growth process of becoming a manager.
What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn in your career?
The hardest lesson I’ve learned in my career is not being able to spend important moments with my family. In our industry it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time; and you give up important moments with your family.
You talk a lot about creating an energy in the kitchen amongst the team, so people relate to one another beyond just the task at hand. How do you cultivate that and how do you hire for that? What are some ways to determine if someone will be a “fit” in a Soto-Innes Kitchen?
First of all, the most important thing is to get to know the person behind the stove and the knives. For me, it’s about personality. It’s important when somebody comes in, you can tell right away if the person is genuine, and honest and has a smile and is willing to, you know, learn. And that’s the most important thing. Sometimes people that have a lot of experience come with an arrogant attitude and you never have space for growth with people like that because sometimes they don’t want to listen and they want to do it their own way. I think that most importantly, people that [do well here] are those that are experienced and genuine. You know if there is someone without experience, but they are patient and want to learn and are eager to work and be disciplined and also have fun - that is also the type of person that goes to work in one of our kitchens.
Who are some key mentors in your career and what did they teach you?
One of my most important mentors in my career is Chris Shepherd. He’s a chef in Houston, and he taught me so much: how to be a leader and how to make sure that I have time to listen to people and to also be patient.
When something bad happens and something inadvertent, you grow from it and you make sure that it doesn’t happen for the people that work for you.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Europe to learn/train and travel. What other cultures (besides Mexico) have influenced your cooking most?
My cooking is mostly influenced by all of my travels. The culture that is mostly prominent of my cooking is definitely Mexican and then I literally take memories from when I lived in different places. It’s not a specific culture, more of like what’s around me in the moment and I use techniques I learned in my career.
How do you push yourself to innovate while still making things that are crowd pleasers?
I think the crowd pleases by innovation. So, if you stick to yourself and something that is delicious and seasonal, that should be alone a crowd pleaser. You want that crowd that respects the work that you’re doing and innovating with whatever is around them and produce they are familiar with and experiences that are similar to yours and techniques - like corn on the cob - create those flavors with another vegetable or another ingredient and you can still make people smile.
What part of your job is your least favorite? How do you tackle it?
My part of my job that is my least favorite is answering emails [laughs] or computer work. I think all creative people will tell you that. My favorite part of my job is creating and being outside, being next to fire, being next to ingredients and just having fun with them.
Kitchens are notoriously tough environments and very male-dominated. How did you carve your position in such a tough industry and what do you do to mentor other women in the industry today?
You know, people talk about kitchens being a tough environment and it’s one of the toughest ones, but it’s not the toughest one. Every career has environments that are, you know, tough. So, I happen to be in kitchens that yes, are normally male-dominated, but for me, I was very lucky to have male and female mentors that guided me through the most important thing is like, they saw me for my talent, not for you know, not if I were male or woman. For me, when I see a woman in the kitchen, I always want to train them in the same way and guide them through the process. You can be yourself; don’t lose that. The minute you lose yourself you don’t have your own style of cooking. I like to talk them through and explain to them - not only women, but it’s important for younger and older people not to lose themselves.
You can be yourself; don’t lose that. The minute you lose yourself you don’t have your own style of cooking.
Last meal on earth: what do you eat?
One thing I love cooking at home that I would never cook at work is _______.
How do you spend a typical Friday night?
Friday nights are usually different nights, but usually ends with a nice mezcalito
How do you style your Mi Golondrina?
Cool pairs of pants or a nice skirt and boots. I can wear my hair down or up - The pieces are super versatile and I definitely tuck in the shirts or belt the dress with a nice pair of earrings.
I think all creative people will tell you that. My favorite part of my job is creating and being outside, being next to fire, being next to ingredients and just having fun with them.