new york city
A passion for cooking has been in Daniela Soto-Innes' family for generations, but it’s her own drive and work ethic that led her to become chef de cuisine at New York’s Cosme at the age of 25. Daniela’s desire to keep learning proves there are no boundaries that can’t be broken.
Where are you originally from?
And how did you get into cooking?
Cooking has always been part of my family. My great grandma went to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school just to learn how to cook. She wasn’t a chef, and she didn’t work at a restaurant. After she studied there, she came back to Mexico. From there, she taught my grandma to cook.
My grandma managed a bakery in Mexico, and so my mother was always around cooking and food, as well. My earliest memories are of me in my grandma's bakery, looking at all the pastries and watching the bakers work.
My mother wanted to be a chef, but her father wanted her to have a more traditional career so she became a lawyer. She always took cooking classes, though, and would take me along with her.
When I entered kindergarten I went to a Montessori school that my mom’s best friend owned. They had so many creative classes, but also had a cooking class. That was always my favorite.
That sounds like an amazing school!
I loved it. It was very simple, of course… putting frosting on cookies and things like that.
When I was in high school, my family moved to Houston and I enrolled in a school that really focused on careers. I was able to enter a culinary program.
Speakers would always come to give talks. I remember a head chef coming to talk to us, and all the things he said were negative. He said if you became a chef you would have no life and not to do it. But we had another chef come through who was amazing; he was so in love with his career. He worked at a hotel in Houston, and after his talk I asked him if I could work for him. Of course, he laughed because I was only 14. After school I kept turning up at his restaurant, begging him to let me work in the kitchen. When I turned 15, they finally let me do an internship. I worked there for 30 hours a week—it was crazy but I loved it so much.
And you were still going to school? That’s a crazy amount of work.
Yes, I was still in school. I was sleeping about three or four hours a night, but I had the energy to do it because I was so inspired. By the time I graduated high school, I had already worked for almost three years in kitchens.
I decided to move to Austin and go to Le Cordon Bleu, but I still kept working before and after school. I worked from 5am to 1pm, class started at 1:30pm, and then I would work again afterwards. I was 18 and living by myself; it was so fun and crazy.
Were your parents supportive of what you were doing?
Super supportive. I know it was sometimes hard for my mom to see me so tired and with burns on my arms and hands, but she knew I really loved what I was doing.
Did you feel like you already knew most of what they taught in cooking school?
Sometimes I did, but it was good because it allowed me to really take advantage and learn faster. The teachers were amazing and really took me under their wing.
Once I graduated, I traveled around Europe asking kitchens if I could stage for a couple of days.
What is staging?
It can be anywhere up to 6 months of working for free in a kitchen, so you can learn and see different ways of working. It was awesome going to different parts of the world and seeing how much you actually don’t know.
I came back to Texas and worked for a little while at a very small restaurant called Mark’s. I wanted to work there for free so I could learn more. I worked in the pastry department.
There was a restaurant called Brennan’s that was really old but had previously burned down and was being reopened. I went in to interview and they kept trying to push me into pastry again. I really didn’t love pastry, but did it for a year, and then I was able to slowly transition into savory.
I ended up doing tasting menus for the chef’s table at Brennan’s. It was a huge restaurant and there was a table for 10 seats. The chef there would take me to his TV show that he did once a week. I was so proud, and was telling my mom all about it. Then I realized that they really took me along because I would say banana “frosties” instead of banana “fosters”.… they made fun of my accent.
I got an opportunity for my first sous-chef job when I was 20. It was such a huge job for me because it was an opening of a very, very beautiful restaurant. It was my first real management position. It was exciting but I was hitting a wall, it was so much work. I worked from 6am to 2am, six days a week. I learned so much, but I wasn’t used to delegating. I didn’t know how to be a boss, I didn’t know how to tell people what to do because I was so young.
You think they’re not going to listen to you…
Right. I would just do everything so I could prove myself. It took me some time to learn that it doesn’t matter how many hours you work, what matters is the job you do.
Yes. Longer hours does not necessarily mean you are doing a better job.
One of my mentors, Chris Shepherd, was opening a restaurant. He asked if I would be part of the team. I didn’t want to leave my current job, but it’s kind of like when you have a good boyfriend but then you find a better one. [Laughs] I wasn’t happy in my current job, I was burned out. And this was a great opportunity to work with someone I really respected, so I quit.
It was amazing at Chris’ restaurant.. We would literally get whole animals: cows, pigs, everything. We did charcuterie, and if you had some part of the pig or some part of the cow in your station, you had to know how to get it out of the animal.
Everything was from the farm. We worked with local farms, so the truck wouldn’t arrive until three hours before the restaurant opened. We only knew the menu on the day of, once the truck arrived. It taught me a lot about creativity, and a lot about speed.
Almost a year into it, I told them, “I am super happy but I feel like I need to grow more." I told the same thing to my mother and she said, “Just write to someone who you admire a lot.” When I lived in Mexico City, we would go to an amazing restaurant called Pujol. My mom suggested I write to the restaurant, and they wrote back the next day!
I told Chris that I would just be going to Mexico City for the weekend, as I thought I would go and stage there.
On my way to Mexico City, I came to New York to do a dinner at the James Beard House. A friend of mine found out I was in New York and he knew Pujol’s chef, Enrique Olvera. He said there was a dinner the following night with Enrique and suggested I stay an extra night and meet him. It was great because I arrived in Mexico City already knowing him.
I was meant to stay in Mexico for the weekend—and I stayed for six months. So I did four months at Pujol and then two months just travelling around. I went back to Houston and worked again with Chris for about six months. I loved it, but at that time I wanted more of a challenge.
You wanted to keep pushing yourself …
Yes. I gave a month’s notice, but I didn’t know what to do. On my last day, Enrique sent me a message that he needed a pastry chef for one of his restaurants. He knew I had done pastries before. I was like, “I would love to go, but not as a pastry chef….”
People keep trying to put you in pastry!
He said unless it was pastry he didn’t have a place for me. But eventually he said to just come to Pujol and they’d find somewhere for me.
So I went back to Pujol, and it was amazing. I just knew it was what I wanted to do, that I wanted to cook Mexican food. The sad thing was, because of my visa I could only stay out of the USA for a maximum of six months, so I had to leave Pujol. I was so sad. I knew I couldn’t come back for a while, and I also couldn’t afford it.
I thought he was going to say, “Peace, good luck.” But he was like, “OK then, next week you move to New York to work in my new restaurant.” It was crazy—that was my dream.
I came to New York when I was 17 on the way to culinary school and asked for jobs. Everybody laughed at me.
You tried to move here and work before?
Four times I tried to move here and work. Things happen for a reason.
So I came to New York on a Monday at 11pm. I had an interview with the investors on a Tuesday at 8am.
The investors of this new restaurant?
The investors are both called Santiago… the Santiagos. I was standing outside where we are talking now, but it didn’t look like this. It was a red sign for a gentleman's club. My heart just dropped. I moved all the way here and it was a strip club! There were stages and poles, and I didn’t even know if the place had a kitchen.
The Santiagos were like, “Don’t worry, we’re going to change everything.” I was nervous, but then I remembered I knew what I was doing. I had worked in restaurants and new places. It was so much to build, though. The place didn’t have ceilings or walls; we didn’t have anything.
For eight months it was the Santiagos and myself here, and Enrique in Mexico. We were running around the city trying to build a restaurant in New York.
My first year in New York I didn’t really cook, but I learned about being a manager and a leader. I would always remember something my dad told me all the time: talent should not be measured by gender.
That’s an amazing thing to hear from your father.
Gender should not even be a subject. I didn’t think about that or my age when I started meeting all the cooks and people working at the restaurant. They were all so excited.
How long ago was that?
Almost two years ago. We opened in October 2014.
Your reviews are amazing. Congratulations!
It’s like a dream come true.
You talk a lot about pushing yourself, so what’s next?
I’m sticking with Enrique for a while. He’s opening new restaurants here and I get to be part of the menu and running them. It’s good.
In the long run, though, I have two projects I want to do. One is a Mexican charcuterie with a beer bar. Then, totally the opposite: a Montessori school for little kids so they can learn how to cook.
That’s a really good idea.
It helped me so much. It’s not about teaching kids knife skills. It’s about what’s behind cooking. Teaching children why it is important to be hospitable, why sharing is important. Little things that help you become a good cook or a good person in a restaurant.
Speaking of teaching, what is the best piece of advice you could give?
Something I tell myself a lot is that everyone in the restaurant is the best at what they do. You should always treat people like they know something that you don’t. People have so many different experiences, when you think you know it all then you really have no idea.
How do you like living in New York after trying to get here so many times?
I love New York so much. There are so many things to do. There’s always a new restaurant. I’m definitely never bored. I love the pace of it. I love how it can be relaxed or it can be very, very fast.
What are some of your favorite places in the city to eat?
One of my favorite bars is The Nomad. I love that place. Lilia just opened also and is so good. Attaboy is fun, but my favorite place ever is Miss Favela.
What does New York mean to you?
Challenge. It’s always pushing you. I admire the talent in New York so much. It’s part admiration, respect and fun.