Now reading Never Say No

Never Say No

How Daniela Soto-Innes learned to cook.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #17: The Breakfast Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

When you sit down to talk to Daniela Soto-Innes, the first thing you will notice is that she does not actually sit down. She rocks on her seat—hovers over it, really—a ball of kinetic energy doing her best to rest for a moment. Her constant motion is as evident in her career as it is in conversation. She has been cooking professionally since she was fifteen, and now, at twenty-five years old, she is the co-chef de cuisine of Cosme, Enrique Olvera’s lauded restaurant in New York. Unlike Pujol, Olvera’s flagship in Mexico City, Cosme is more celebratory than serene—a reflection of the woman running it. —Ryan Healey

I was always the black sheep of the family. I have two older sisters, and they were always the best ones in swimming and school—important things when you’re growing up.

But me, I was with my mom. She was a lawyer in Mexico City and rarely got time off. When she did, she would take cooking classes, because her dream was to be a chef. My mom’s best friend opened a Montessori school, and I was placed in the cooking classes there. From then on, I was always cooking. My sisters would tease me, Oh, she’s making cookies again! On Saturdays and Sundays, they would go play sports and I would cook with my grandma the whole day. Or I would go visit my great-grandma at the bakery she managed and eat cookies. Cooking was in my blood: my earliest memories are of making cakes and making a mess in the process.

I moved to the United States when I was twelve. It was the best thing that ever happened to me; the opportunities here are so much better. When I started high school two years later, I was able to enroll in a cooking program that placed me in the kitchen of the Houston Marriott. I had no idea what I was doing and got in trouble all the time. They asked me to make a cheese plate, and I used an ice cream scoop to make balls of fourme d’Ambert, one of the most expensive cheeses we had. I got yelled at for so long that I locked myself in the freezer and cried. But I learned so much: how to be tough, how to work on the line, how to earn the respect of people who actually know what they’re doing.

From there, I moved to Austin for cooking school and worked for an Indian chef who taught me how to use spices. After that I traveled and apprenticed—staging in New York, making cheese in Switzerland—before coming back to Houston to work for Chris Shepherd at Underbelly. We focused on whole-animal butchery, which was unlike anything I had done before. He taught me to be creative and to think on my own.

I loved working for Chris, but I realized that I wanted to cook Mexican food. My family told me to write to people I admired, so I wrote to Enrique Olvera. I had been to Pujol when I was younger, back when it was more traditional. I had seen the evolution of the restaurant and knew I wanted to be a part of that. When his team said I could come stage, I was so happy.

I went from running the line at Underbelly to making tiny meringues all day for one part of one dessert. I switched from savory to pastry when I started at Pujol, but when the butcher didn’t show up one day, I was like, “I can do it.” The other cooks just kind of laughed—The pastry girl thinks she can do it. That was the turning point for me. Now when I see a challenge and think I should do it, I do it. I take advantage of the situation.

When Enrique sent me to New York to open Cosme, I had a lot of moments of wondering what I had gotten myself into. Building the kitchen, hiring my team, developing the menu—it was all on me to do. Cosme used to be a strip club, and when I got here, the space was still super raw; there were stripper poles everywhere. I remember thinking, Welcome to New York, the land of sharks.

The hardest part was not cooking for nine months while we built the restaurant. I had been cooking since I was fifteen, but stepping back helped me grow into the manager I needed to be. I don’t believe in yelling in the kitchen, though sometimes I have to; I believe in leading by example. When I get into the kitchen, they’re like, If she can go this fast, so can I. It also helps that I’m young. They look at me and they’re like, Shit, if she’s doing it, I can, too.

I still love butchering things. Now, at Cosme, I’ll make a sheet with a drawing of all the different sections of a cow and give it to my cooks and ask them to label them. My thought is, You cook it, so you need to know where it comes from. And it was interesting that so few people knew where the parts of the cow were from. I’m not going to tell them they’re idiots because they don’t know where the shank is—I just expect them to learn.

Of course, there are times when I get mad. My mantra is: Go faster; never have a dirty towel or dirty apron on you; and never say no. Don’t say no. After a while, the cooks start to catch themselves before they say no. And if there’s something on your station that’s not correct, you never blame someone else, even if it’s clearly someone else’s fault. It’s your station. Have ownership over everything.

I also tell my cooks not to try to move up too fast. I’ve had cooks who want to move to the hot line within a month of being on garde manger. I tell them garde manger is the most amazing station in the whole restaurant—it’s all about technique, and it affects so much of what the diner experiences—but I remember when I was younger and felt the same thing. I’ve learned that whenever you think you’re on top and feel like you’ve finally made it, you’re really just getting started. I can run the kitchen here, but if I went to a Thai restaurant, I’d have to start all over again. Getting older—having more opportunities to travel and experience other cuisines—has made me realize how little I actually know.

As we head into our second year at Cosme, we need to keep pushing ourselves. For the first year, we had to get people to recognize this as Mexican food. People either expected burritos and chimichangas or their abuelas’ recipes. But food, like every-thing else, always needs to move forward.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #17: The Breakfast Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!