"It's a Breton. It's my favorite cookie, comes from Brittany. I thought I'd make strawberry basil tarts today." He looked down at my plate. Only crumbs and a few smears of pastry cream remained.
Chef Otto Sanchez walked out of the wine room and back into the kitchen. He had prepped hard that morning so he could afford to sit down with the Houston Press mid-afternoon.
I knew he was busy and promised him this would take 20 minutes. An hour later and I hadn't asked a single question, none seemed relevant, all surface inquiries I thought might apply to the widely regarded best baker in town.
"Am I talking too much?" He looked up during the interview. I didn't want it to end. For a cook, they were bedtime stories, almost unbelievable the way he had existed and learned alongside those most of us have only seen smiling up from coffee tables.
"I don't call myself a baker, my friends would make fun of me if I did," he smiled. "At the end of the day, I'm just a grown man making cookies." I guess he's right, but if you find yourself in the middle of a tug of war between the Ducasse and Robuchon houses you're a little bit more than that.
The El Salvador native, predominately trained in French kitchens, speaks in the same flourished tone if not marked with a touch South American flair. The Houston Press listened as he spoke.
Otto Sanchez: "I honestly want to give people the best. But also, sometimes they want their white baguette. We're supposed to be eating them golden, dark, crunchy. This is how they're intended to be, that's how I learned.
"I worked for [Alain] Ducasse in Vegas. One day, he was having lunch with all of the big dogs of MGM. They said, 'You guys spend a lot of money and labor on baking bread. We think that you could buy it from this bakery and it would be just as good.' He told them, 'Okay, really, so come to lunch tomorrow.'
"He went and told my chef, 'You guys are going to make bread tomorrow and it's going to be fucking perfect, and serve it for lunch, give me as many breads as you want, just make sure it's perfect.' So [my chef] told me, "All right, you're the bread guy, tomorrow you have to bake for all these big wigs.' I was fucking shitting my pants, right? Because it's Ducasse.
"I go to work early, start my prep, making my baguettes, all the bread was coming out of the oven at 11:45. It was beautiful. I went out and presented them and Mr. Ducasse was very happy. They were blown away. He came back and told us that he told them, "Don't ever ask me to buy bread, because your bakers will never be as good as my bakers.'
"Right after that he came back and said to us, 'Why the fuck would you serve me hot bread?' And I'm like, 'Uhh, what?' He said, 'It was hot. Why?" I said, "well, because it's fresh?" He said, "you don't fucking eat hot bread?!?' And I was thinking wait, what am I missing here. Here is my education, here is how you learn these things. So, I get pulled aside.
"Technically you're not supposed to eat bread right out of the oven. Because, think about it. We had this awesome butter from the cows of the Prince of Monaco. (Because Ducasse really gets his butter from there.) So, let's pretend you have this fucking mountain of butter, handmade, gorgeous and it's shaved to order. And you put this butter on top of hot bread and it melts. Are you going to taste the butter? You're never going to taste the real butter if you let it melt, so real bread shouldn't be eaten warm in order to maintain the structure of the butter."
HP: Oh. (Pause.)
OS: You motherfuckers (to the French.) You got it all figured out. So everywhere I go, I always judge people by how they serve their bread, and that sets the tone for me. And I don't expect people to know that because, again, it's stuff you're never going to learn. Those are things that I learned that you could never learn outside of that environment.
That's what I love about it. People can talk shit about the French, and it's true a lot of them are difficult, but I never worked with people who were so driven to please their customers. That's why I like what I do, because it's so technical. Something as simple as butter and bread. I could live on that.
I want to buy the best oven's money can buy, the best proofers money can buy, because that's how you make great bread. Those are the lengths we go to, to make sure that it's the best. The best technique and the best equipment.
That's the other thing I learned from the French. You can be as good as you want, but if you have a shitty oven, you don't have a steam-injected, really good oven, you're not going anywhere. I know it's very anal, but that's how I am, that's how I was trained. When bread comes out of an oven, it goes on a rack. Let it air dry, don't let the steam go back in it.
It becomes second nature to you to think, the water has to be a certain temperature and the flour has to be the same temperature. We have a formula we use for bread; the temperature of water, the temperature of the flour, the temperature of the environment. You use that to get to a magic number. That's how you make perfect bread.
The more we know the more we like it and we won't cringe at paying three dollars for a baguette. We want to give people the best they can possibly have, because that's what makes us happy.
OS: Is bread.
OS: Bread, right? I know it's just bread, but it's bread (said with emphasis.)
HP: Really quick, I want to ask you a few questions about your background, I know you're from El Salvador, and you came here for journalism school?
OS: Well, I went to high school here (The United States), and my intention was to go to college. I lived in El Paso.
HP: What high school did you go to? When did you live there?
OS: 91'-92'. El Paso High School.
HP: Is that the Eastside?
OS: It's downtown. Yeah, yeah eastside. Then I moved here in 93'. Then I left in 2005 and went to Vegas, that's when I worked for Ducasse. The best three years of my career was at Ducasse. I learned a shit ton because of the exposure, the people I was working for, money was never an object. It was the dream job.
Then I moved to Napa Valley, helped open a boutique hotel. The guy who was the ex-sous at Ducasse and also ex chef de cuisine at Per Se opened it. That was 2008, 2009, I was there for about a year. We had a really nice group of people.
HP: What was that called?
OS: It was called Bardessono. Like, two blocks from the [French] Laundry. After a year, Bardessono couldn't afford to keep us all there, so I moved back to Texas. I knew all the people from Guy Savoy, Robuchon, we all hung out together. Because when you hang out with the French, they are all one group. So, the chef from Robuchon was trying to get me, but it never happened, there was never a position open. Then he called me and said, I have something for you now. So, I moved back to Vegas. Worked there for about a year.
Then I got this job offer in Half Moon Bay, at the Ritz Carlton, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. I lived there for about two and a half years, and then we decided we wanted to move abroad. A good friend of mine, living in Dubai, told me there is an assistant pastry chef job opening at the Burj [Al Arab.] We knew a lot of the same Ducasse people. It's like family. So, he offered me the job. I put in my two weeks, we came back to Texas and...
HP: Is this you and Krissy?
OS: Yeah, so that's where we met, at the Half Moon Bay. She was a front office manager and I was a pastry chef and we started at the same time. When we decided to move to Dubai, we had to get married because you can't be shacking up in a Muslim country. It's against the law.
OS: Well, we thought. It's all craziness in Dubai. They call it the Vegas of the Middle East, but it's nowhere near Vegas.
HP: Like, half the sin?
OS: Yeah, not even. For a Middle Eastern city there's a lot though. There's gay bars that are all underground. A lot of prostitution, a lot of clubs, but nowhere near the level of Vegas. Because of family, we had to move back to the U.S. Otherwise we'd be in some small town in Vietnam or something. That was 2014.
I thought that I would come back and make a difference. I'm from here, I wasn't born here obviously, but I've lived most of my life in this town. I've always considered this home. I tell my wife, "I know it's not Napa, it's not San Francisco, but there is something about Houston that I like."
Sanchez stumbled upon La Table and discovered owner Alex Gaudelet had worked at the MGM at the same time as him. He was the VP of food and beverage.
OS: I knew he was opening something here, it's not Robuchon related, but I knew it would have that level of service and food. The La Table chef was from Robuchon. He would come and help us, a corporate chef you would call it. Gaudelet told me, "we want to do this, we want to do that." It was ambitious. Once you've worked at that level, you're always sort of chasing that. Mignardises carts, bread baked twice a day. You can't eat great bread at seven p.m. that was baked at seven a.m.
I signed up and started, that was two years ago. We go the extra step. We have a huge staff for Houston standards, we have seven people working in pastry. That's what it takes to do what we do.
If it doesn't look right, throw it away, and if it looks bad, then don't use it. I'd rather you throw it away than give me something that's not good. It's hard for you to pound that into people's heads. To train people to learn that mentality is extremely hard, it's the hardest part of the job.
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SHOW ME HOW
My career really started in 2004 when I worked at Ducasse. I was re-trained, re-wired again.
It's the people that fight cost, the urge to use it anyway, and let's be real, in this town, humidity, all in pursuit of perfection who will raise the bar for Houston cooks, diners, and critics alike. Chef Otto Sanchez can be found baking bread twice a day, among other things at La Table in the Galleria.