Noah Sandoval, chef owner, Oriole

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th June 2019

Noah Sandoval is the chef owner of Oriole in Chicago. 

The restaurant, owned by the chef and his wife Cara, earned two Michelin stars within a year of opening. Prior to launching Oriole, Noah Sandoval helped earn a Michelin star for the now-closed Senza in East Lakeview. 

We spoke to the chef about how he climbed up the echelons in the kitchen, working alongside David Shannon at l'Opossum, why culinary school wasn't for him, and what more he hopes to achieve at his critically-acclaimed restaurant.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a chef? 

Oriole Capellini2

Rye capellini, yeast butter, truffles

Recipe here

I was about 18. I was working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. I dropped out of high school so I was there just to make money so I could afford my rent. 

It wasn't very serious. I probably would have taken a job pretty much anywhere at that point but I happened to get a dishwasher job because it was easy. You had to work hard but you didn't need a lot of skills. 

But once I got in there and started working, I realised that I was surrounded by really great people. Artists, musicians. 

This was in the mid-nineties so everybody that worked there was an artist or a musician because you could just get the job done as a dishwasher and then go play music or take days off if you wanted to - people in the front of the house could work one or two days and they could go on tour and get people to cover their shifts. 

It's a really creative environment, a really open environment, very fun to be in. It was a natural progression after that.

You started working as a potwasher and you eventually earned a Michelin star for Senza, opened your own restaurant, got two Michelin stars for that. Was there a pivotal moment where everything became serious and you realised that this is what you wanted to do? 

I don't think there was an actual moment. I do remember having a meal at a restaurant that I worked at - I took a night off and I went in. I had a couple of dishes where everything was perfect. The service was perfect, the music was perfect; I realised that that was something that I could do. 

What was the restaurant? 

It was called Dogwood Grill in Richmond Virginia and that inspired me to try to go to culinary school. I went to culinary school in New Orleans for about two weeks and hated it. I don't go to school much. 

Oriole lobster
Lobster

What did you dislike about it? 

They're just taking your money. They're teaching you things so slowly and it's all just so generic. I'd been cooking for about five years at that point and they were trying to teach me what a zucchini was. 

So I was just like: "okay, I can't do this, I'm going to go learn at a restaurant and also get paid." I got lucky with that.

You describe David Shannon as your mentor. What would you say the most valuable lesson he taught you is? 

Oh man, there's a lot. I think the most important thing is that he's very accepting of the individual. He creates a family of individuals. It's a very open, honest relationship with him. 

There's no: "yes, chef, no chef" it's always just - you get your job done, you can do whatever you want as long as everything's perfect. You can dress however you want you can say whatever you want, you can go to work whenever you want as long as your job's done. 

He's the opposite of yelling, degrading bullshit and he has been like that since I was a teenager so he led the way for me. 

The food that you serve is typically described as 'Modern American.' could you

Oriole caviar1
Caviar

give me an idea of what that means and what characterises the food scene in Chicago? 

I think the term modern American means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It just means you can do whatever you want. Japanese food,  French food,  Mexican food, anything. 

I transition between a lot of Japanese flavours and French flavours and techniques and that's what modern American means to me - I think a lot of chefs in the United States are cooking modern American food - Dan Barber at Blue Hill - a lot of people are doing that, maybe not at his level but a lot of people are doing the local farm thing - Smyth here in Chicago is a good example of somebody who's definitely modern American. 

I've been in Chicago for twelve years and I've seen it go from very traditional fine dining where you get your appetiser, your entree and your dessert and those things were done very well. You might be able to get a tasting menu that has five to seven courses on it when I first moved here, and it went from that to a very playful fine dining where it was ten to twenty courses, bold flavours, very modern, modernist approach. 

Alinea, where some of the food doesn't look like food but it tastes like the best thing you've ever eaten. It's a lot of fun and just perfect execution. I think it led the way with that and I saw a change around the country where people were going against that and going more classic, rustic, a little more traditional, a little less pricey. And that was modern American. 

Oriole loup de mer1
'Loup de Mer'

I think every iteration, people will still call it modern American. People are evening out and the people that are good at molecular are doing that, people that are good at classic are doing that and people are following trends a little bit less. 

There have been lots of new Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago in the past

few years. Would you say there's a bigger appetite for fine dining than there used to be? 

There are some restaurant groups that are very successful in Chicago and very good at what they do. They produce very good cooks and very good restaurateurs down the road. I think it's just a result of having more restaurants, having more cooks that are learning. 

Younger people have a little bit more of an idea of exactly what they want to do rather than when I was in my early twenties. 

 I think people are identifying their standards earlier. So I think that's why it's so diverse now. 

What is your objective with Oriole? What experience are you seeking to give to your customers? 

We have a five year lease, renewable to twenty years. My goal is to be here for twenty years. I don't want another place, I could maybe have something on the side but I want to constantly be pushing forward and making the space nicer. 

What's the significance of the name? 

We were having a hard time coming up with the name, my wife and I were considering a couple of different ones and we were watching a Baltimore Orioles game which is a baseball team - that's our hometown - so we looked at it, we typed it up in a couple of different fonts and it looked really cool and we thought: "this is going to be funny," it's not as serious as a lot of names but it  reads nice. 

That's how we wanted the restaurant to be - we have tablecloths, everybody wears suits but we play The Clash - there's a playfulness there. 

Dining room with people

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th June 2019

Noah Sandoval, chef owner, Oriole