Growing up as the daughter of Mexi-can immigrants on the South Side of Chicago, Rosio Sanchez didn’t set her career goals too high. She certainly didn’t plan on being a leader, much less a chef — even though she discovered a love of cooking at age 13. “I was a pretty quiet kid,” she says, thinking back on the days when she would spend afternoons baking cakes. “I think it was just because I was a fat girl and liked eating desserts.”
Now 33, Sanchez has worked in many of the world’s top kitchens and reigns over three of her own in Copenhagen, where she serves some of the most exciting modern Mexican food in Europe. Along the way, she spent five years with chef René Redzepi and rose to head pastry chef at Noma, the four-time No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Her newest spot, the eponymous sit-down restaurant Sanchez, offers Mexican dishes to a Danish community largely unfamiliar with the cuisine. Locals have descended hungrily in the city’s historic red-light district to try her rich moles and riffs on classics such as a fried cod skin with mussel-gooseberry salsa.
Her prior venues had drawn international attention, too, in part for their kitchens, which were run mostly by women—a choice Sanchez viewed as rather minor.
“When I opened [my first] taqueria, I always thought this was a stupid controversy about women in kitchens,” she says. “It really annoys me.” Rather than get into the broader debate about it, she set out to look for women she liked—and hired them. Her original team was almost entirely female, highly unusual for a kitchen in Europe.
“It got really crazy in the beginning,” she concedes. “It was like, ‘Oh, we need a little mix.’ You need a little balance so people are not killing each other.”
This wasn’t the path her father, who made furniture, and her mother, who juggled jobs, predicted for Sanchez when she was growing up in the working-class neighborhood of La Villita. “My parents were from Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí,” the chef says over coffee at Sanchez. “They moved from Mexico, like every immigrant story, trying to find a better life.”
In her early teens, Sanchez baked for family and friends. “I loved working with my hands,” she says. “I think a lot of that came from my father, because he was in upholstery, and he loved it.”
In person, she comes across as a no-nonsense boss with a frankness that suits her new Nordic home. The morning we talk, light streams through the large windows into the quiet, cold restaurant, which the night before was warm and dark, with youthful diners jammed into every table and seat at the counter. Sanchez, which opened in November, isn’t a particularly inexpensive place: Two of the tacos of the day with hand-pressed tortillas cost 100 kroner ($16.46), and a selection of five plates chosen by the kitchen—such as oysters, panucho, tomato soup with grasshoppers, papas al pastor, and “dirty” carnitas—is 350 kroner. But the small corner restaurant is always booked full several days out.
When I dined there, the oysters came with habañero and sea buckthorn, and the cooks served chicharrón (fried pork skin) with chile de árbol salsa. From the creamy guacamole to a peppery dessert of chocolate and chile paletas (popsicles), the flavors were absolutely authentic.
But the cooking isn’t predictable: The food is refined and inventive, reflecting Sanchez’s experience in modern kitchens around the world. She uses produce imported from Mexico, with local ingredients such as high-quality Danish cheeses and gooseberries, which she subs in for tomatillos in recipes that call for them. One of her signature dishes features Danish potatoes covered in an al pastor sauce normally served on tacos.
In February, Sanchez was invited to introduce some of her specialties—including a breakfast taco with egg yolks cured by her team—for one day at Shake Shack in New York. Diners lined up before the 7:30 a.m. opening, and the tacos were sold out by 9 a.m.
This high-flying career began humbly at Chicago’s Farragut Career Academy. “It was a pretty bad school—you have to watch the metal detectors, like Dangerous Minds—but they also had these vocational programs,” she says. “I went into food service, and I graduated eighth in my class.”
“I always thought this was a stupid controversy about women in kitchens,” Sanchez says. Rather than get into the broader debate about it, she looked for women she liked—and hired them.
Afterward she studied at an outpost of Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and worked for a couple of years there in an unpretentious neighborhood bistro and in catering. Her original plan was to become a culinary teacher, but she found she enjoyed restaurants so much—especially working with desserts—that she moved to New York and got a job at Wd~50 under pastry chef Alex Stupak. After three years in the city, she decided to seek experience traveling across Europe.
She got temporary placements, known as stages in French, at establishments such as the Fat Duck near London and at El Celler de Can Roca in northern Spain. (Both have also won the World’s Best Restaurant title.) She studied under Spaniard Paco Torreblanca, a leading pastry chef. Then, in 2011, a friend working at Noma emailed to say there was a job at the restaurant. Noma’s Redzepi, known as one of the most creative minds in the business, was becoming famous for his plates that use Nordic ingredients and traditions as a starting point for flights of fancy. For Sanchez, it was like getting a call to go on tour with Beyoncé.
“I said yes right away,” she recalls. “I cut my stages short, and I said, ‘Sorry guys, I really need to do this now.’” She’d been looking for a challenge, and the Noma opportunity presented a lot of unknowns. “I didn’t know anything about Denmark, and it was a little hard to begin with,” Sanchez says. “But once I got into it, it was really amazing.” She experimented with flavors and a culture she’d never known, creating unorthodox desserts, including “potato and plums,” a deceptively complex dish of sweetened potato and plums that were pureed, reduced, dried, and turned into foam.
After half a decade, Sanchez yearned to open a place of her own, inspired by Mexican culture. She left in 2015 to open Hija de Sanchez, a taqueria in Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne Market—a destination for foodies that receives 115,000 visitors a week. She added a second, in March 2016, in the city’s Meatpacking District.
But in 2016, the siren call of Noma returned: Redzepi asked her to join him on an adventure. Having already opened pop-ups in Sydney and Tokyo, where he and his team studied local foodways and created dishes with aboriginal ingredients, he told Sanchez: “I think we are going to go to Mexico, and you have to come with us.” She replied, “Yes! Are you kidding?”
She left her restaurants in the care of deputies and joined the group in Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula, where she created desserts such a chili pepper filled with dark chocolate ice cream and grilled avocado with mamey seed oil (which tastes like marzipan). “It was the best fun I have ever had,” she says, finally smiling. “It was like a band coming back together and saying, ‘Let’s make some hits.’ ” Plus, she says, “I have always wanted to actually cook in Mexico.” Her parents didn’t spend time making complex Mexican dishes such as mole at home, but throughout her career, Sanchez keeps finding her way back to the flavors of her childhood.
“There’s a certain soup that reminds me of my mom, because she always made it,” she says. “And I know the feeling of it: I can sense when it needs a little bit more oregano. I feel very grateful to have experienced that by growing up in a community that really holds on to their culture.”
By opening her restaurants in Copenhagen, half a world away from Chicago, Sanchez hopes to bring that sense of home to her adopted milieu. “I do have that connection,” she says, where Mexican food “touches you a little bit in the heart.”