By the time she was old enough to talk, Daniela Soto-Innes knew she wanted to cook. Growing up in Mexico City, she made frequent visits to the markets with her mother, a ritual which would serve as the framework of her culinary education. Constantly surrounded by women who loved to cook, the passion she developed during her childhood was heavily influenced by her family, instilling in her the ambition to learn and perfect her craft.
As a child, Soto-Innes would often tag along with her mother during her cooking classes. And after realizing her daughter’s strong interest, her mother eventually enrolled her in a class more appropriate for her age. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been around food and the restaurant industry. Growing up, everything revolved around food. I started working in restaurants when I was 14. I’ve always been the youngest person in the kitchen. I come from a competitive family, so it never bothered me. You just have to treat everyone with respect,” Soto-Innes told me.
During her adolescence, she moved to the U.S. And by the time she was 15, she began cooking professionally at a Houston Marriott, a job that not only helped cultivate her skills but taught her how to be mentally tough. After attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas a few years later, she began to explore and travel throughout Europe, learning to make cheese in Switzerland. “I’ve been fortunate enough to travel since I was young. The more places I visit the more I realize how little I know. That’s what keeps me excited, I want to learn. In the kitchen they make fun of me because I have too much energy and I think it’s because of that.” Eventually her path would lead her back to Houston to work under her mentor, Chris Shepherd. During her time at Shepherd’s restaurant Underbelly, Soto-Innes developed proficiency in animal butchery, which ultimately led to a greater sense of confidence and creativity.
Remembering her roots, she eventually realized that she wanted to cook Mexican food, and began writing people she admired, including world-renowned chef Enrique Olvera. After staging at his Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, she found herself in a full-time position. Many consider Pujol to be the best Mexican restaurant in Mexico City, and the restaurant itself would ultimately serve as a ‘stage’ for her to show off what she could do. Olvera would serve as another mentor, and in 2014, when he decided to expand to New York City, he chose Soto-Innes as his chef de cuisine at Cosme, located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Today, at only 25 years old, Soto-Innes finds herself at the head of Cosme’s kitchen, cooking Mexican cuisine just like she always wanted. Since opening, Cosme has garnered praise from food critics and patrons alike. Most recently, Soto-Innes earned the 2016 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, which is basically like winning an Oscar, but in the food industry. In addition to her accolade, the award itself is a reminder that talent should not be measured by gender or age. “I honestly did not think I would get the award. It was very unexpected,” said Soto-Innes. “When I heard it I froze. Since I was little that was one of my goals but I thought I would get it later in life, you know?”
At Cosme, you won’t find chimichangas on the menu or sombreros on the walls, but what you will find is an upscale Mexican restaurant with personality, one that’s indicative of the energetic young chef running the kitchen. Part of Cosme’s success is in the ingredients. Soto-Innes sources ingredients from both Mexican and local markets alike. Cosme’s base ingredients start with dried corn, dried beans, and dried chiles, imported from Mexico. Sourcing produce like chiles from Mexico ensures an authentic, reliable pungency and quality. From there, they work with with local ingredients, sourcing from places like Montauk. Soto-Innes explained, “We cook the way Mexicans have been cooking for a while. In Mexico City, they use whatever they have around them, whatever grows locally around their cities. What we’re doing at Cosme is essentially the same thing. We source some Mexican ingredients but we use what we have around us. It’s like an extension of Mexico here in New York City.”
Like Soto-Innes, the rest of Olvera’s staff is young and full of energy, and so is Cosme’s menu. Soto-Innes often comes up with new dishes and tailors each menu to match what’s in season. Some items however, have become so popular that they simply can’t take them off the menu. The duck carnitas in particular, Soto-Innes’ own twist on a Mexican taqueria entrée which is traditionally made with pork, has become an undeniable hit and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. “We listen to the crowd. When we’re coming up with something new, Enrique [Olvera] and I start with a few key ingredients then we chat about what’s available at the markets. I cook them and if we like them they go on the menu right away,” said Soto-Innes.
With the summer season, Soto-Innes has recently added an assortment of seafood dishes, including soft shell crab made with yellow mole, green papaya salad and lemon verbena, and a tuna tostada made with yuzu, avocado and elderberries. “When I moved to Austin I worked with a chef who was from India and a supervisor who was from Malaysia, it was like a curry fight everyday. I would dip soft shell crab in curry; they thought it was weird but I loved it. Recently, I saw soft shell crab and I thought we should make a curry but with Mexican chiles. It was delicious. Enrique put it on the menu the next day.”
For Soto-Innes, competition is in her blood, but what really drives her is the happiness that goes hand in hand with cooking. “I want people to feel welcomed when they come here. Success is measured by your customers. You have to ask yourself, ‘Are they happy with what you’re doing?’ It’s not something you can measure by numbers. If you’re happy where you are and people are happy around you, that’s success.”