Updated September 10, 2022 - 1:52 pm
For chefs, the kitchen wounds: knife slips, hot pans, scalding liquids, back strains. For Stephanie Sandfrey, executive sous chef of Jaleo, the Spanish restaurant in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas by celebrated chef José Andrés, there is another hazard, small but mighty: splinters.
“We use live wood in the paella pit, so when you put wood under the pans, you get splinters. You get them under your nails. It’s orange wood, it’s very dry, and it comes apart pretty easily,” the chef explained.
Before dinner service at Jaleo, the paella pit is prepared. Fat cloth bags of paella rice squat on a shelf at the edge of the pit. Alongside sit small hotel pans filled with oyster-cremini mix, and with thick house tomato paste fashioned using nora peppers and garlic.
Paella pans are elevated on three-legged stands; small woodpiles burn beneath, fragrant with the orange of paella’s native Valencia. The wood is deployed partly for the fragrance, the chef said, and partly because it’s ideal for cooking paella.
“It burns so quickly. It comes to heat real fast, and it doesn’t leave big coals,” Sandfrey said.
She could leave her cooks to brave the splinters, but no, there she is at the woodpile, her surround-sound approach to Jaleo encompassing splinters and scheduling, deliveries and kitchen towels, hiring and new ingredients and the task of representing the food of one of the planet’s top chefs.
She is a long way from frosting cakes at Walmart.
New on the menu
Sandfrey came aboard at Jaleo in 2014. Five years later, in November 2019, she was named executive sous chef. Five months later, the pandemic began. When restaurants reopened, Sandfrey baked pastries during the day and worked the line at night and ran Jaleo.
“We were in survival mode when COVID hit,” the chef said. “We were doing José classics” — pan con tomate, salmon cones, jamón Serrano — “trying to get people in here.”
Even as Jaleo has emerged from the pandemic, that challenge continues, though in a different way, the chef said.
“People who know José, they come in. But we have a lot of people who have no idea who he is, who are just walking the hotel, looking for a place to come eat. Some people don’t know what Spanish tapas is: They think it’s Mexican food. Our servers have to capture them right off the bat.”
That’s where José classics often come in.
With the recent arrival of Justin DePhillips as executive chef of Jaleo, “we’ll have time to experiment and try new things. We haven’t done a ton of R&D ourselves,” Sandfrey said.
What might that look like?
“Familiar flavors taken a different way,” she said. “People love chorizo and white beans. What can we do with chorizo and white beans? We’re playing around with two different flans. I’ve brought on some new cheeses.”
For anyone even slightly interested in cheese, they’re worth a try. Like Queso Massimo de Rey Silo, a cow’s milk cheese that’s aged four months and wrapped in the remnants of apples pressed for cider (the fruit lending a slight spritziness). Or Pascualete, a sheep’s milk cheese spread on toast with fig jam or membrillo (quince paste), perhaps with some marcona almonds.
“It’s super funky,” the chef said of the cheese, “but it could be eaten as dessert.”
Walmart, celebrities, talent
Sandfrey is 34. Growing up, the chef made tamales with her grandmother. “She’d say, ‘Don’t stop; keep going.’ That is one of my biggest food memories.” A culinary class in high school followed. And before she headed to cooking school, Sandfrey worked for a year and a half at Walmart decorating cakes.
“The cakes come in prepared. The frosting is ready,” she said. “It’s kind of Zen: You’re frosting over and over. I have fond memories of Walmart. I really enjoyed it. I really practiced the technique.”
After cooking school, there were stints at a restaurant in Pasadena, California, and at the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, with celebs coming in through the kitchen and a young Sandfrey on garde-manger doing salads and cold appetizers and pastries.
“It was above what I was ready to do,” the chef said. “I had to learn really quickly how to do this.”
After she joined the José Andrés organization in 2011 (for a gig at The Cosmopolitan’s China Poblano), Sandfrey’s talent and commitment to her craft were recognized.
“I could always tell there was something special about her. In this day and age, a lot of young chefs, they go through school, go through those hoops, they believe they are guaranteed a position, a title. She understood how you have to learn things as you grow,” said Eric Suniga, the executive chef of é by José Andrés, until recently also the executive chef of Jaleo, and a mentor to Sandfrey.
She was accepted into CIT, the organization’s Chef in Training program; after completion, she was hired as a sous chef at Jaleo.
“And here we are today,” Suniga said. “Some people either have it or they don’t. They do the best at whatever they may be doing. That is something she has within herself; we didn’t make that happen.”
The menu at Jaleo includes what Sandfrey calls sleepers — outstanding dishes customers might not always consider but should. There is an endivias (endive) salad with goat cheese, orange segments, almonds and roasted garlic dressing. “It has everything,” the chef said. “It’s soft, it’s creamy, it’s sweet, it’s crunchy.”
There is Berenjenas Fritas a la Malagueña, the classic union of fried eggplant and honey served across Andalusia. Eggplant slices are soaked in milk to remove the bitterness, dredged in flour, fried, then drizzled with honey, sprinkled with salt and spiked with lemon zest. The honey brings out the salt, the chef said.
And then there is Lubina a la Donostiarra, a whole grilled Spanish sea bass in the style of Donostia, in the Spanish Basque country. “The dressing is the most exciting part,” Sandfrey said. The dressing blends gelatin leeched from the fish bones with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic.
Other dishes, perhaps not quite sleepers, worth ordering include Gambas gabardinas, battered shrimp skewers now with the fatter Argentinean shrimp used at other Jaleos, and vieiras (scallops) now with raisins and pine nuts for fall.
Sharing a vision
Cooking at a restaurant headlined by a celebrated chef creates a distinctive experience for Sandfrey.
“The judge of all judges is there,” Suniga, the é executive chef, said of José Andrés. “He is the spokesperson for regional Spanish cuisine. You don’t want to mess it up. That pressure is relieved over time with more knowledge that you gain — ingredients in the dish or the story behind the dish — but I wouldn’t say the pressure ever goes away.”
And then there is the challenge, known to chefs the world over, of balancing the desire to develop a culinary identity while also cooking what is ultimately someone else’s food.
Sandfrey said she took that challenge as a source of inspiration. “Famous chefs need people who can share their vision. I love helping people’s vision come through.”
And if that means splinters, so be it.