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Chef Stephen Sandoval on “Life in Between Dreams”

Cover Image for Chef Stephen Sandoval on “Life in Between Dreams”
By Sophie Brochu
Posted
Categories:DefaultInterview

Dine at Entre Sueños and you’ll feel as though you’re at an intimate dinner party rubbing elbows with a handful of strangers. Hosted in a modern studio in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, chef Stephen Sandoval, formerly of Leña Brava, invites diners to gather around a 14-seat chef’s table for a meal inspired by the Northern Baja region of Mexico. See what chef Sandoval has to say about his new weekly pop-up dining experience.

Tock: You refer to Entre Sueños as a story of travel, heritage, and personal discovery. What are some ways these elements come together on the plate? Or off the plate?

Sandoval: Early in my career, I was inspired to discover my creative voice as a chef.  With my Mexican, New Orleans, and Spanish roots I was compelled to travel and discover the food from my heritage. I was raised in San Diego, California, and as I began to explore my culinary path, I was drawn to the robust flavors that were emerging across the border in the northern region of Baja, Mexico. The style of food was given the name “Baja-Med.” Chefs were cooking with a sense of freedom, integrating diverse cultural and personal influences that went beyond the border. This inspired my travels as I began working in restaurants throughout Mexico, the United States, South America, and Europe. Entre Sueños is a creative interpretation of this journey and each dish has the purpose of telling a story.  

One will see a combination of my favorite ingredients and techniques from different regions of my travels. From the beverage pairings to the music selected and the style of service, the dinners are truly a reflection of these experiences. Below are a few dishes that tell the stories of my trips to Ensenada as a child, meeting my family from Galicia for the first time, and cooking with the fires of Argentina. 

Mussels en Ancho Escabeche

Smoked sweet potato puree, tijuana street chips, burnt lime powder

Avocado- Green Apple Gazpacho

Heirloom tomato, lemongrass, coconut, serrano, basil

Langoustines “Puerto Nuevo”

Preserved meyer lemon-anchovy butter, chipotle, grilled bread

Tock: You’re working to showcase the atmosphere of Baja’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe. Aside from using specific ingredients, in what ways are you able to utilize atmospheric elements?

Sandoval: The dinner begins with a seafood cart that resembles the stalls typically seen in Ensenada before heading into the Valle de Guadalupe. Once the guests are seated, we bring out small, individual seafood courses followed by a progressive communal feast with show-stopping whole animal preparations and shareable sides. Everything from the music and communal-style dining to the lighting and rustic décor, truly captures the beauty of Mexico’s wine country. Guests are able to join us outside to view seafood and suckling pigs being roasted over the live fires. It is a very different, but genuine experience. 

The event space, RLM Studio, is an amazing place where we were able to capture the vision for this concept. I had the opportunity to work with the owners of this space previously, and this has really been a collaboration and a dream for both of us.  

Tock: You previously worked under Rick Bayless as the executive chef of Leña Brava. What’s the most important lesson you learned from chef Bayless (or any other team member) during this time?

Sandoval: Yes, I actually met chef Rick for the first time on a culinary trip to Ensenada in 2012. I later went on two additional trips with him before the opening of Leña Brava in 2016. Chef Rick shared his passion not only for the food, but the culture, history, ingredients, and techniques of Mexican cuisine. His knowledge and passion is contagious and truly inspired me to look deeper into every aspect of cooking. Chef Rick inspired me to give more than just a dining experience to guests by giving back to the community, working with local farmers, sourcing sustainable products, and creating a family within the restaurant.  

 

“‘In between dreams’ is a place where creativity thrives and subsequent dreams are born.”

Tock: Entre Sueños translates to ‘Between Dreams.’ Can you tell us more about this meaning?

Sandoval:  The name Entre Sueños has more than just one meaning to me—the first and most obvious being that I had recently left my job as an executive chef at Leña Brava, and the dinners represent that I am “in between dreams” until I begin opening my own restaurant. Everything has led to this moment in my professional career and it’s truly exciting.

I also think of the name as a collection of my experiences and travels as they are interpreted from one dream to the next. “In between dreams” is a place where creativity thrives and subsequent dreams are born. I have a love for traditional cuisine, but also a love for wildly expressive work, which is the Entre Sueños experience. It’s a place where there is an underlying respect for the traditional but with no limitations. 

Tock: Is the goal to evolve into a full-fledged restaurant?

Sandoval: Absolutely! That is the dream. I am enjoying these dinners, and I’m not in any rush, but I look forward to beginning the process.  

Tock: What ingredient or dish are you most excited about right now?

Sandoval: It is so hard to choose! We have so many great ingredients from local farms and countries integral to Baja Med cuisine like Mexico and Spain. I am using Kumia oysters from Baja Mexico, Langoustines and Whole Turbot from Spain, and a beautiful suckling pig out of Pennsylvania. Most of all my produce comes from local Midwest farms, which I pick up at the farmers market—like the heirloom tomatoes and corn from Nichols farm, which are outstanding this time of year. I love playing around with fermentation, a technique which I highlight in a chile guero-lime kosho featuring fermented tomato water, lemon verbena-hibiscus kombucha and preserved meyer lemons. The use of wood fire is also a huge part of my culinary approach and a style that is present in most dishes.

“Chef Rick inspired me to give more than just a dining experience to guests by giving back to the community.”

Tock: Anything else you’d like to touch on regarding hospitality, the industry, what you’re working on, etc.?

Sandoval: I am just happy to have this opportunity to be doing something so personal and special coming out of such a tough year.  Everyone in the industry has really come together and showed support for one another. It is during these times of uncertainty that the most beautiful things can happen. 

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