Sonia El-Nawal of Rooster Boy Cafe: “Have the right staff”

Have the right staff — I have been fortunate to open restaurants in countries from Mexico to France, which taught me so much invaluable information as both a chef and owner. One thing I wish I knew when I first began hiring was to look at my team like a puzzle. You can have 10 people that […]

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Have the right staff — I have been fortunate to open restaurants in countries from Mexico to France, which taught me so much invaluable information as both a chef and owner. One thing I wish I knew when I first began hiring was to look at my team like a puzzle. You can have 10 people that are the best of the best, but if they don’t mesh well, your operation is not going to be successful. I now like to look at someone’s energy to see if they’ll integrate well into my current team.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Sonia El-Nawal.

Sonia, born 1963, of Armenian and Lebanese descent has been climbing the restaurant industry’s ladder and working with its top chefs for nearly 35 years. Nobu, Bond St, Lafayette, Masa’s, Jojo’s, APT, Theo…well, the list of beloved and world recognized hot spot eateries that Sonia has worked with, goes on and on. Food is innate in her, a natural instinct. Since the early 80’s in San Francisco at Masa’s with Chef Julian Serrano and then back to New York at Sign of the Dove, Sonia has been creating divine and visionary desserts. In 1989 she was hired as Pastry Chef at the notable Lafayette under the direction of Jean Georges Vongerichten.

She later made a retreat to Paris to enhance her culinary skills by doing a stage at Fauchon with Pierre Hermee for six months. Soon after, Sonia opened a popular diner, Spoonfull Diner in Belgium where her truly NYC authentic bagels and American favorites delighted the locals and brought ardent worldwide reviews including a cover feature in the New York Times Style section. After her four-year act in Brussels, Sonia returned to the states and landed in Miami as the Executive Pastry Chef at the Delano Hotel, Blue Door restaurant.

In 1996, as Pastry chef at Nobu, her originative desserts garnered rave acclaim. The annual New York Magazine issue, “A Taste of Summer” has often featured her recipes, most recently with “Blackberry Cobbler for Theo” in the 2002 issue. Her innovative tapas “mini desserts” designed for Theo have been the talk of the town and featured in the New York Times, Esquire, Time Out, and New York Magazine. Sonia has also appeared in numerous other venues including Elle Magazine, Home Desserts by Richard Sax and Cook’s Magazine as well as several foreign publications.

In 2003, Ms. El-Nawal moved to Mexico City to work on the opening of Condesa DF, a small boutique hotel in the heart on Condesa.

This beauty of a boutique hotel became one of the hottest locations in Mexico City, and was known for its cuisine, architecture and beauty. Sonia handled the pastry and breads as well as brunch, room service and worked part of a team to run the restaurant. After a year and a half, she was promoted to main chef. She ran the hotel restaurant for another year while working on expanding her culinary horizons.

In 2007, Ms. El-Nawal found herself once again spearheading a fashionable food destination in Mexico City. Condesa DF personally curated gourmet marketplace, which brought a diverse variety of savory prepared foods, baked goods, high-end pastries, cheeses, charcuterie and many more items that Sonia simply loved and shared.

After managing Dumas for several years and developing an enthusiastic star reputation in Mexico City, Sonia was drawn back to the United States and landed in Las Vegas.

In New York City, Ms. El-Nawal is still well known for her sensuous yet cozy desserts, and has a devoted following as a private chef with her catering company Lapin Plus, which highlights her early on cultivated passion for Middle Eastern and Armenian cuisine resulting in delectable tastes of pure love.

Chef Sonia’s latest and absolutely greatest culinary work of art is Rooster Boy Granola — marrying in one place her extraordinary skills as a pastry chef and baker with a deep knowledge of health and nutrition. Only Rooster Boy Granola delivers the combination of taste, texture, eye appeal and just plain good-for-you-ness that reflects Chef Sonia’s “Taste Something Happy” philosophy. So WOW your taste buds with one of Rooster Boy Granola’s exceptional flavor choices: Original, Grain Free, Extra Rich and Low Guilt — and now AIP Friendly and Keto.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I’ve always been in love with food! Even as a child in Lebanon, I was making grape leaves at age eight along with other Middle Eastern dishes. Cooking is not only something I enjoy, but a huge part of my identity. Food allows us to connect on so many different levels and even at age eight, I was addicted to the immediate gratification you receive when you make a meal for someone. There wasn’t a moment I knew I wanted to be a chef, because I never imagined myself being anything different.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I don’t have a specific type of food I focus on, but I do like to keep all of my dishes straight forward, using fresh, organic, and locally sourced ingredients. Growing up, I have always appreciated peasant-style cooking because it’s so simple yet delicious.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I once was catering a lunch for 20 people and was making lamb chops on a grill. I closed the grill and before I knew it, massive flames were coming out! I had no back-ups on me, so these people were either going to eat these on-fire lamb chops or nothing at all. My instincts kicked in and instead of freaking out, I immediately began trimming the meat off each piece, made a thick vinaigrette, and recooked it all. Once lunch was served, everyone kept saying how delicious the lamb chops were and there wasn’t even one left in the end.

This experience taught me that it is important to be able to improvise as a chef and fix any problem, whether it be burnt food or a missing ingredient.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When I first began this journey, I quickly learned that you face many obstacles as a female in this male-dominated industry. Kitchens tend to be very macho and you need to build thick skin and learn to stand your ground. I am happy to see that times are changing though, especially here in Las Vegas.

Most recently, the Women’s Hospitality Initiative was launched here, spearheaded by one of my dear friends, Elizabeth Blau. This incredible group is combating sexism in the kitchen, paving the road for future female chefs.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is to make a dish that you’re also crazy about! I like to serve what I am in the mood to eat. Whether that be based on how I feel, the time of year, etc. I think that when you cook something you love and are craving, it is reflected in your food.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

That depends on the day! Sometimes I want caviar while other times I am craving a fried egg on salad.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I always turn to cookbooks and food magazines for inspiration. They’re so much fun to flip through, whether it’s a classic edition or the newest Saveur Magazine. I also enjoy exploring food markets, getting ideas from the ingredients on display.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I am super excited to have just announced my partnership with the Vegas Test Kitchen, a new pop-up space in the Las Vegas community that hosts a rotation of local chefs and restaurants.

My concept called Bodega Bagel will be one of the first vendors there, offering authentic NYC-style bagels and spreads. I think it will be impactful for me, as it’s an opportunity to continue growing in the community here.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be authentic to yourself and don’t let other people sway you. Take advice on things outside your expertise but trust yourself on what you know. Once you listen to others about everything, it’s a downhill disaster.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

Get to work early — When I worked at Jean Georges, I came to work three hours ahead of time to make sure my station was prepped. It took so much stress off my plate and taught me that spending the time over preparing is way better than spending time trying to catch up.

Listen — When you are younger, you think you know the answers to everything. It’s super easy to want to talk back, but sometimes it is better to be quiet and take feedback. I saw this early in my career when one of my supervisors would tell the staff to stop talking and start listening because when you constantly talk, it takes away from the focus on the work itself.

Always have sharp tools — You’re more likely to cut yourself with a non-sharp knife. I had to learn this the hard way when they needed to stitch my finger back on at the ER.

Don’t get cocky — I’ve seen so much cockiness in the kitchen among the staff and it really causes unnecessary riffs. Everyone needs to remember that each person on a team is equally important and you’re all working toward a common goal. It’s not a competition but a group effort.

Have the right staff — I have been fortunate to open restaurants in countries from Mexico to France, which taught me so much invaluable information as both a chef and owner. One thing I wish I knew when I first began hiring was to look at my team like a puzzle. You can have 10 people that are the best of the best, but if they don’t mesh well, your operation is not going to be successful. I now like to look at someone’s energy to see if they’ll integrate well into my current team.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

It’s a three-way tie between the Dutch Oven Pancakes, Shakshuka, and Chilaquiles.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like people to understand that they don’t have unlimited time here on earth. You must live your life for you because you’ve only got one and there is no going back or starting over. If you want to cook, cook! If you want to open a restaurant, do it! Complacency is death, and you must stay true to yourself.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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