The Carillon, quiet but captivating pastry chef Plinio Sandalio worked at some of the best restaurants in the country (Noe, Textile, Congress). The James Beard Award-nominated chef lived the first eight years of his life in Bolivia before relocating to Houston with his family, and you’re likely to find South American touches in his plated desserts as well as French technique. Sandalio pairs sweet with savory in an expert way (think peas and bacon in dessert). On the Carillon’s new menu, Sandalio is putting his mixology skills to work, with special digestifs to accompany all of the desserts. But what captivated us most when we sat down with him was his upcoming move to Bolivia, hopefully to work at Noma’s new as-yet-unopened outpost in La Paz.Before coming to
Zagat: Tell me about growing up in Bolivia.
Plinio Sandalio: Being that it’s a landlocked country, pretty much all we ate was meat and potatoes. My parents left to come to America when I was three, and I lived there until I was eight and then moved here. I lived with my grandparents until I moved to Houston. My whole family is from Bolivia, but we’ve all moved to Houston now.
After my parents moved I lived with my grandparents. The best parts about it were going to the outdoor farmer's markets. We didn’t have refrigeration, so we would go there every single day and buy what we needed for that night. I was fascinated by that.
I didn’t know the language when I moved, so that was a little different. Then when I spoke Spanish people were either from Mexico or El Salvador or Guatemala, so there were different dialects. They made fun of my accent, which I’ve lost, which I’m upset about. Now I have what I would say is a white boy accent [laughs].
I’m actually trying to go back to Bolivia to live. I’ve had this longing for a while to go home. Home I thought was Houston and Texas, but I kept thinking about it, and I really want to go back to South America.
Zagat: Have you been back?
PS: I haven’t. The only time I went back was in 1992. Recently I found out the owner from Noma, the restaurant in Denmark, is opening a Noma of sorts in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s kind of perfect. I was like, “I want to go back home but there aren’t any restaurants.” And now there is one. And not just only a restaurant but the number one restaurant in the world.
Zagat: Why did they choose Bolivia?
PS: I’m not sure. I got like halfway through the article [laughs].
I haven't talked to them yet. I will this afternoon though. I told my chef that there was this opportunity, and he was like, “Do it.” Josh [Watkins, the executive chef at the Carillon] was very supportive.
Zagat: What kind of desserts would you make in Bolivia?
PS: In Houston at Textile, I did more American-style desserts, more Texan. Then I started working in a Latin American restaurant where they focused heavily on Peruvian cuisine. I started learning about Peruvian desserts, and I was like, “Wow, I used to eat these as a little kid!” So before this latest opportunity I had decided I wanted to go back to Bolivia and make American desserts in South America, because that’s foreign to them. I would have my little niche if I did that. But now Noma is opening a restaurant there, and they’re very local, so I would do American-style South American desserts in South America.
Zagat: What kind of desserts did you eat as a kid, and how have you incorporated them into what you do now?
PS: A perfect example is alfajores. I was in Atlanta at the Food & Wine Festival and made a shortbread cookie with a coconut panna cotta and a little dulce de leche in there.
For mignardises here at the Carillon I like to do a little play on South American flavors. We had a dish here called picarones, which are sweet potato donuts, which I also did at Congress. We eat a lot of sweet potatoes in South America. But I added pecan because we’re in Texas, as well as brittle and butter.
Zagat: Your desserts mix sweet and savory a lot. Where do you find your inspiration?
PS: Just stuff I ate as a kid. Breakfast. We never had scrambled eggs in Bolivia, so scrambled eggs were a new thing for me. Pancakes were new, and so was bacon. I remember mixing together a McDonald’s pancake with syrup and scrambled eggs and bacon. It’s salty, it’s sweet. I use sweet and savory elements of breakfast in desserts now.
Zagat: What are some of the ingredients you’re excited about using?
PS: I’m looking forward to peas. I’ve done a few desserts in the past with peas, like peas and carrots. It didn’t quite work out, but over the years I’ve learned more about the flavor profile of peas. Making sorbets and custards out of peas. Peas and bacon go great together.
Using ingredients in season is really important. People ask me about my absolute favorite desserts, and they think it’s going to be something complex. But it was actually here in town by a chef named Jessie Griffiths, who does the Dai Due supper club. He made a raspberry sorbet with unpasteurized whipped cream. He picked them when they were right at the peak of season and transformed these two little ingredients into something amazing. A lot of pastry chefs are trying to go really complex, but I’m trying to go back to really simple and solid flavors.
Zagat: How does that work with your plated desserts, like your feta cheesecake and other deconstructed plates?
PS: When you eat dessert, there are three prominent elements. Like apple pie, you have the crust, the sugar and the apples. What I would do is take those three flavors and make them into different elements on a dish. So I could take an apple and sauté or caramelize it or make a sorbet out of it, then for crust I could make a crumble. Essentially three ingredients and mold it back together with a custard. There has be something creamy, crunchy and cold, and something salty or spicy or citrusy.
Zagat: So you’ve also worked as a bartender at Anvil, in Houston. Does mixology come into your desserts?
PS: It does a lot. I never really gave two thoughts to the bitter elements to desserts. But working at Anvil drinking a lot of bitters has helped a lot. When I was working at Textile in Houston, one of the bartenders there was Justin [Burrow], who opened Anvil with Bobby [Heugel], and I was a regular at Anvil. Bobby said he wanted to see what happened if he brought a chef behind the bar. He trained me about everything. There were so many things I didn’t know: different types of gins, bourbons, a lot of Italian digestifs. I use that a lot. I’ve been to New York and Atlanta for ICC and Food & Wine Fest doing classes and demos on how to incorporate alcohol and bitters into desserts. In the past people worked with vodka or Grand Marnier or Kahlua, so I’m trying to break out of that and incorporate Campari, Green Chartreuse and others.
Zagat: How do you use those?
PS: If you look at a cocktail like the Old Fashioned, it’s orange, cherry and bourbon. Bourbon, when you taste it, it’s almost caramel-y and smoky. You’d break that flavor down, put a caramel in there, something smoky, and an orange element and a cherry. So it would be all the basic ingredients in an Old Fashioned but in dessert form.
Zagat: What do you think about drinking cocktails with dessert? Do they go?
PS: Josh and I were just talking about that. I’m going to roll out my new menu next week, and I’m making digestifs to go with it. You get the dessert and you get a little soda bottle with a different cocktail that’s designed to be paired with that dessert.
Zagat: Are there any crazy combinations on the upcoming menu?
PS: There’s peas and bacon. And also strawberries and cream. It’s strawberry sorbet, strawberry jam, Green Chartreuse mascarpone cream. I’m going to make a strawberry soda with Green Chartreuse to go with that.
Zagat: Shifting a little bit, I read a couple of stories that call you a hipster.
PS: [Makes a face and whispers] I’m not a hipster. They’re just saying that because I’m quiet and don’t talk much and keep to myself. And I listen to a lot of music. I guess that transfers into me being a hipster. New Order is one of my favorite bands. Depeche Mode. I’m big into 80’s New Wave.
Zagat: OK, I can see where the hipster label comes from [laughs]. Where do you hang out around town?
PS: My favorite bar is right down the street from The Carillon, the Texas Chili Parlor. The reason I love it is because there are no hipsters there. There’s no bloggers, there’s no foodies. You go there because you like the place. They have their regulars, and that’s all. It’s a place you go to be left alone and hide. Plus they have Green Chartreuse.
Zagat: What do you do on your days off?
Visit friends and restaurants here?
PS: Stay at home and play Zelda.
Zagat: I read a while back that you were going to do a “legitimate dessert bar.” Is it still a possibility?
PS: The reason I said “legitimate” is that there are dessert bars here but they’re usually just cupcake or cake-ball bars. What I wanted to do was something more like what’s going on in London or New York, where it’s an actual restaurant. During the day it’s a coffee shop with pastries and at night it shuts down and turns into a tasting menu. So you have pastry chefs making five or six courses and they’re all desserts. With my background working at Anvil, I would make cocktail pairings with those desserts. There would be a multicourse dessert tasting menu with cocktails. So it would be more of a restaurant but the inverse of most restaurants: most places have 85% savory and 15% sweet, but this would be 85% sweet and 15% savory.
Zagat: How does your possible move to Bolivia change things?
PS: If I get anywhere near Noma in Bolivia, I’ll definitely go there. So that idea would be put on hold.