Plinio Sandalio might have left his native Bolivia for Houston when he was just 8 years old, but even those eight years would prove influential to Sandalio, who grew up on his grandmother’s native cooking. Moving to a city like Houston, with such diversity of culture, Sandalio was able to hold on to—and even build a career upon—the vibrant heritage of his youth, so many miles away.
Sandalio was always a bright student. After high school, he won a scholarship to the Rochester Institute of Technology, another journey of a thousand-plus miles from home. But only two years into his study, something told Sandalio he was on the wrong path. A move back to his adopted Houston hometown brought Sandalio to the Art Institute of Houston, where he studied culinary arts—no doubt with the memory of his grandmother always in his mind.
After graduating in 2005, Sandalio worked his way through various kitchens, jumping comfortably back and forth between the savory and sweet stations—an experience that would prove influential to his future success as a pastry chef. Already at home in diversity, Sandalio worked in various kitchens around Houston, absorbing their culinary influences rapidly. He was a sous chef at Rickshaw and Soma and pastry chef at Noe, Gravitas, and Textile. In 2010, Sandalio moved to Austin to work as pastry chef at fellow Rising Star David Bull’s Congress. And Last year he joined Rising Star Hotel Chef Josh Watkin’s team at Carillon.
Along the way, this quietly intense pastry chef earned accolades and opportunities, including an appearance on “Iron Chef America,” a 2010 “Best Pastry Chef” nomination from the James Beard Foundation, and his 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Stars Award. “My savory and sweet experience is present in my desserts,” the chef tells us. From what we are tasting, there is quite a bit more present there, too.
Interview with Rising Star Pastry Chef Plinio Sandalio of Carillon – Austin, TX
Katherine Sacks: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Plinio Sandalio: As a little kid, my grandmother and my mom cooked all the time. They were passionate about what they were doing. But I wanted to learn and played around as a kid. One Christmas Eve, I wanted to make breakfast in bed for my parents and almost burned the house down. They woke up with smoke all around them and we figured maybe it was a good time to go to school.
KS: And how did you go from the fire extinguisher into kitchens?
PS: I went to a high school for engineering and got a full scholarship in upstate New York to be an engineer. At the same time, I was working at a cafeteria at the college and was dating a girl who was in school to become a pastry chef. Her homework and assignments seemed a lot more fun, and I started going to the bakery with her. Eventually I moved back to Houston and enrolled at the Art Institute.
KS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
PS: I like to do something that is kind of familiar, I don’t want to do anything that is too extravagant or frou-frou. I like to play around with different flavor combinations, different textures, and different plating combinations. I just want the food to taste good.
KS: I know a lot of pastry chef who don’t like sugar. Do you like sweets?
PS: I do. I tend to go to restaurants and order desserts, see what other chefs are doing, and be inspired by other chefs as well.
KS: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
PS: 1. Know how to use a scale. 2. Master how to cook an egg; then play around with all the chemicals and other stuff. 3. Be very clean, especially with chocolate. I test cooks that come in by making them work with chocolate and seeing how dirty they get.
KS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
PS: Go to restaurants and stage; jump around the kitchen and work as much as you can. A lot of techniques that savory guys use can become very beneficial. Try to learn as much as you can, make as many connections as you can, and never trash talk because this industry is really small.
KS: What are you most proud of?
PS: I’ve been doing something that’s a hobby and getting paid for it; it’s awesome. I love my job, love what I’m doing, and I’m really happy here. A lot of the guests and diners seem to be happy with what I am doing.
KS: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant? What is the toughest things you’ve had to do in your career?
PS: Currently I am the pastry chef of a hotel [AT&T Executive Conference and Education Center], which is something I’ve never done. Learning how to work banquets for 1,000 plus people, and making the prep for a larger number, that’s a huge challenge.
KS: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
PS: I think getting homesick; I was born in South America, in Bolivia. I’ve been thinking of going back, perhaps to Argentina or Peru. I could do very American comfort foods there; I don’t think anyone’s done that yet.