The Most

Woman in the World


Daniela Soto-Innes

Chef, James Beard Award winner, fast swimmer

The Most

Woman in the World

Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef de cuisine at New York restaurant Cosme, is remarkably similar to the dishes she creates—lively, intense, vibrant, and spicy when you least expect it (in her own kitchen, she alternates hugs with laser-like focus—you should see this woman inspect a plate). A protegée of the world-renowned Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, she burst onto the dog-eat-dog Manhattan food scene in 2014, snapping up rave reviews and gaining a reputation for what few chefs would consider a compliment: being genuinely nice, and having fun in the kitchen. (Her secret: It makes the food taste better.)

ON GROWING UP IN THE KITCHEN: I’m the youngest of three sisters, and when we were kids, they always teased me for wanting to cook all the time. Now one of them is a physical therapist, and the other is a lawyer. My mom wanted to be a chef, but in the end, she got pressured and became a lawyer instead. My grandmother managed a bakery, and I would go there to play. I wasn’t even big enough to see over the counter, but I would smell bread baking, and make cakes and play with dough.

When I was twelve, my mom got a big job in Houston, so we moved there from Mexico City. Up until then, we’d gone to a Montessori school, and in Houston, my mom enrolled us in a technical school. I chose to study culinary arts, and the school had chefs and sommeliers come in and talk to us about their careers. Those guys were so boring—they seemed so miserable, and their hours sounded terrible. But then one day, when I was 13 or 14, this chef came in, and he was super happy. He was like, “Yeah, the hours are terrible, but when you make it and you’re successful, you get to have the best wines and the best friends and the best meals, and you travel all over the world and you can cook whatever you want.” I remember that day so well. He was a chef at a hotel, and I wanted to learn more about him, so I went to the hotel and asked if I could cook there. Everyone was like, “Who is this girl? She’s so weird.” But they let me do an internship, and I went almost every day to chop things and learn how to cook the basics. I have a lot of energy, and I loved the intense hours.


I realized that the best kitchens are the happiest kitchens. I was like, ‘I can’t be miserable and thinking I’m not good at my job’—no wonder I was exhausted. I’m only going to be good at my job if I enjoy it.

ON BREAKING INTO THE BOYS’ CLUB: My dad was a basketball player, and growing up, I was super sporty. I could throw the ball farther than the boys. My dad always said, “Gender should never be a subject when it comes to talent.” That attitude helped a lot with cooking. I would go into kitchens and admire the guys there so much and think, I can do this. They’re just guys. They’re just people, you know? You have to remember that. I would still get intimidated, but whenever I was scared of someone really talented, I would just join them. That’s how I started out—just showing up, even on days when people would tell me not to come. Maybe I was full of myself, but all I wanted was to get better.

I went to culinary school in Austin when I was 17, and I worked for different chefs around the city. I spent all my paychecks on knives and food. I apprenticed with an Indian chef, and he taught me how to use spices. I really wanted to come to New York, so one summer, I did a stage here—it’s like an internship, in a kitchen—to see if I liked it. The New York chef was like, “I don’t hire women, but I will make an exception for you.” I was so mad. It was not cool, his attitude. After that experience, I knew that the next time I came back to New York, it would only be for something really big.

I was in the back of the kitchen making mini-meringues all day, and one day the butcher was busy, so I started breaking down pigs, and they were like, ‘We didn’t know you could do that! This is crazy.’ 

ON BEING THE YOUNGEST: When I got my first job as a sous chef, I was only 21, which is super young, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I was so embarrassed about my age. Everyone was much older than me, and they seemed more mature and experienced, even though I’d been working in kitchens for six or seven years by that time. I wasn’t confident, and I felt like I needed to do everything to show people I was capable. I would show up at 5:00 a.m. and leave at 2:00 a.m., and I didn’t know how to delegate. The chef told me, “Just because you’re doing everything doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job. It doesn’t matter how many hours in a day you’re at work—if you’re not delegating, you’re not doing a good job.” I tried to loosen up a little bit, but I couldn’t tell other people how to do things, because I didn’t feel like I was the boss.

I ended up completely burned out. I told the chef, “I can’t be here anymore.” I knew I felt that way because I didn’t have enough confidence to delegate. You have a lot of responsibilities as a sous chef, and I wasn’t ready. So I went back to just cooking for other chefs without being a supervisor, until I wanted to be a supervisor again. I thought a lot about my mistakes, and they opened my eyes.

ON COMING INTO HER OWN: When I left my sous-chef job, I traveled to Europe, and it was there that I had one of my most important realizations.  I had been so tired, not just physically, but also mentally. So I started to just cook whatever I wanted. I went back to Houston to cook at Underbelly, a restaurant run by a chef named Chris Shepherd. There, the kitchen is a playground—everyone has their own station, and there are no rules. I learned whole-animal butchery, and more importantly, I learned how to delegate. It was an important time to discover things, and be open to everything, and learn what I really love. I learned how to have fun, and try things I didn’t think were possible.

When I felt like I’d learned what I wanted to learn at Underbelly, I decided that I wanted to travel some more, and work for other people who I really admired. I wrote to chef Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City, and he wrote me back the next day. I thought I’d be there for like, a week, and then I wound up making pastries there for several months. I was in the back of the kitchen making mini-meringues all day, and one day the butcher was busy, so I started breaking down pigs, and they were like, “We didn’t know you could do that! This is crazy.” And I was like, “You never asked. Don’t judge a book by its cover.” That taught me not to underestimate other chefs, too. You never know when someone might know how to do something. You have to give them a chance.

Growing up, my mother would always say to me, ‘I want to see your personality.’ She focused on us finding out what we really liked—what we were passionate about. And I try to run my kitchen in the same way. 

ON OPENING COSME: Three years ago, when I was 23, I was ready to do something big—maybe go abroad, someplace like Switzerland. And Enrique was like, “No, I already have plans for you. You’re opening a restaurant in New York.” I was like, “What?” And the next week I was here. I didn’t know anyone. I wanted to say, “No I can’t do it. I need someone to teach me.” I could cook, but I didn’t know how to meet with investors or buy stove hoods. I was googling “how to open a restaurant.” I went to this store that sells industrial chef equipment, and I was like, “I need a stovetop.” And the guy was like, “You need help. What are you doing?”

I think with restaurants, you have to have really good food and really good drinks, but it’s also about the ambiance. If the food at the restaurant is good but the people aren’t nice, you won’t want to go back. We have so much fun in the kitchen at Cosme, and I think people can tell. Most of the time we have music playing. When things get crazy, we stretch, do a little bit of yoga. We try to keep a family atmosphere. When I was growing up, the kitchens I worked in were really intense, and people who worked there would never hang out with each other when they were free; but the people who work in my kitchen hang out with each other outside of work all the time. It’s very social, and we’re friends. At the end of the day, the restaurant world is pretty small, so if you’re not nice to someone, it’s going to come back.

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Growing up, my mother would always say to me, “I want to see your personality.” She focused on us finding out what we really liked—what we were passionate about. And I try to run my kitchen in the same way. I figure, let’s make it really fun and interesting. As long as people are clean, curious, and have good personalities, they’re welcome in my kitchen. You can teach people how to cook, but you can’t teach them how to be a good person. Still, you are here to learn, and we have standards. Your knives have to be sharp, and you have to be prepared. I’ve learned to be tough sometimes, especially with new people. Now I’m great at delegating. Everything that I can delegate, I delegate. You’re only as good as your team.

Three or four months after we opened, we got our New York Times review. I still get chills—we got three stars, which is really good. I was getting calls from people being like, “I can’t believe it! I thought you would be back in Mexico by now.”

As long as people are clean, curious, and have good personalities, they’re welcome in my kitchen. You can teach people how to cook, but you can’t teach them how to be a good person.


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