Five Minutes With Richard Sandoval: How the Famed Chef and Restaurateur is Saving the Bees One Dish at a Time

by Martin Ramirez on April 15, 2024 in Food+Drink,

Nearly one-third of all honeybees in the US have died within the last few years. 

The reasons range from improper pesticide use and loss of habitat to parasites and diseases. However, this keystone species has a powerful ally on their side. Famed chef, restaurateur, philanthropist, author, and TV personality Richard Sandoval is raising awareness through a unique spring menu and children’s book, “Viva Abejas”.

Viva Abejas, which translates to “long live bees,” is the latest spring campaign featured at Toro Toro Fort Worth and other Richard Sandoval Hospitality locations. The campaign, running from March 26 to April 22 (Earth Day), aims to save the bees through a special, limited-time menu using honey, fresh herbs and other springtime elements.

Toro Toro Fort Worth features a vibrant menu that incorporates plant and bee-centric ingredients. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

The current Viva Abejas campaign extends through Earth Day. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this and what elements make you most excited about it?

It’s very exciting. Every year I get to collaborate with my team—my whole team—to globally participate around the world. We look at seasonal ingredients and come up with dishes we think people coming to the restaurants get excited for. But more than anything, it’s going to create awareness. Not many people understand and that’s the reason for writing a kids’ book. Kids are intrigued by insects. So, if you catch their attention, they’re going to listen. It’s the next generation, right? If we start young and start talking about it, they’ll pick up on what this means to our food chain.

Main entrée includes Duck Confit Tacos complete with romesco sauce, pickled vegetables, agave honey and cilantro. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

And for me, it’s part of my legacy. What I leave behind. I was very fortunate to have been given a platform of 50 restaurants around the world. It hasn’t been easy, but I was given that opportunity. Now, I think it’s important for me to give others a voice for an important cause.

The Coconut Ceviche incorporates fresh, lively ingredients from tuna, coconut milk, cucumber, Fresno chili, orange blossom honey and mint. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

In the culinary world, the bee is kind of an unsung hero.  For those of us who are not aware, can you talk about the importance of bees and our food?

Before COVID and during COVID, we started to lose a lot of habitats. They’re dwindling very fast. And one of every three bites that we take are impacted through pollination and pollinators. And bees are the main pollinators. And if we don’t do anything about it now, it’s going to be kind of a big problem. Look at global warming. Five to ten years ago, everybody thought it was a joke. Now, it’s a reality. And if we don’t become proactive about bees, it’s going to become a big problem. Food is our fuel, so without food…

Chef Richard Sandoval’s children’s book, “Viva Abejas”, benefits The World Bee Project’s World Hive Network© and the Akumal Children’s Foundation. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

The children’s book is focused on the goodness that bees bring. And for many kids, and adults, they see a bee and think, “I’m in danger. Got to kill it.” It sounds like you’re wanting to change their minds about this, right?

That’s it exactly. It’s about changing their mindset. The bees really don’t cause you any harm if you don’t bother them. If they don’t feel danger, you’re fine. I think getting that into children’s minds is very important. And that was a surprise for me when I did the book readings, seeing how engaged they are. I read the book and at the end, I asked them all these questions and they’re all very engaged and answering. They were also asking, “What do we do? Do we plant trees?” So, they’re really paying attention, which at the beginning, I thought was going to be tough to do. And we do this guacamole recipe to explain that there are no avocados without these pollinators. There would be no guacamole. So, it’s impactful. It’s engaging. It’s going to help them help us as they grow up.

To commemorate the importance of bees, Toro Toro’s Latin menu highlights key ingredients dependent on pollinators. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

There is a guacamole recipe in the book. Do you think kids should learn how to cook or be aware of what they’re consuming?

You know, when people ask me, “When did your career really start or when did you start being involved in food?” I always tell my story of me as a kid. My parents were divorced, and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. And I remember always being at her house and the cooks would pick me up and put me on the kitchen counter. And I was always watching and tasting. And that had a huge impact on my career. Fast forward 30 years later, my palate was being changed, adapting. I always tell parents today that we don’t do a great job at introducing people to all these new flavors. I was doing the book reading at The Four Seasons in Austin, and in my restaurant, I think I had sixth or seventh grade kids come over and none of them had tasted guacamole before. And once they tasted it, they could not have enough of it. And as parents, we think, “Well, no they’re not going to like it.” But give your child the opportunity to taste and let them tell you if they don’t like it.

The book features a recipe of Chef Sandoval’s signature guacamole so that kids and parents can enjoy at home. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

A lot of these ingredients are adapted flavors. If they don’t know or taste them, they’re never going to like them or know what they’re all about. And I know kids will want hot dogs, pizza, macaroni, right? We have got to change that. Not only for the sake of the bees, but for their health. In this country, I was working on another project with some doctors in Denver about Latin obesity and the fattiness of the liver. It’s a big problem because they’re not eating well. So, this works on multiple fronts. I’m trying to open kids’ minds to food, to ingredients, through this book.

Chef Sandoval’s prolific restaurateur and entrepreneur resume includes serving as a television personality, cookbook author, brand ambassador and philanthropist. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

Do you also think that this also opens them up to diverse cultures too?

Exactly. I saw these kids come up to me as a chef wearing a white chef’s coat, probably more willing to listen to me and not to the parents. So, absolutely right. That teaches them diversity. This country is made up of diversity, the cultures and people from across the globe.

Richard Sandoval Hospitality consists of 60 locations that span across four continents, 11 countries and 10 US states. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

Thailand had a program 25 years ago. And you know what? They wanted people to get to know more about Thailand and their culture. And they said, “Well, how do we get people involved?” In food. Everybody eats food. Everybody sits at the table. Everybody shares ideas about food. So, they gave Thai immigrants some money to build small Thai restaurants. To get people to know about Thailand through food. I think that people are more likely to be open minded to sit down, to share, and to talk about it.

Mexico City-based illustrator and artist Valeria Montero combines a vibrant color palette with bee-centric and Mother Earth symbolism to convey the message of the campaign. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

You’re working with the Mexican illustrator to visualize the campaign. From the design of the book to the logos on your website, it’s beautiful and vibrant. How did you achieve this authenticity?

Three years ago, I took my team to Tuscany, Italy, to work on our company culture and philosophy. And I wanted to talk to them about this opportunity I had to build this company around the world. So, it starts with a taco story. It starts with me moving to the US when I was around 12 years old to play tennis. I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I was in a new country, in California, and I didn’t speak the language very well. And I remember before lunch time they would give us a menu to say what was at the cafeteria. That’s where I saw that they had a taco. I was like, “Wow, these people really know about Mexican culture. They have tacos here.” And so, I go to the cafeteria at lunch time, and I get this thing that looked like…I couldn’t even explain. I was like, “What is this?” I think people may misrepresent cultures and not understand cultures. On that day, in my mind, I said I hope that one day I can help people understand more things about me, my culture, Mexico. That was very important for me at that time. To share things about Mexico with other people.

Chef Sandoval’s restaurants across the US and world focus on contemporary Latin cuisine. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

Thirty years later, Mexican cuisine has evolved. Some of the top restaurants in the world today are Latin or Mexican. And twenty years ago, it was only about Tex Mex. Not that Tex Mex is bad, but it’s different.  For me as a Mexican coming to this country, I wanted people to see the authenticity of what Mexico is really about. And collaborating with musicians and artists helps me promote it even more.

Proceeds from Chef Richard Sandoval’s children’s book, “Viva Abejas”, will go toward The World Bee Project’s World Hive Network© and the Akumal Children’s Foundation. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

How do you see this campaign evolving? What’s next for you and the campaign?

We’ll continue to do what we do. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the book go to the World Bee Project for multiple things, like placing AI chips into their habitats to understand more about them. We’re also trying to reach 60,000 kids a year through the book and through readings to get them engaged and aware. I think it will just continue. And I think as more people get involved, I think we’ll get better results. When I was growing up, I used to always say, “Well, why should I vote? Really doesn’t matter.” But one guy with one vote plus your vote plus her vote makes three. Then it’s four. Five. Like the domino effect, the more people get engaged, the more it grows. And hopefully, we’ll be in a place where their habitats are perfect, balanced. And then, we don’t have to worry about it.

What’s been your proudest moment with the campaign so far?

It’s when I do the book readings. When I sit there and I see the kids, their smiles, and their eyes. They’re actually paying attention. It’s making a difference.

Richard Sandoval Hospitality partnered with Slow Food USA to develop educational resources to supplement the Viva Abejas campaign. Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality.

How can we all get involved, whether it’s on the corporate level or as an individual?

Spread the word about the book. Get the word out about how important it is: bees and how to be sustainable. You can also download the curriculum, purchase the book, and watch the read-aloud. It’s very grassroots level. You can also plant bee-friendly flowers like lavender and marigolds.


Cover photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Hospitality

Martin Ramirez is a brisket-eating, Shiner-loving, road-tripping enthusiast of all things Texas. This Dallas-born writer / adventurer is ready to take his ‘78 El Camino to find the best in food, fun, and fitness throughout the Lone Star State.