“Do you want to see the kitchen?” Daniela Soto-Innes asks, and before I can answer, she’s pulling me toward the door marked “Employees Only,” zig-zagging rapidly through the dining room and calling out a chipper “buenos dias!” to everyone she passes. I would have said yes if I’d had the chance, but Soto-Innes moves fast, and in truth there was no choice to be made anyway: When she springs into action, you’re just along for the ride.
Soto-Innes greets every single person in the kitchen with an excited full-body hug and double-cheek kiss, unfettered displays of affection that subvert the nightmarish culture fed to us on shows like Hell's Kitchen. She motions to a beefy guy butchering a giant tuna in the corner and tells me he doesn’t even work at Cosme—he used to, she explains, but now he just comes in on his day off from another restaurant gig to hang out with his old crew. She skips over to the tortilla press, where two cooks are giggling with each other while cranking away at a pile of fresh masa, and hands me a freshly-pressed specimen to snack on. “I love seeing everyone be so happy while they work,” Soto-Innes says. “If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be in my kitchen.”
Soto-Innes has a lot to smile about these days. At 26, she’s the Chef de Cuisine at Cosme, the first American outing for Mexican superstar chef Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant Pujol is currently ranked no. 25 on the World’s 50 Best list. Cosme opened to near-deafening hype in 2014, and since then, it’s earned three stars from the New York Times and rave reviews from countless others, including President and First Lady Obama, who recently stopped in for dinner. Soto-Innes’s star has risen swiftly along with the restaurant’s, neatly blowing away any preconceived notions about her age, gender, or merit.
Soto-Innes does not mention any of this explicitly during our kitchen tour, but then again, she’s moving almost too quickly for me to keep up, and talking (rapidly) about how she’s always done things faster than normal. “I grew up in competitive mode,” Soto-Innes says of her childhood in Mexico City (her family moved to Houston when she was 12). The youngest of three girls, Soto-Innes was a fierce athlete before turning her attention to the kitchen, where her desire to “do better, go faster and win” propelled her to stand out early on.
She begged her way into an unpaid internship in her first professional kitchen at 15, graduated high school at 17, and attended culinary school in Austin. She eventually rose through the ranks, at a pace of about 100 hours per week, in some of Texas’s finest kitchens, including Brennan’s, Triniti, and Underbelly. “No one had to push me,” she says, shrugging. “It’s just what I love to do.”
Chris Shepherd at Underbelly, who recognized Soto-Innes’s talent early on and taught her to butcher whole animals, encouraged her to write a letter to a chef she admired. She chose Olvera, the culinary hero of her hometown. “I never thought he’d answer, but he wrote back the next day and invited me to come to Pujol to stage. That weekend I was on a plane down to Mexico City,” she says.
By that point, Soto-Innes had already managed an entire kitchen staff and run the line at some of Houston’s best restaurants. But at Pujol, she kept her head down and worked hard at her station, making one small part of Olvera’s iconic, Instagram-famous dessert—the corn husk meringue. The stage turned into a job, and still Soto-Innes trucked away in the pastry department, until the day the butcher didn’t show up. Soto-Innes volunteered in his stead, shocking her unassuming coworkers with the skills she’d learned at Underbelly. That moment was a turning point, changing the way that Soto-Innes approached the challenges of kitchen life. “I realized you have to just go with it, whatever it is, without stopping—you have to keep pushing,” she says.
This relentlessly can-do attitude has taken Soto-Innes far. “When I was very little, my father called me a giraffe, because I was lanky and awkward tottering around in my mom’s heels,” she says. A few years ago, Olvera affectionately called her a giraffe at work. “I had to stop for a second to ask him what he meant,” Soto-Innes recalls. “He said it was because I made reaching for things I want look easy.”
One of the things Soto-Innes wanted was the chance to work in New York City, widely considered the most competitive restaurant market in the world. She had proven her worth to Olvera by working hard and working fast, and saying yes to any task that crossed her path. As plans for Cosme were formalized, Olvera asked Soto-Innes to relocate to New York to build out the staff and menu in advance of opening Cosme. “I just block out the fact that I’m a woman and I’m young and focus on what I know and what I believe in, which is food,” Soto-Innes says. “At the end of the day, Enrique told me: ‘We’re all just people, but I chose you because you’re a badass.’”
Since Cosme’s opening, Soto-Innes has worked to refine her leadership style, using her go-go-go style to catalyze her team and keep the atmosphere light. “I have very high standards, but when you have everything set up right, it frees you to have fun,” she says. “It’s very fast-paced here, so if you’re not enjoying it, it will just kill you.” Leading by teaching, as opposed to micromanaging, has been a minor revelation for Soto-Innes, who takes an almost Zen-like approach to sharing knowledge that’s at odds with her kinetic physical presence. “Once I realized how little I know, but how much I have to give, that’s when I became my happiest,” she says.
She pauses for a rare moment, nodding at the hum of contented activity in her kitchen. And a moment later, she’s off, literally skipping up the stairs to bestow more kisses upon more cheeks, and to whip everything around her into shape.