“Can you hug?” This was one of the countless questions the chef Daniela Soto-Innes had to ask herself in May while turning Atla, her contemporary Mexican all-day cafe in New York’s NoHo neighborhood, into a takeout spot that could operate effectively while keeping its staff safe during the pandemic. She and her nine cooks were getting used to working with masks on, but were they allowed to act the way they normally did, she wondered, like some amalgamation of an athletic team and a family? And how could they translate a restaurant built to feel like a laid-back afternoon hangout into an experience people could take home in disposable containers?
“I’m really lucky to be close to my team,” Soto-Innes, 29, said over the phone in June. “I consider myself to be one of them. If you ask someone to do something and you don’t know how to do it yourself, what kind of leader are you?” This ethos, which values people as much as food, is rare in an industry that often venerates its chefs but exploits its workers. And it has been apparent in her work since she first arrived in New York from Mexico City, in 2013, to open Cosme, the boundary-pushing Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, with the chef and restaurateur Enrique Olvera (Soto-Innes was 23 at the time and working in the pastry department of Olvera’s acclaimed Pujol in Mexico City when he enlisted her to run the kitchen at Cosme, his first U.S. venture). The restaurant has become a fixture of New York’s food scene in part thanks to Soto-Innes’s luxurious, avant-garde signature dessert — a crunchy meringue made with burnt corn husks, broken apart over a silky corn mousse — but also because of the celebratory feel she has cultivated: It’s the sort of place you’d take a high-rolling first date, or mark a milestone with a family-style serving of crisp-skinned duck carnitas, which arrive still sizzling in a cast-iron skillet.
Over the past seven years, Soto-Innes has become a fixture in her own right, moving the city’s culinary zeitgeist forward by staying loyal to the idea that good, imaginative food can be unfussy and that a successful restaurant can be a humane and even fun place to work. In 2017, in partnership with Olvera, she opened Atla, a breezy, dressed-down alternative to Cosme’s more formal, night-out vibe, and the cafe quickly became a gathering place for clean-eating Manhattanites who still enjoy cocktails. The interior is understated, with matte black-painted walls garnished with climbing plants, and the menu is generous in its versatility: Before the pandemic, you could stop by for a glass of tepache, a fizzy, tangy drink made from fermented pineapple rinds, and a plate of punchy, salsa verde-laced chilaquiles sprinkled with flaxseeds for breakfast, or grab an overproof margarita and a bowl of herby guacamole during cocktail hour. It is a restaurant that prioritizes freshness and minimal intervention but still maintains some of the restrained drama found at Cosme: That guacamole comes with a large, chile-dusted tostada placed over the top of a bowl like an oversize hat.
Currently, though, Soto-Innes is wrestling with yet another strain of pandemic-induced uncertainty. She and Olvera were set to unveil a new restaurant in Los Angeles this summer (“sort of like Cosme, but with a patio,” she said) and were about to open their new Las Vegas outpost, Elio (“the bad brother of Cosme — more like a club”), when the governor shut down indoor dining. This year, Soto-Innes has gone from running two restaurants to overseeing four, but in various states of opening and at a time when, in some states, diners can’t even sit at her tables. But this suspension of her standard, fast-paced schedule has also provided an opportunity for reflection.
“I’ve learned to focus on stopping and taking care of what I already have,” Soto-Innes said when we spoke last month. She was walking her miniature dachshund, Canela, along a beach on Lummi Island, the small, sleepy isle off the northern coast of Washington where her partner, Blaine Wetzel, serves as the head chef of the eight-room Willows Inn. (The pair met at a bar in Bilbao a little over two years ago and they each fly to the other’s coast whenever their work allows.) There was rarely another human in sight, and Soto-Innes was picking wildflowers as she went — Nootka roses, to be exact — for a necklace. “I’m really young, and cooking has been the only career I’ve had,” she said. “I think this period has been about re-evaluating how to move the world around you, and what you really want, and how to do it properly.”
As she looks forward to the moment when her restaurants can open again in full, she is focused, as ever, on her staff, on honing her vision for a more compassionate future for the industry, one in which workers are valued over prestige, influence and the bottom line. In her own kitchens, she has been able to “create the world that I wanted,” she explained, and she remains determined to leave the business kinder than she first found it as a teenager. “I don’t think it’s OK to be working 16 hours a day like I used to,” she said, reflecting on the early years of her career. “I don’t think it’s OK to go through all the things you have to go through before you become a chef. I’d like to be a part of that new generation, where people can breathe and have a voice. Where it’s safe.”