Chef Darwin Santa Maria and flavorful food may be synonymous in Sarasota. Darwin has created and served his version of Latin fusion cuisine in a number of Sarasota venues for over a decade. Although a number of stories have been written about Darwin’s culinary skills and talent, I wanted the backstory on Darwin’s culinary evolution. Here is what I found.
JLQ: Many things have been written about you, so I would like to focus on something you would like the Sarasota area to know about you but has not yet been written. Any thoughts?
Darwin Santa Maria: Yes, one thought might be the inspiration behind my cooking; that which inspires me to do new things, to keep going. I do not think anyone has written about that.
JLQ: Sounds good. Before we explore your inspiration, can you share your culinary background?
DSM: I was born in Peru, came to Miami as a child, went to high school in Sarasota and returned to Miami to go to Johnson & Wales’ culinary college. I graduated from Johnson & Wales and was expecting to travel. My plans were to go to France and Hawaii, but before I left on such a long journey, I wanted to return to Peru and visit my father.
JLQ: So what happened when you went back to Peru?
DSM: I went back to visit my father and I reconnected with a childhood friend. As kids and families we did everything together, but I did not see her for seven years and now she was a grown woman! We started dating and I decided to return to Sarasota and visit my mom.
JLQ: I presume your plans for travel were altered?
DSM: Yes, I decided to give Sarasota a try and worked in a number of restaurants starting as a line cook and working my way up from there. I was very fortunate to work with people that let me do my own thing and I learned from them.
JLQ: What did your early working experience teach you about the restaurant business in Sarasota?
DSM: I learned there was an opportunity to introduce Latin food and spices to the Sarasota diner. I had purchased some of my own chilies and spices and experimented with certain dishes. We were getting requests for Latin parties and specials. People were enjoying the new food. It was very exciting.
JLQ: Then what?
DSM: Well, I got married in 1999, went from sous chef at Michael’s on East to the Executive Chef of Fred’s and was named as one of the Top 10 Chefs in the nation by Food and Wine Magazine in 2001.
JLQ: That is a great deal of success and stress in a short amount of time. How did you handle it?
DSM: It was all very weird, exciting, fast and uncomfortable. There were photo shoots, wine dinners and autograph signings. I was very nervous and did not know what to expect, but one of the chefs, Michael Anthony, encouraged me to be myself and that advice had a calming influence on me. He even lent me one of his sets of knives for the “cook-off!”
JLQ: What happened when you returned to Sarasota?
DSM: After my experience in New York and the positive response to my food, I decided it was time to open my own place. I found a small space on Clark Road and the first Selva was born. I was nervous but confident we would do well and it was busy right from the opening. A few years later we moved to a larger downtown location. Business was good but very busy and time consuming. Although things were going well, I did not feel satisfied. There were many conflicts happening at the same time.
JLQ: So you were being pulled in different directions at once. How did you resolve these conflicts?
DSM: Yes, that is true. The business was taking center stage in my life. This was not good because at the same time my wife and I were trying to start a family. We adopted our first son. My father became ill in Peru, and the demands of the business continued to require more time. My wife decided to return to Peru while I sorted out the details of the business. I decided to give up the partnership and return to Peru. I put my family first.
JLQ: What happened when you were in Peru?
DSM: While in Peru, my wife became pregnant with twins. I had the opportunity to relax and regain my energy and culinary creativity. I thought about opening a restaurant in Peru but decided my heart was in Sarasota. I did some work with other restaurants and then the opportunity to do my own came about and Darwin’s on 4th was born.
JLQ: How will Darwin’s be different for you?
DSM: First of all, I learned from my prior experiences. My passion for cooking comes from my family, and that energy is strong. I know how important that is to me. I am working to maintain a good balance between work and family. In the past everything came so fast; the balance was not right. Now we are starting out with the right balance with room to grow and be flexible.
JLQ: Any last thoughts?
DSM: I know Sarasota is the place I want to be, and Darwin’s on 4th is the place where I want to share my food with friends both old and new.
JLQ: Thank you for sharing some of your previously unshared thoughts with us.