Angelo Sosa, The Villain We Love To Like
Top Chef star is on to his biggest challenge yet
Having crossed paths with Angelo Sosa on many occasions — from food festival stand-and-stir demos to clinking glasses of Fernet at the after-parties that tend to follow the demos — I’ve come to find out that he’s one of the nicest guys in the business. Fact. Generous with his time and always bouncing around the room with a smile, there's never a moment of under-the-breath shit talk from this guy. And that's something to say about a chef.
This is also not the Angelo Sosa I knew from watching the season of Top Chef back in 2010, where his run to runner-up made him wildly famous for his sick kitchen talents (Ducasse and Jean-Georges are on his resume) and bizarre-to-heelish behavior that had viewers shaking their fists at his double-crossing gamesmanship. There were also rumors of a Russian mail order bride being thrown into the equation, which was just weird. But, as we know, reality TV is also weird, and today Angelo Sosa has moved pretty far away from the land of Quickfires.
I meet Sosa at his Midtown Manhattan restaurant Social Eatz, a year and a day after he opened to respectable reviews and won Eater’s Greatest Burger In America contest for the restaurant’s remarkable Bibimbap Burger — a Korean spin with gochujang-spiked pickled carrots, mung bean sprouts, cucumbers, a slather of Sriracha-mayonnaise, a slow-cooked egg on top and, basically, goooooaaaaaalllllll!
Sosa is also releasing a book in June, Flavors Exposed, that compiles recipes based around fundamental flavors like sweet, salty, bitter, earthy. He’s excited to tell me about the book, as well as a new high-end restaurant concept, Juxtapose, that he hopes will push his public perception beyond the burger he’s gotten all the ink for.
You’re one year in here, tell me what was the best thing to happen at Social Eatz.
That’s a big question. I probably say the reorganization for the burger, not just national acclaim but international acclaim. I was privileged enough to meet the first lady of South Korea. They barricaded the street off and Secret Service came with eight different Korean networks. I met her and she was so impressed with the burger that she personally invited me to South Korea. That was exciting. That was big for us.
What was her first impression when she bit into the burger?
I think she was more intrigued. If you look at me, I’m not Korean. And she came in expecting me to be Korean. So when she saw me, she was very thrown off. But her nods soon become more of yesssssss.
One of my best friends is Korean, so I can say this. Koreans are very suspicious when non-Koreans cook Korean food. More so than the Chinese I feel…
Look at the cuisine. It’s an untouched cuisine. They’ve kept it close knit and tight and it’s one of those things where they take pride in lineage and their culture.
If there’s one change to the recipe, all shit goes crazy…
If you look at Chinese cuisine, you have Buddakan, Hakkasan and these restaurants who have breached into new territory. I don’t think someone has done that on a large scale for Korean.
So what is the next big concept to hit?
I have the next big concept. This concept will define me as a chef. It’s called Juxtapose. Think about colliding scopes, hot and cold, feminine and masculine. Yin and yang. All these things. I cook from Ethiopian to Korean to Japanese to Vietnamese. It’s not convoluted but very harmonious.
It’s challenging, because you’re talking about food that’s not pegged to a cuisine, region or country. It’s like, the Angelo Sosa show.
Give me some dishes.
That’s another process. There will be extensive traveling for this one. This is putting everything on the line. This will be the flagship of the group. We're really just going for it.
Your looking to open in New York City?
Yes. We are looking at a couple of places.
What was the first day at the C.I.A. like?
The first day of school, I was itching because we had a block that was all theory, and that was very boring for me. When you’re a young chef, all you want to do is wear the uniform. It’s like a rookie cop. All you want to do is have a gun. I wanted a knife in my hand. I probably wasn’t even paying attention to the theory and the history of cooking. I just wanted to be in the kitchen.
Did that get you into trouble, not being as book steady?
No, basically what happened was in the mornings I’d go to our theoretical classes and then I started working and I’d pester the chefs in one of the restaurant. Everyday I’d show up in the uniform and he’d be like “this isn’t your class” and eventually he just gave in and let me in. I was cooking with people almost ready to graduate.
That personality trait has carried on through your career. You’ve always wanted to find the next thing. And Juxtapose is the next thing….
That’s our duty. I look at opportunity as an open hand. You have to be the visionary to see it and grab it.
Let’s talk about Top Chef. Since the end of the show, how have you changed as a person?
It’s definitely motivated me. One thing that’s amazing about the show, particularly All-Stars, is competing against like Richard Blais and people pushing you to your limits. You have the option to be on or off on the show and a means of survival. The concept of not becoming complacent was really critical for me. So, not compromising and pushing yourself to the limits, breaking yourself and redefining yourself.
The first time you were on, did you have any regrets? Getting to know you, you’re a little different than you are presented on the show. On the show, you were maybe deemed a villain or less accessible. Do you regret some moves you made on that show?
I think this: what people don’t about me from the show is that I have a son who has extensive medical issues. So for me to leave businesses that were up and running, it was a great sacrifice. I knew the task was very clear to me. I couldn’t go on just to see myself on TV. I had to make it through. I had a very specific goal. Being away from my son for two months was a long time. I had to make it. I was on the All-Stars and I think everything balanced out.
Your son’s condition isn’t known, and you do a lot of fundraising for the cause. How does he inspire you?
At six months old he had heart bypass surgery and that was totally devastating. I literally lived two months on a hospital floor. Everything I do, I do for him. I dedicated my cookbook to him. He just seems like a normal baby to himself; for me it’s painful to see him.
How’s he doing now?
Much better. He just started walking after three and a half years, which is pretty triumphant.
In terms of cooking, let’s talk about raw ingredients you like working with.
I’m really fixated with the concept of kimchi and I’m thinking about other items we can ferment. I think for Americans, the concept of fermentation doesn’t sound cool. I want to tackle it this year and make it cool. Things like Belgian endive, why can’t we not make that be kimchi? Lemon confit. Why can’t that be a style of kimchi? Something I’m truly obsessed with is soy sauce. At my house, I’m making my own soy sauce whether it be with quinoa and barley.
Where do you keep your soy sauces?
It’s in my living room, and it stinks.
The sign of a true chef.
It’s pretty grotesque.
In terms of your style, your personal style, you have a really strong sense. You’re more casual. You always have a nice blazer and jeans. How do you define it?
I like to be different and colorful. Ostentatious at times.
Who are some designers you like?
I’m very much into fashion, like food. Very homogenous. I work with Robert Graham, and more recently I’ve been working with Etro, an Italian designer.
How big is your closet?
There’s not enough room. It’s pretty amazing that people like Robert Graham and Etro clothe me all the time.