Chef Angelo Sosa: Storytelling through cooking
From New York restaurants to Top Chef, Angelo Sosa is a culinary force to be reckoned with.
Angelo Sosa has truly done it all. After spending ten years working for the best in the New York City restaurant scene, including Jean Georges Vongerichten, Sosa was selected as a contestant in 2010 for Bravo's Top Chef and the following series of Top Chef: All Stars. He has since published two cookbooks, released his own apron line, opened two of his own restaurants and continued to consult on restaurants all over America.
How did you get into cooking? What inspired you to make that move?
I'm half Dominican, half Italian. I came from a very large family and have six siblings grew up in a very small humble country town here in the US. Uniquely my father, who is Dominican, did all the cooking in the household. My chores were not very typical, it was always 'go help your father in the garden' or 'help your father with the cooking.' Growing up, my father was the one who taught me how to cook. My main job every Sunday was to do 2 things: clean the rice (which took hours) and to make tostones. I'd say my father was my initial inspiration.
You use a lot of Asian flavors in your cooking, which is contrary to your cultural background. How did that emerge?
Yes, I'm half Italian, half Dominican and I love cooking Asian food. It all makes sense! I've been very blessed in my life and worked with some impeccable chefs, like Chef Jean Georges in New York. He is truly an innovator. He revolutionized modern French cuisine by infusing Asian flavors. After working with him for almost four years, I really wanted to expand my horizons, so I decided to travel around Asia. I was in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore etc. really just absorbing the knowledge, absorbing the flavors and most importantly absorbing the culture. My cooking style is very reflective of paying homage to cultures but also interpreting cuisines through my experiences and my travels.
How do you approach a dish: do you start it with a specific ingredient in mind or a flavor?
My cuisine is eclectic. How I cook is based upon the ingredient because the ingredient is a flavor profile. A great example would be - in Chinese cuisine where they cook for the sweet, the sour and the salty. For me, I believe there's a multitude of flavors, such as sweet, bitter, umami, metallic, astringent, floral, smoky etc. Think about the flavor profile salty; how many ingredients are salty? Feta cheese is salty, cordia cheese from Mexico is salty, smoked salmon can be salty, so how I cook is base on the flavor profile. When I'm cooking Mexican food, that doesn't necessarily mean that I need to use Mexican ingredients, I can also use Asian ingredients where there's a similarity.
What do you get your cooking inspirations from?
The true inspiration is the ingredient. I believe this as a person and as a chef; if we're really listening, the ingredient is going to tell us what to do with it. Right now we're at the farm and we have this beautiful basil, and the basil has these beautiful notes of not only freshness and anise light. We've also just got this amazing piece of Hawaiian tuna that is just exceptional and it's almost like it was their destiny to meet. My role here is a storyteller and listen to what the ingredient is guiding me to.
We see many chefs are using social media to boost their profile where you're obviously very active on. Do you think social media is very important now for chefs?
I think there's a new modern age of cuisine thanks to social media. You're seeing chefs from Japan talking to chefs from Oaxaca, chefs from Oaxaca talking to chefs from Peru. I think social media is pushing chefs forward to collaborate and create a new modern age of food. Social media has been imperative and inspiring in that sense.
On your social media, you talk a lot about food but also features your family a lot. How do you think food and family are connected?
For me, my message point as a human being is that transparency and honesty are key. My food is honest, it's pure, it's not about me or my ego; it's about the ingredient and that's how I treat social media. I'm very open, I look at the platform almost as a social responsibility. If I have something to say or share about my experience, it's about being authentic and genuine.
"My food is honest, it's pure, it's not about me or my ego."
There's a lot of talk about mental health in restaurants and having a good work-life balance. How do you create a good work culture for your chefs?
DNA and culture is the number one thing in a restaurant. The way I love building my team and the environment in the restaurant is about an incubation of brilliant people. The hiring process is the most important process. I'm responsible for every person that enters through those doors. If somebody isn't up to par, it's my responsibility that each person in this restaurant has a breakthrough; and that's where mentoring and coaching comes into play. I don't believe in firing people, I believe in coaching them and for every person on the team that we select, it's our responsibility to give them that break-through.
You mention Jean-Georges was your mentor. Do you think it's important for chefs nowadays to have that mentor relationship?
I love the word 'mentor' and 'coach'. I think mentoring and coaching is so imperative, and the structure is so important. You have to feel comfortable and safe enough that you can 'fail forward'. You're always moving forward; cooking is about discovery and we're constantly learning, growing, evolving. Having a mentor that can create an environment for you is very important.
In your opinion, what are the most important points when mentoring someone?
I'm currently in a restaurant in San Diego; it is more of a modern, Baha style where everything is driven from the farm, but really the premise of it is 'What's fresh?'. All we are is storytellers of what's fresh and respecting the ingredients. We have two amazing chefs here that I'm mentoring, who can feel safe to bring things to me. I think the most important part about the process is meeting them where they're at. If I have an expectation and they don't meet it there's a void, but if I meet them where they're at, then there's a trajectory and true growth.
"Create from a place of your uniqueness."
What sums up your attitude to cooking? What's one of the most important things you've learned as a chef?
I believe that we're all uniquely creative and I think that's the beauty and the opportunity. Create from a place of your uniqueness.