That was Angelo Sosa, “Top Chef: D.C.” Season 7 finalist, in the kitchen at Graffiato on Saturday. He Amtraked into town to plug his new cookbook — his first — with a five-course dinner at fellow “Top Chef” alum Mike Isabella’s restaurant.
Fans of the show will remember Sosa as the contestant who made it into the finals, then became so ill that he could barely get out of bed; he lost to Kevin Sbraga. These days Sosa has two restaurants in New York, Social Eatz in Midtown East and Anejo Tequileria in Hell’s Kitchen.
His “Flavor Exposed” (Kyle Books, $29.95), in addition to offering 100 recipes, touches on his “Top Chef” experience and more. He talks about his culinary inspirations growing up; he talks a little about his son, Jacob, who was born with a disorder of the 18th chromosome; and he outlines his philosophy of cooking, which basically is this: “Most of my food is based on a trinity of flavors; the idea is that to create a dish that really works you need three different components that are the key focal points.”
Sosa, 37, is known for matching those flavors in unexpected ways — curried caviar with white chocolate; sake with cheddar cheese; chicken with bonito salt — often with an Asian influence.
We talked with him Saturday as he was prepping for the dinner that evening. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation. Because he likes to break rules, he asked the first question.
Angelo Sosa: Have you had a chance to go through the book?
Jane Touzalin: I really like the book. The recipes seem sophisticated, but at the same time they’re accessible.
AS: The objective is, it’s meant for the home cook. I think they’re simple recipes, but they’re really exciting flavors. A great example, which we’re actually doing at tonight’s dinner, is scallop with banana. People might not think of putting banana with scallop. But the sweetness of the banana, the beautiful ripe banana, really accentuates the scallop. Then we just break up that texture with a little jalapeno, a little dice of jalapeno. And it’s just the most lovely thing you can imagine.
JT: And I could get that same result at home from the book?
AS: Yes. It’s funny; when we did the recipe testing — I didn’t do the recipe testing; we hired people to do it — out of the 100 recipes, I would say two were just slightly off; we just had to make subtle changes. That was important.
JT: How’s your son? You mention him in the book a couple of times.
AS: My son, he’s the inspiration behind the book. He’s doing amazing. He’s 4 years old now. I’m going to be seeing him this week; he lives in San Francisco now. He’s just constantly breaking all hurdles. He didn’t walk or talk. He doesn’t enunciate words or anything. He’s definitely my inspiration.
JT: On the subject of children, one of the things you mention in your book was when you were a child, the unusual lunch box food that you had to take to school that nobody wanted to share. But you said that in the long run, it paid off.
AS: I was probably a frustrated child. I didn’t understand at the time. All I wanted was to be a kid. I wanted Oreo cookies, Chips Ahoy. Even a turkey club or a simple peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich would have been amazing. But at the time, my mother would always say to me, and I think I get it now, she would always teach me to be cultural and have a worldly perspective. I think at the time that’s what they were teaching me. And it also taught me to be very creative, which I wasn’t aware of at the time.
JT: Do you think you can be taught to be creative?
AS: I think it’s like golf: Some people have the natural ability. But with time and perseverance, yes, I think you could learn how to be creative.
JT: Do you think you learned how, or do you think you’re innately creative?
AS: I think it’s just innately in me. The way my brain works is, it comes naturally. Like with my lunches, at the time, sometimes I would try to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, but I would always add all these esoteric ingredients. I think that’s naturally how my brain works.
JT: So how should parents feed their children?
AS: I’m not sure if I believe in children’s menus. With Jacob, at a very young age, I would bring him into the kitchen and let him smell spices. So now the first thing he wants to do is go into the kitchen, and the second thing he wants to do is smell spices. Third, whenever he eats, he smells what he eats. I think it’s very important — I think now we’re teaching the next generation about how to think about food. Like food in schools, what Jamie Oliver is doing, I think it’s a very big movement. I think it begins in the home. I think it’s our duty as parents to teach our children.
JT: Your parents were Dominican and Italian?
AS: My father’s Dominican, my mother’s Italian. My father would cook. I’d wake up every Saturday morning smelling liver, sauteing liver. I got exposed to different things.
JT: In the book you talk about having to clean the rice, every single grain of rice, for your father.
AS: I remember it so vividly. I would literally have a bowl, a wooden bowl, it was like a little canoe, right? My father would bring this bag of rice out. I would start on one side of the bowl and literally move every single grain. And my father would just stand right over me, just kind of making sure. I think this was one of those other lessons that taught me — not creativity, but it taught me to be very meticulous. It was really about focus and precision and details and nuances.
JT: Could you explain about the trinity of flavors, why that’s your philosophy and how you came to it?
AS: It’s very exciting because I think it’s kind of revolutionary. The whole thought process. I’m going to give an example. In Chinese culture, you have sweet, sour, salty. I believe it’s always a trinity of core flavors that works. There’s over 25 core flavors. So we know the basics: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, earthy, umami and others, about 25 total. I spent a lot of time researching these flavors, to understand which ones work. So imagine you’re going to go to Whole Foods or wherever, Trader Joe’s. First you have a concept. The concept is, we’re going to make a pizza. So let’s take something that’s sweet. We’ll use honey, for example. We’ll use a lavender honey, sex it up a bit. So next, something spicy. Do you have something spicy?
AS: Okay, so we’re going to go lavender honey with chorizo. And then something sour.
AS: Okay, beautiful, so then we think about texture. Obviously, we want to stimulate our palate, make it exciting. So, kimchi: Right off the bat I would just leave it raw. But we can change that kimchi. We can make a vinaigrette out of it. We could alter it in so many different techniques and forms. So then the chorizo: We can make it into a sauce, maybe use that with tomato and make a nice chorizo sauce. And I think with this pizza, I would just take some beautiful lavender honey and then, tableside, just drizzle it over. Then what I do with that is take those same ingredients and manipulate them in thousands and thousands of different ways.
JT: But not all of the 25 flavors are going to go together?
AS: I believe hands down that any flavor combination in the world works. In the book I use an example of caviar, white chocolate and curry. It’s the greatest combination, but it’s a product of balancing. Think of an equalizer. Like the equalizer for your stereo, right? So take sweet, sour, salty. You know that sour is going to be very strong. So you need to have sweet, on a graph of like 1 to 10, maybe at an 8. Sour is maybe a 3. Salty is maybe a 1 or 0.5. So that’s how I think about it. It’s all about balancing. That’s what I’m trying to empower the home cook with. Experiment and go for it, feel it out. If it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that’s the wrong combination. Maybe you just need to learn how to think of that equalizer.
JT: Are you over “Top Chef” or are you still happy to talk about it?
AS: I think it was a blessing in my life. I have a lot of admiration for the show. I’m here today to pay homage not only to my book but to my friendships through “Top Chef.”
JT: So you and Mike are pals?
AS: Very close.
JT: Is there a “Top Chef” network of former contestants who still are connected?
AS: Sure. It’s a very concentrated experience. It’s definitely a life-changing experience, and I think that that camaraderie, that kind of helping each other out and supporting each other, it’s really amazing. We’re very supportive.
JT: Even though you’re also competing with each other?
AS: Well, this is after the show!
JT: But during the show, do you actually dislike each other?
AS: My very clear perspective is that I was put on this earth to cook. I love cooking. I love being around people who are passionate about cooking and passionate about being excellent. For me, my only motive is to be around these people. I just kind of stayed clear of everything else.
JT: Do you watch “Top Chef” now?
AS: I do. I enjoyed Season 9; I enjoyed the opening, I thought the angle of more chefs was very interesting. It makes a lot of sense to me: After eight seasons, they have to switch it up a little bit.
JT: What would you say was the biggest thing you learned from being on the show?
AS: It’s a reality cooking show, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a life-changing show. Because in the end, you’re competing against other chefs, of course. But you have nobody else to help you, nobody else to turn to. When they say go, or they say start, you have to dig deep. It’s a means of survival. It really helped me reflect on my own life, my cooking style, my philosophy of never compromising in anything that I do. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it 100 percent, and there are going to be no barriers that are going to stop me.
I choose to focus on the all positive aspects of the show and what it’s done for my life. The D.C. season, Season 7, was about almost breaking myself. Being more daring about learning, absorbing. I had a new restaurant at the time and my son has all these issues, so I knew that if I was going to go on, the cost was so great to be there, so I might as well do the best that I can.
JT: The dinner tonight is a promotion for your book?
AS: Correct. This is the first city of my book tour. I’m headed to Denver after this, then I’m going to San Francisco. Then back to New York, then I’m going to go to Dallas and Philadelphia.
JT: Are you cooking in every city?
AS: Yes. I’m going to be in Dallas with Tiffany Derry , who was on the show. Philly with Kevin Sbraga, from Season 7. So that answers your question about how tightly knit, how very supportive everybody is. It’s amazing. For example, for Tiffany Derry’s opening in Dallas, we flew down there, we supported the opening. Some people even helped her launch the restaurant.
JT: What about this place? Did you help?
AS: Oh, Mike doesn’t need my help! He’s doing very well.
JT: About the ingredients in the book: For a lot of them you’ll give substitutes; like for the candied tamarind, you’ve given the alternative of candied ginger. That’s maybe fine for around here, or New York, but what about somebody in Columbus, Ohio, who buys this book? Are they going to be able to cook from it?
AS: I think cooking is about exploring and adaptation. We’re doing a watermelon salad, it calls for thyme. Literally the recipe will take one minute to make. If you don’t have thyme — maybe you have basil in the garden — I say just go for it. Adapt to your surroundings. I’d probably say the most esoteric ingredient in the book is the gochujang, which is a Korean chili paste, but I think it’s starting to become much more accessible.
There are some very simple recipes. I didn’t want to make it where the majority were difficult. There are somewhat different layers.
JT: Why Asian? Considering where you grew up, who you grew up with and what you grew up eating, how is it you tend to gravitate so strongly to Asian ingredients?
AS: I come from a big family, with seven children. Food was the glue that brought the family together. And in Asian culture, I have the utmost admiration for the respect for the family, respect for family time. I think that really resonated with me. And I also think the flavors of the food — there’s just life in them, from the vibrancy of the different varieties of cilantro to working with Saigon cinnamon, which is just totally different from regular cinnamon. When I was traveling through Asia, it was almost like I saw for the first time that there was just a whole different world.