7/13/2012 03:46:00 PM

Farm to Heart: A Chat With Angelo Sosa

NYC’s Angelo Sosa (Social EatzAñejo Tequileria) is in Philly tonight, cooking a special dinner at the restaurant of fellow Top Chef season seven contestant Kevin Sbraga. An alum of both Top Chef and Top Chef: All Stars, Sosa just published his first cookbook, Flavor Exposed: 100 Global Recipes from Sweet to Salty, Earthy to Spicy. Available in the U.S. for $30 or less, the 200-page volume is filled with fun stories and mouth-watering photos, and has been released worldwide, including editions for Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea. We caught up with Angelo for a chat to find out his favorite ingredient, the best recipe in the book, his favorite meal in Philly and what he would add to a make a classic cheesesteak even better.

Your book is organized into nine sections with names like “sweet,” “smoky,” “sour” and “spicy.” What did you choose first, the categories or the recipes within each section?
The categories came first. I actually believe there are 22 different flavor profiles in food, but since this cookbook is aimed at the home chef, we kept it to nine simple ones. The premise is to introduce people to my style of cooking. I don’t call myself a chef of a certain type of cuisine - I’m all about finding fantastic flavor combinations, wherever they come from.

Once we had the sections, it was tough to choose the recipes - I didn’t want to cheat, and try to fit something under “sweet” if it didn’t really belong there. Although each recipe does have a trio of descriptors at the top - my cooking philosophy is built around finding a “trinity” of flavors.

What was it like to work with a co-author?
My co-author Suzanne Lenzer is great. Working with her was a really interesting process - it was very intimate, because my stories are very personal. She knows a lot about me now - for a while she was almost like my therapist. But the synergy was very important to me, because I knew I’d be exposing myself with this book.

The stories that introduce each chapter are the stories of my life, and they should be transportive, like a movie. If you’re not in Vietnam with me hearing that “thwack” of the lemongrass as you read, we haven’t done our job right. Cooking is an emotion, it’s a feeling. The initial working title was actually "Sosa-ductive" - it wasn’t my idea!

How long did it take to write the book?
To be honest, there are four other Top Chef alums writing books for the fall, and it was very important to us that we beat them to the punch and not get lost in the mix. So we wrote the book in two months. The process probably took six months, total.

You mention in the book you get obsessed by ingredients and flavors. What’s your favorite ingredient, the one we’re most likely to come across in these recipes?
My favorite ingredient overall might be dill, but I think in the book the one you’ll find used most in the recipes is gochujang - which is probably also the most difficult to find. However, it’s starting to hit the mainstream market - soon you’ll be able to find it everywhere, like Heinz Ketchup.

What’s your personal favorite recipe in the book?
Spiced watermelon salad with aleppo pepper. It’s to die for. You have the saltiness of the olive, the spiciness of the pepper and the sweet watermelon, and it’s so simple, but just perfect.

It’s also a great example of what I want home chefs to take away from my book - to “just go for it” in cooking. The recipe calls for thyme, but it’s a guideline - if you have basil or oregano or mint screaming at you in your garden, just go for it. It might not be right the first time, but maybe it is! And if not, you’ll learn how to modify balance and proportion to make it great.

Say my mother-in-law is coming over for dinner. What dish do I make to blow her away?
She might give you a weird look, but I guarantee you’ll win her over with the scallop and banana tartare. In your head, the combination might make you go “huh?” but it just makes sense on every level. Under the ocean salinity, scallops are naturally sweet, especially if they’re super fresh, and the bananas extract that. Add some Japanese citrus and jalapeño, and you can seduce someone with that dish. [Ed. note: this dish is on the menu at the Sbraga dinner tonight.]

What comes next? You have your own restaurants, you’ve been on TV, you've cooked for Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, what’s next on your slate?
I’m all about grandiose plans, and I’m a big shooter - I love to take risks - but I think it’s very important to nurture what’s in front of me right now. I can’t think about what’s happening five years down the road and still give my full heart and attention to what I’m involved today. Whatever’s next will come through what I care about now. I live and breathe in the day.

You’ve been to Philly before. Where was the best meal you had here?
Off the top of my head, I’d say Pizzeria Stella. The pizza is ridiculous. The dough is fluffy, like a pillow, the egg in the middle of the tartufo is luscious, and it totally transports you to Italy. That’s very important for food. It’s why I travel so much, to become immersed in other cultures, and bring that back to my restaurants and recipes, and the future.

Food experiences should take you back to the past - your culture, your childhood, your memories - but also bring you to today, and transcend into the future. The trendy concept these days is farm-to-table, but what I really believe in is the concept of farm-to-heart. You can tell if a chef puts his or her passion into what is served.

When you think of Philly dining overall, what do you think of?
I helped open Buddakan in New York City, so I know, respect and love Stephen Starr. After refining concept dining, he’s learned to be very chef driven and ingredient oriented. Probably the best steak I ever had in my life was at Barclay Prime. And then there’s Marc Vetri, and Kevin Sbraga, who are redefining Philly cuisine. Kevin’s space is beautiful, his food is sincere - it’s modern without being too avant garde. I’m very proud of him. He’s the Salvador Dalí of presentation.

Speaking of Philly dining, what would you add to a cheesesteak to complete that flavor “trinity”?
Are you joking me? Sriracha. Of course. I actually would love to make a truck - the back would be red, the front would have a green tip, and we’d sell those Sriracha cheesesteaks.

What would you call it?
Phillachia.

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