Chef Angelo Sosa: Transporting Memories Of Past To The Future

In 2011, he opened Social Eatz, serving dishes like Korean Fried Chicken and Bibimbop Burger.

Angelo Sosa
PHOTO Angelo Sosa

Three years ago, Angelo Sosa was approached to partake in the Bravo reality TV show, Top Chef.  He sat down with his business partner and weighed out the pros and cons. At the time, he had a son with medical issues in midst of opening a new business. They weren’t sure how the show would be beneficial, though it would be great exposure and experience, they were concerned the effects on his public image that already entailed working with some of the best chefs in the industry. “In the end, it was a great choice, a life changing experience.” He recounts, “It was a reality show, very stressful. You learn a lot about yourself, where you are in life. What I learned was, all you have is yourself, no one else to turn to. You have to dig so deep, sometimes you don’t think you have it in you.” He knew going on the show required giving everything he had, going for it all. “The show breaks you, makes you realize that sometimes you don’t have enough strength, there’s some other force carrying you through.”

Faith has grounded him, so has surrounding himself with people, whose motive in life is to see him happy. Angelo grew up in a big family, being the youngest of seven siblings with a father in the military, discipline was an influential part of his childhood. “In a country town in Connecticut, I would wake up early in the morning on Saturdays to clean the garden, take care of all the produce and vegetables. Then, prepare a big Sunday feast. My father brought discipline to me at the table, which made me the chef that I am today.” He explains growing up in a house full of dominant Dominican influence, he was never allowed to eat cookies or peanut butter jelly sandwiches. Instead, pickled pigs feet and all sorts of esoteric items were the norm. In retrospect, his pallet was developed at a very young age.

Angelo Sosa
PHOTO Angelo Sosa

It was his Dominican aunt who introduced him to a passion for cooking. A woman living in Queens, New York, Angelo was pulled into his aunt’s kitchen with intoxicating aromas. Sitting on a bar stool, he watched in fascination. Not only were the Dominican flavors provocative, he was excited for her presence at the head of the table, carefully observing reactions from family members that oozed of pure joy. He remembers, “This really impacted me, it’s deeply why I’m tied to my cooking. Growing up, I was a very quiet person, not outspoken at all. Cooking was a way for me to be loud, show my emotions, be a bit more daring, showing people who my inner person was.” At age 16, he began working as a waiter at a retirement home, became further obsessed with every detail of food and cooking. He pestered the chef, learned the lingo and fell in love with all aspects of running a kitchen. He worked even on days unscheduled, he was in love.

Cooking began as a mission but grew into an obsession that led him to work closely with Jean-Georges Vongerlchten at his famous Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City. By working with Jean-Georges, he became further intrigued with Asian cuisine and went to Asia. From Hong Kong, Vietnam to Thailand, he submerged in the markets, learned about local cultures and worked in local restaurants. After returning to New York, he opened “Yum Cha” in West Village. At the time, it was the second modern Asian fine-dining restaurant, if not in the state, possibly in the country.  Although Yum Cha no longer exists today, he later progressed to work with Alain Ducasse, the internationally renowned chef, who allowed him to travel further to Europe and other parts of Asia. Alain saw Angelo’s willingness to understand stories behind food, and respecting origins of where stories are told. He continued to travel, in need of understanding certain cultures to tell stories with food.

Angelo Sosa
PHOTO Angelo Sosa

Coming from a big Latino family, he feels that food is a centrical part of how people communicate and how love is expressed toward each other. So he gravitated toward Asian culture and cuisine, “I’m all about family in regards to traditions and legacies being passed down, I think that’s something that Asian cultures really focus on. And I have a high degree of respect for that. Respecting the past, but how the past evolves to something in the future. I really try to showcase that in my food. I dab my hands in the past, but present that past in the present and future.”

When it come to the word “fusion,” he uses a great example, Malaysian cuisine, a true definition of fusion in his mind. He explains, “What Italians do with their noodles is very similar to what the Chinese do with their low-mien, similar to what the Japanese do with ramen. Malaysian food is a combination of Chinese, Indian, Thai, Portuguese cultures. If I go to Malaysia and cook a Malaysian dish, I can easily cook Portuguese food but it’s still Malaysian. There’s fusion and there’s true fusion. That’s the importance of seeing the world.  As a chef, you have to be open to new techniques, and where things originate.” To Angelo, cultures derive from traditions with conversions to it. From Greeks with mezes, Spanish tapas, Chinese dim sum, it’s all somewhat relative.

Angelo Sosa
PHOTO Angelo Sosa

He also recognizes the tremendous amount of techniques in Asian cooking. He sees chefs like Ferran Adria or other chefs at elBulli experiencing fine-dining restaurants not to learn new techniques but new creativity. “I think they go to places like Guangzhou or countrysides of Beijing, where traditions of local cuisines involve cultural techniques that drive their inspiration.  I think that’s where it begins.” He further explicits, “Techniques infer to women in Thailand that make sugar out of wheels. It’s about exposure to the world, understanding what we’re surrounded by, as opposed to being isolated in your own country. Why not take the concept of how Peking duck is prepared and use some parts of it to cook chicken or rabbit. Why can’t we cook lamb that way?” He sees various diversities in techniques and cultures, thus traveling and seeing the world create the core of infusing other cultural techniques.

In 2011, he opened Social Eatz, serving dishes like Korean Fried Chicken (Asian blue cheese dipping sauce, kimchi pickles,) and Bibimbop Burger (slow cooked egg, Korean pickles.) Initially, he conceived Social Eatz as a casual eatery with burgers, hotdogs and possibly a few new wave items. With a bigger demand in New York’s Midtown neighborhood, his cooking style and notoriety from the TV show, he has amped up the restaurant in the past few months with a complete cocktail program, hiring one of the best mixologist in the country and a manager who has worked at elBulli. He has created Social Eatz as an oasis in Midtown East.

Angelo Sosa
PHOTO Angelo Sosa

From US, Europe to Asia, the sole inspiration that remains in his life is his son, who is missing a chromosome that hinders growth. “He has just learned how to walk at 4 years old, he can’t talk but he’s fully learning through therapy.” Angelo’s vibrant charm suddenly softens, “I keep my eye on the prize, I work hard so I can provide for him.  He’s what keeps me going and grounded.  He had a heart bypass surgery at 6 months old. He fights so hard, so why can’t I fight even harder for him.” His son’s happiness is his happiness.

At the end of the day, Angelo grew up in a country town with an ethnic family. At some point, he accepted who he is and where he comes from. “The most powerful thing you can ever do in life is to believe in yourself.” He continues, “If you see and believe a vision, with determination, you have to try and make everything happen. If others around you don’t see the vision, realize that they don’t have to. But you need to see it for yourself, because it’s your vision.” He firmly believes we live and die within our own dreams. If we have the power to dream, we have the power to see it, then we have the power to make it happen. Never take “No” for an answer.

Photo credits for the food & restaurant are Marco Vazquez, credits for the profile images are Jeremy Johnson.

Go behind the scenes of the interview.

Wendy Hung

CEO, FOUNDER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

As the founder of Jetset Times, Wendy is an avid traveler and fluent in five languages. When she's not traveling, Wendy calls Paris and Taipei home. Her favorite countries so far from her travels have been: Bhutan, Iran, and Russia because they were all so different! St. Bart's was pretty amazing too (wink)!

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