Restaurant Concept Award: Chef Angelo Sosa
Xie Xie | New York
Angelo Sosa’s story is that of the quintessential contemporary American chef—ethnically diverse, creative, and un-tethered by culinary definitions. He’s Dominican and Italian by heritage, grew up in Connecticut, and has adopted Asian cuisine as his own. His latest project, a fast-casual Asian sandwich shop called Xie Xie, only recently debuted in New York and is already gaining acclaim.
Growing up, Sosa’s family took their meals seriously, and it was the perfect breeding ground for Sosa’s budding culinary curiosity. He graduated The Culinary Institute of America with honors and jumped headlong into two of Connecticut’s top-rated kitchens, including the four-diamond Stonehenge Inn and Restaurant and Acqua. In 1999, Sosa moved to New York to work at Jean Georges—the starting point of his obsession with Asian ingredients and techniques.
In the following years Sosa worked at TanDa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Dune in the Bahamas, Spice Market, and Yumcha; and consulted at Buddakan and Morimoto. He was also invited by Alain Ducasse to create a special seasonal menu at his Paris restaurant Spoon Food & Wine.
Sosa’s broad-ranging restaurant experiences cemented his devotion to Asian flavors, which he expanded with trips to Thailand, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. He has big plans for his high-concept Asian sandwich shop, including opening another 11 locations across the US in the next two years. He was just awarded the StarChefs.com 2009 New York Rising Star Restaurant Concept Award.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Angelo Sosa: I’m half Dominican and half Italian. In a Hispanic home food is imperative, so every Sunday we would cook for seven siblings. I cooked a lot with my father. When I was six years old we came to New York to visit my aunt and I was just mesmerized. That’s when my true passion began.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
AS: I went to Manchester Community College, and I went to the CIA as well. I think schooling is very important, though I also feel it depends on the person—I believe drive, personal determination, and passion will make them succeed regardless.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
AS: Jean-Georges Vongerichten gave me the simplicity of ingredients. I respect Alain Ducasse on a business level and as a chef. Another chef I admire is Christian Bertrand. I learned humility from him. Humility is the most important thing in my career.
AB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
AS: I staged at Arzak in San Sebastian, where I learned that the most important thing is to taste your food. I also learned about complexity; just because something is complex doesn’t mean it tastes good—It has to have the yummy factor. Start with flavor and end with presentation.
Katherine Martinelli: Talk to me about your new restaurant, Xie Xie. What is the concept? How did the idea come about?
AS: Xie Xie is a concept of fast casual sandwiches. We’re offering something as simple as a sandwich but with a cutting edge aesthetic, great food, cool drinks, champagne in a can, and soda pop sake. The concept came about through my travels to Asia. If you look at the Xie Xie menu and you can see that it’s not specific to a region but there are nuances of flavors. The barbecue beef is derived from Vietnam, but then there’s carrot kimchi which is obviously from Korea.
KM: How did you know you were ready to own your own place and not just work for someone else?
AS: My thought process was literally this: I had traveled to Vietnam a few years ago and I was inspired by this restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong. It has existed for 200 years and they serve this one dish, river fish cooked over charcoal. They sit the fish down on the table and the fish is saturated in oil and they come by 5 minutes later and hit it with 2 bunches of dill and a bunch of cilantro—the bouquet is mind-blowing. Last August I decided I wanted to recreate this dish and put it into a sandwich. I served chili mayo with it and adapted it towards a Western style and I was blown away. That’s the inspiration for Xie Xie. This was literally before the economy crashed so opening the sandwich shop wasn’t originally based upon the economy, it was a concept based upon the sandwich.
KM: How did you go about opening the restaurant? Do you have partners?
AS: Basically I did a tasting in my home with the sandwiches. I did several tastings with several investors, and they all really liked it. I found some Italian investors who were blown away with the concept. Initially they wanted to move really quickly. They had a space on St. Mark’s Place but then there were logistical issues there so we decided to open on 9th Avenue first and then open on St. Mark’s.
KM: I know that you are opening a second location in the fall. Do you have plans to open other outlets or concepts? What’s your five year plan?
AS: Yes, that’s correct. I don’t want to sound too ambitious, but I would like to have at least 11 in the next two years. That’s throughout the country. I think LA and San Francisco would be great. We’re looking at something for Las Vegas, Shanghai, or Beijing. Most importantly I don’t care about the advancement. Right now I want to serve quality food and worry about growing organically rather than pulling the trigger early.
KM: As a new business in a down economy, how do you drum up business?
AS: Other than PR you mean? We have a PR machine. The most important thing I’ve learned is about putting quality before quantity. The “yumminess” of the food and the customer quality are first. We have a “three-foot rule,” which means that when you’re in the restaurant within three feet someone is there to greet you, and before you leave the restaurant there’s always somebody to say goodbye.
KM: What is your customer service philosophy?
AS: Nobody has an ego here and the customer comes first. Whatever degree and whatever extent, the customer always comes first. We have meetings every day and this is first and foremost.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AS: My food is first and foremost. You have to have a yummy factor; and the food has to be flavorful. You can’t construct a dish if you don’t have flavor. The dining experience is a simple equation. I love aesthetic but the food has to stand alone. So many restaurateurs focus on the aesthetic over the food. The aesthetics at Xie Xie are an extra accent.
KM: Where did you learn about how to run a business?
AS: I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve seen people like Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] as a chef and businessman, but I also have a business manager who helps me understand and have a business perspective; that helps me out a lot. And I’ve learned by working for geniuses like Steven Star. He’s a concept-driven man, a talent scout, and he runs a structured business environment.
KM: What advice would you offer to other chefs you want to open their own restaurant?
AS: I think two things. First of all, in my experience being a talented chef is one thing but learning to run the business is another thing. If you don’t know how to run the business, your business will fail. My experience is to put the business and the vision first, not yourself. Think of the business needs as opposed to your own; be humble and gracious. And I let my staff know that, too. When you open and you have a sense that you’re going to be successful the staff can become overly comfortable. It’s not the same experience. When we are successful we have to be humble and act as if we’re striving for success.
KM: How do you inspire and retain employees?
AS: We’re in a space of 300 square feet. We interviewed over 75 people to work in the front in a three week period and we only selected five. I met with every person, it was very meticulously done. I wanted to see everybody. It’s like linen—you have to feel it. You have to feel confident and comfortable with them, and know that they have your back. I’m trying to create a core establishment. The training has been very rigorous. They can recite who our PR person is, phone numbers, recipes, even what the spice is. It’s important. You can troubleshoot through any situation.
KM: What are some other restaurant concepts that you admire or that have inspired you?
AS: I think from a sandwich perspective I would put hands down to ‘wichcraft. I think Tom Colicchio is a genius. I love how he elevated the concept of sandwiches and made it chef driven.
KM: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
AS: Chefs are going back to home-style cooking. Chefs are gravitating towards more simplistic comfort food as opposed to fancy food.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
AS: Same answer for both: Escoffier.
AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
AS: India. They are doing some badass techniques. They have this technique where they bake a fish inside a coconut, and another where they infuse soils with herbs.
AB: What languages do you speak?
AS: A little French and a little kitchen Spanish
AB: What does “American Cuisine” mean to you?
AS: It’s a conglomerate of global cuisines. It’s down to earth and there are no smokescreens. But frankly, I can’t say that there is one “American cuisine.” I don’t think anyone can stand by one definition.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
AS: I would be an artist or a professional baseball player.
KM: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
AS: I think the perspective has changed for me. Growing up I wanted to be the most successful chef. Success was based on fame and notoriety. Now success would be taking something like the concept of Xie Xie, which is a simple, chef-driven brand, and seeing it everywhere from Ohio to LA to Chicago. Success is taking something so simple and mass multiplying it; taking something in its simplest form and making a niche in the market and having people rave about it.
I think for me it’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter. The two go hand in hand and it’s important to be strategic. You have to think outside the box and analyze things in the simplest form. Xie Xie is a revolutionary Chinese fast food franchise—I’m taking Asian flavors and putting it in panini grills. We are combining fast food and fashion and when you come into the space anybody can have it. Flavors are coming from all sides and they’re in your face. I also want to open an Asian-style boutique hotel outside cities. But first it’s important to know the business.
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