Named after Michael Sohocki’s grandmother, Restaurant Gwendolyn carries more than a little bit of her heritage. An Oklahoma pig farmer who grew up during the Great Depression, Gwendolyn taught Sohocki how to “eat gristle off of chicken bones,” says the chef. “She drove a farm tractor and could throw hay bails all day on a cup of coffee.” An eccentric, strong mentor for Sohocki, someone as comfortable in the grit of the farm as in the heat of the kitchen, Gwendolyn would prove a pivotal influence in the young chef’s culinary life.
Not that Sohocki knew he would end up behind the burners. His career has taken him all over the country and world, both in and out of the restaurant industry. (Although to this day, Sohocki credits mentor Chef Marcel Althauser of Restaurant Marcel’s—his first kitchen job—for teaching him “the lion’s share” of what he knows.) Sohocki went from waiting tables in Corpus Christi to running center sauté in San Francisco, eventually quitting the business altogether in 2004 for a sojourn in Japan (where he taught English for Apple Communications, eventually opened a cooking school, and picked up his beloved Glestain knife). The traveler came back to San Antonio in 2007, where he moved from chef of The Cove to the cold line at Chef Andrew Weissman’s Le Rêve and various stations at Il Sogno.
It was only in 2010, when Le Rêve closed and young Sohocki took over the lease, that he was able to put into action the early lessons his grandmother taught him. “Grandma was the last of an era shaped by limitations. She exemplified a kind of simple strength, that durable old-school ‘make do’ attitude that I want to uphold in the way we do things [at Restaurant Gwendolyn],” says Sohocki. “Grandma did good,” he says. With a local, seasonal, old school, handmade credo, we’re pretty sure Restaurant Gwendolyn will too.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn – San Antonio, TX
Katherine Sacks: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Michael Sohocki: I was a starving artist. I was doing three dimensional multi-media when I was going through college and trying to make a living on it. The first job I took was a waiter and host in Corpus Cristi. Right across the street was an art gallery—I had put up many pieces there and tried to sell them and make a living, but that didn’t work out.
I got interested in food because of a pastry cook who I worked with there; he became a good friend of mine. He was cooking things way above his qualifications or necessary for the hotel, just because he enjoyed them, like unusual ice creams and banana crème brulée. He was the first person I ever saw apply creativity to a craft. I became interested, and I started looking into cooking as a means of creative expression that was also a craft that could feed you.
KS: As a former artist, how to you define cooking, as craft or art?
MS: I have always struggled with the definition of cooking as an art form. I have come to the conclusion that as much as we love to say “culinary arts” or “the art of producing food,” we are craftsmen. It is a craft and like any other craft, creativity can be applied. Maybe that’s what makes the difference between a good thing and a great thing. Making a good sausage is what is necessary to meet the requirements; anyone should call themselves a cook who can make a good sausage. But to make a meaningful sausage requires a whole other muscle. You have to apply thought and meaning that comes from you.
KS: Your concept at Restaurant Gwendolyn is very specific. Can you explain the philosophy behind your food and the restaurant?
MS: The concept behind my food and my restaurant is that limitations create identity; they always have. Limitations in the old days created the identities of the old days, such as Kosher for the Jewish cuisine and Halal for Islam. These limitations shape life, behavior, and community. I think the greatest disservice of the Industrial Revolution to the human world was to take away those limitations, which has taken away identity. When you have anything you want, anytime you want, you don’t have the limitations that created who you are, and the result is you have no identity. You can have lobster in a frozen TV dinner in July at 3am, 300 miles from any farm, let alone any ocean. A world that is absent of limitations will permit this, and it takes identity away from the eater and from the lobster, and removes the meaningful parts of living a satisfying existence.
I deliberately put those limitations on my cuisine. I only buy our perishable goods from within 150 miles and have watermarked preparations to 1850 and before. The Industrial Revolution took hold in the mid- to late-1800s, and with refrigerated railcar and meat-packing plants, a violent explosion of availability dissolved limitations. We were defined by our needs and then our needs were removed.
KS: A very extreme way of thinking sustainably. In what other ways is your restaurant sustainable?
MS: If it is a traditional ingredient that traveled at the time [such as Brandy], it still can, that’s fine with me. But I want to show that this type of cooking necessarily excludes salmon from Nova Scotia, Patagonian toothfish, micro coconut. These things are not part of our identity, and if I put those things on my plate, I am leading you astray.
We also use no machines of any kind; everything is prepared in the old way. We use a mortar and pestle, have no electric dishwasher, and nothing with a plug other than the vent and refrigerator that is required by law. I also order whole rabbits, chickens, deer, lamb, pigs, goats, and feel we must use the entire thing. Each part has a classical role, each is suited to one preparation or another. This is the old way.
KS: Beyond cooking in a restaurant without modern equipment, what’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MS: Classic fine dining is founded on slavery and to reawaken its original authentic visage requires the slavery of someone. Since we don’t have slaves anymore, we don’t believe in the ideal on which classic fine dining was founded, so the slaves are us. While people think of me as the king, the chef, I am the one carrying the 150 pound pig down the stairs to butcher. The actual realization of bringing things back to their original state is tremendous work and requires tremendous dedication. This is not in-born in our society; it’s not easy to come by the kind of people that have the kind of endurance. It takes a reawaking on the part of everyone who works in my space; its tremendous emotional and physical endurance on the part of my and my people.
San Antonio is not Berkley; we are living in a place where the shadow of Alice Waters does not exist. It is very hard to grow a carrot, tremendously hard to grow a lamb, my farmers are little and they struggle. It all adds even more challenges. It’s very hard to do something that you believe in, in a place where nobody does it and nobody believes in it.
KS: And what’s next? Where will we find you in five years?
MS: I want the restaurant to stay open, to go on as an example to other people who would purchase ethically, open ethical and meaningful restaurants, food trucks, or stores or to reawaken some other part of them. If my restaurant stays alive, if I can stay alive, then I am a living example of supporting local people, that this can be done.
I want the people behind me to see me survive, but more than that, I want to shake my generation to the realization that we can change things—that we are the beginning of the solution.