Texas chef Michael Sohocki goes totally ‘old-school’
By Kate Zimmerman
SAN ANTONIO, TX – There’s no sign of celebrated Texan chef Michael Sohocki when three visiting writers enter his farmhouse-style restaurant, just off San Antonio’s River Walk. Instead, a Restaurant Gwendolyn staffer leads us to a rectangular table, upon which sprawls the entire back leg of a pig, large, raw and pink.
Next to it is a heap of loquats, a Chinese fruit naturalized in Texas, and a metal basket full of grubby eggs. There’s something else, too -- a towel, from which extends the ruddy comb of a chicken. A live chicken.
“What’s the deal with the hen?” one of us nervously asks a server. Maybe decapitating poultry in a dining room is what they call a “Texas floor show.” He says the chicken is recovering from an “escapade.”
Enter the chef, a philosophical iconoclast who resembles Leonardo DiCaprio. He quickly informs us that “every last perishable item” used at Restaurant Gwendolyn, including the pig whose leg is on display, comes from a farm or ranch within 150 miles, and that one third of the eggs before us emerged from the traumatized madam in the towel. He explains that a storm brought the chicken into contact with an electrified fence; calming her down is essential. As for any squeamishness we may feel at the sight of the pig haunch, so what?
“The reason that horrible, scary thing is on the table is to knock it into your head what farm-to-table is,” he tells us. If we believe that pieces of meat “fall out of the sky… that’s irresponsible and obtuse.”
Cradling the hen, he explains that people get freaked out about pig legs because the Second Industrial Revolution in the U.S. separated us as consumers from the provenance of our food. Before 1850, he says, we would have seen animals raised properly by our neighbours, and would have purchased meat straight from those farmers and ranchers. Then we figured out how to process, refrigerate, ship and distribute meat in huge quantities. The emphasis shifted from small batches of responsibly raised local animals to huge operations, where feeding creatures improperly to bulk them up for higher profits resulted in food that we don’t recognize any more.
“My parents’ generation was taught very carefully to suck from the pipe of industry,” says the chef, who started his career deep-frying the sort of mass-produced meat he now reviles. He rethought his own approach after he had children, and named his restaurant after his maternal grandmother, who grew up on an Oklahoma pig farm in the Great Depression.
“The intention of this restaurant is to produce honest food,” he says. For him, that means eschewing trends and modern gadgets, buying only whole animals, and allowing local ingredients to dictate the menu.
So if a recipe or method comes from before 1850, with “squirrely” procedures or vague measurements, Sohocki’s intrigued; if it emerged after the rise of industry, he’s skeptical. His faux-Victorian kitchen uses no electrical tools; its butchering is done without machines, its cream’s hand-whipped. Its pasta’s rolled with a rolling pin and cut with a torchio per pasta.
Its stoves are gas-fueled. There are no freezers for storage, although health regulations demand a refrigerator. As minor gestures to modern convenience, there is electric light, air conditioning and an ice machine for the ice cream the cooks hand-churn, using ice and salt.
They also use either fats derived from seeds or render them in-house, from meat. The pans for the restaurant’s milk bread are greased, for instance, with bacon fat.
“I ‘innovate’ by going back in time to people who had the same problems I have,” says Sohocki, meaning those who had to use the whole animal or crop for reasons of practicality, and therefore salted, fermented and preserved every bit. He cures his prosciutto for three months with kosher salt, and makes a pork cacciatore salami that’s inoculated with the bacterium T-SPX. “When you say no to the industrial complex and you’re at the mercy of the seasons, you have to know how to use what you have. The bacteria are my friends.”
Accepting shortcomings is another necessity. Sohocki scoffs at claims that everywhere you go, the tastiest fruit and vegetables are the local ones. He says Texas citrus fruits are not the best. He doesn’t care.
“That’s the product of my people -- that is the story I’m wanting to tell. You can have the most perfect product in the world any time you want, as long as you’re willing to give up meaning.”
Sohocki, who once ran a cooking school in Osaka, also co-owns Kimura, a buzzy ramen, izakaya and breakfast shop next door. “I appreciate ramen because it’s a humble, working class food that Japanese people really eat.”
At Restaurant Gwendolyn, after a platter of house-made charcuterie, Sohocki serves us a delectable dessert of loquats macerated in lemon balm, mint and simple syrup, spooned over funnel cake with vanilla ice cream, paired with house-made peach bubbly.
But don’t expect to find these items on the menu when you visit. Gwendolyn’s cooperative of cooks, which Sohocki calls a “communist think-tank” -- alarming one American in our group -- reinvents its menu daily. When you make food according to which ingredients are ready, and fastidiously refuse to take even 20th-century shortcuts, the particulars are ever-changing.
“This land is my basket,” says the chef, gathering up his addled hen and bidding us adieu.
Forget the Alamo
There’s plenty else going on in San Antonio, Texas
What to do
Investigate S.A.’s food scene during May’s Culinaria Festival Week. http://culinariasa.org/san-antonio/
Dive into chic Mexican cocktails and cuisine at Mescaleria Mixtli. http://restaurantmixtli.com/#mixtli
Take a Latin American cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio. http://www.ciachef.edu/
Poke around the Pearl District, with its weekend farmers market, eateries and boutiques. http://atpearl.com/food
Chow down at Cured on handmade cured foods like apple jalapeno pork rillettes. https://curedatpearl.com/
Watch San Antonio | The Saga, a spectacular historical film projected onto the façade of the 300-year-old San Fernando Cathedral. http://www.mainplaza.org/san-antoniothe-saga/
Where to stay
Hotel Valencia: A stylish spot on the lovely San Antonio River Walk. http://www.hotelvalencia-riverwalk.com/