Those of you living in San Francisco who follow food have heard of Sorrel Restaurant. If you’re lucky, hopefully you have been. After dining with them I immediately added them to my Top 10 San Francisco Restaurant Guide here and was so impressed with Chef Alexander Hong I followed up seeing if he’d share more in an interview together. He graciously accepted, read more about this talented, young rising star (he’s actually already at under 30 having started Sorrel Restaurant), and see why he’s a San Francisco Chef to follow and why Sorrel is a must visit!
What was your first memory of cooking and what did you cook?
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and as a kid my aunt, who is an organic farmer in Missouri, would visit and bring us amazing produce. She opened my eyes to the magic of seasonal, high quality ingredients and inspired me to learn more about food and sourcing.
What is a knife you cannot live without?
Yoshikane chefs knife!
What is one ingredient you cannot cook without?
Garlic and Chili!
When did you know you wanted to become a chef? What about when you knew you wanted to become a restaurant proprietor?
Well, I got my first restaurant experience in high school where I spent four years learning the fundamentals of cooking. Then, I eventually went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park for two and a half years and worked for a year at Jean-Georges, a three-star Michelin restaurant where I developed my love for fine dining.
Afterward, I moved back to Boulder for a bit and worked at Frasca, before making my way to San Francisco. There, I worked at Quince for two years, which opened my eyes to the bounty of California, and where I fell in love with Italian, especially pasta.
Finally, I decided it was time for me to do my own thing and started working as a private chef and also started the Sorrel pop up. Sorrel in its pop up form was a way for me to test my boundaries, “play restaurant,” and define my own cuisine. I ran the pop up for three years in different spaces with different menus every week, until I found a home a year ago and opened Sorrel as a full-service brick and mortar in April 2018.
Who has been the most influential mentor/chef in your career?
Jean George and Michael Tusk
How did your time in New York at Jean-George followed by 2.5 years working at the highly acclaimed Quince Restaurant help shape your cooking style and role as a Chef?
Both of the restaurants taught me so much. The attention to detail in everything that you do. As well as the standards of working in a 3 Michelin star establishment.
There is talk in the culinary world about how Chef’s run/lead a kitchen and the environment it creates for their teams. What is your style? How does this compare to some of the high pressure kitchens you have worked in?
Leading a team is hard. I try to make the Sorrel kitchen a place for learning and open ideas. It’s a stressful kitchen but all of the cooks are here to learn and get better at there profession. There is a really great team right now!
Before opening Sorrel San Francisco, you hosted 135 pop up dinners. How did those come about and what were they like for those of us who didn’t get a chance to attend them (like me, regrettably)
I ran 135 pop ups over the course of three years. The pop up years were amazing and sometimes I miss them. It was such a great learning experience, from working with close friends, to trying to run a business, and trying to organize all of the logistics with opening a temporary restaurant for a day. It was a complete whirlwind from day one, when we rented a space in Union Square, and I was chasing people on the street with flyers trying to get them to come in. We were moving locations quite a bit, but I eventually got the rhythm and scheduling down, but it took three years to get to that point.
How did the pop-up menus inspire the current Sorrel San Francisco menu? Any stand out dishes that became Sorrel signature dishes as a result (possibly the whole duck breast which as a non-duck eater I adored)?
The pop up was a great way for me to play restaurant, define my own cuisine and learn out to run a kitchen. The duck is a hit, we posted all the pop up menus in the restaurant. I look at them every now and then and put something on the menu at Sorrel.
What was one of the biggest mistakes you made the first year in the culinary industry or the first year as a restaurant owner?
Hiring close friends, not the best idea. I still learn something everyday on how to become a better chef.
What is your favorite after work drink?
What is your favorite local San Francisco dining spot? Bar?
Snug after work and I love trying a new spot every week on my days off.
Tell us something that would surprise people about you?
I love being outdoors every second that I am not in the kitchen big fan of snowboarding, tennis, rock climbing, and swimming. Also, I am super into music (techno specifically haha). Right now, I am taking some lessons.