Chef Chat, Part 1: Soren Pedersen of Sorrel Urban Bistro, On Culinary School in Denmark

In late July, Sorrel Urban Bistro opened in the old Ziggy's Healthy Grille space at Greenbriar and West Alabama. In the open kitchen, Chef Soren Pedersen can be seen every day, turning out some of the most beautifully plated food in the city.

We were curious about this newcomer to the Houston restaurant scene, so to get to know him better, we caught up with him for an afternoon chat.

EOW: So I understand that you've been in the Houston area for more than 10 years, is that right?

SP: Well, I came originally in '95, and I stayed for four or five years, got into the the private club business, got to move around a little bit around the country, and then I ended up in Seattle, where I got out of private clubs and back into restaurants again.

EOW: So you started out in restaurants?

SP: Yes, actually, my apprenticeship was in a hotel, like a small hotel with two sides, one side with an upscale restaurant, and one side with a banquet side. This was in Denmark. After I finished the apprenticeship, I worked at couple different places in Denmark, and then a chef friend of mine, his brother had a catering company in Houston.

EOW: And that's what brought you to Houston?

SP: Yes, because I wanted to travel, and I meant to stay for a couple of years.

EOW: You wanted to travel, and you came to Houston?

SP: Well, I wanted to travel, I wanted to go to the US. This was part of a big plan, and now 15 years later now, I'm still in Houston. So the whole idea of working for a couple of years here and then going on to other places...I mean, I did get to travel within the US, but the original idea was to go to different countries. But I liked it here, it happened to work out really well for me. I've worked for some really great employers.

EOW: But before you came back to Houston, you were in Seattle...

SP: It was an area north of downtown called Green Lake. It was kind of a neighborhood blackboard kind of restaurant. It was kind of whatever's around...it was really fun. I can plan when I have to, but I've always been, I'm actually more inspirational. I'm more -- once I see stuff and feel stuff -- that's kind of where a lot of the ideas come in...People go and they plan a week ahead. I can't, there's no way. For me it's all about the what's available, but within what's available, it has to be what you're in the mood for. Sometimes you're in a dark mood, you wanna get some comfort; when you're happy, you'll want to do something light.

EOW: So if you're in a dark mood, what would you make?

SP: Some kind of heavy stew, using scraps here and there, something really quick.

EOW: So that's comfort food for you. If you're in a light, happy mood...

SP: Then it's like fresh fish with some kind of light salad, light bread. Just really kind of light.

EOW: So now if I know if I come into the restaurant and the menu's all stews...

SP: [laughs merrily] Exactly. Well, I try not to put my personal thing into everything, but I try also to consider that maybe people out there want something light. It also depends on the season. Obviously now, it's going into my favorite season, which is fall.

EOW: Why is it your favorite season?

SP: Because you're getting hungry again. You're coming out of this 100 degree whether -- it's been a little extreme this year. Now it's cooling down -- just this week and this past weekend...The mood changes. Now it's like: "let's go out and eat, let's sit on the patio. Let's have fun." That kind of thing, for me, is exciting. And then on top of that there's all the root vegetables, all the different things are starting to come in and you can start cooking heavier, because people are ready for it. So each season has its unique inspiration.

EOW: You were at Ray's Grille before Sorrel. For how long?

SP: We opened Ray's Grille three years ago.

EOW: In Fulshear. And you lived there too?

SP: No. I've always been in Montrose. It's a little of a drive, but you get used to it.

EOW: What are the people in Fulshear like? What are their palates like? Do they respond to your food?

SP: Yes, very well. Most of the people who live in Fulshear work in Houston and do other things, and are very well traveled. There are a lot of nationalities out there -- French, English -- it's kind of like a little Houston outside of Houston. There's so much new construction going on. People choose to work a little further out. They can work in Houston or work from the house. There's a little more nature around you, it's more relaxing. Except for me, I've always been more of a city person.

EOW: How was the menu at Ray's different than the one here?

SP: It's a very unique concept. We do a lot of game, a lot of fresh seafood. It's comfort in the sense that the components are familiar, but maybe put together in a little unusual way like you haven't seen before or never thought of.

EOW: Like what?

SP: Like a roast venison backstrap with a black currant blue cheese sauce. Meaning like a veal stock with blue cheese and currents, which is maybe more traditional in Europe, but maybe not as traditional here. I mean, I love where I came from and I love what we did, not that everything is necessarily based on there, there's a lot of New American here.

EOW: What's food like in Denmark?

SP: Denmark is a lot of things. We're surrounded by the ocean, so fishing is a big thing. Farming is a big thing, so pork is a big thing. There's a lot of everyday cooking -- it can be like fish cakes, hash, it can be a simple whole fish roasted with a little lemon on top. And with the seasons, it gets really cold, and when it gets really cold then we get into pot roast and those types of thing. We eat a lot of duck, game, there's a lot of hunting going on. In chef's school, it's French.

EOW: So you went to culinary school in Denmark. Did you grow up cooking?

SP: Well, I grew up in my grandmother's kitchen and with my mom cooking. I knew what I wanted to do. In high school, you get to go out for a week, every year or twice a year. They let you go out and experience a trade, and for me, it was kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen. [smiles] You could be anything. You could go out and be an attorney. It's just a way for young people to explore, before they make a decision about what they want to be, to go and see for a week.

EOW: And you were how old?

SP: I was 13. And it was kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen.

EOW: Did they put you to work? What did you do?

SP: You don't get paid. But at the first place, I remember I made sauces, we made terrines. It was more of a cold kitchen. The school system is different than here, and you graduate early, when you're 15. The way it works when you go into a trade by being a chef, or being a carpenter, is that you sign up with a business, make a four-year commitment. Basically, you'll go off 10 weeks at a time, then go back to school and use what you learned at work. It kind of balances school with actually working. That's how it is in culinary school, but it's the same with a lot of the trades. Same with waiters -- waiters is a trade. It takes four years to become a waiter in Denmark.

EOW: Is it the Danish that have been voted the happiest in the world?

SP: Yeah, I think so, but I think the word is more content. The mentality is -- in general -- people are okay with what they have.

EOW: But Denmark has very high taxes, right?

SP: Yes, it can be up to 65 percent. But say, if you go to university, you get paid for basic expenses. And they will fund you for up to two educations. Healthcare is free. Kids, school is obviously free. You get money -- the equivalent of a tax break -- when you have more kids. You take the worry of the basics away, and combine it with the mentality that you're okay with the place you live in, and you don't have to drive and pay for a car. So people are content with what they have, and they live within their means. In general, it's okay.

Check back with us tomorrow when Pedersen tells us about his role at Sorrel Urban Bistro and about some of the things he likes in Houston.

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