Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Soren Pedersen of Sorrel Urban Bistro, On His Role as Executive Chef

Yesterday, we talked with Chef Soren Pedersen of Sorrel Urban Bistro about his training in Denmark and how he came to be in Houston. You can read about it here. Today, we'll talk to him about his role as Executive Chef and get to know a bit more about his philosophies.

EOW: Getting back to Sorrel, you've been open for how many months?

SP: Two months. We opened August 19.

EOW: And this is your baby, right? What is your role here?

SP: I assisted in helping to design the place, the concept. I do the menu.

EOW: And your menu, it changes how often?

SP: More or less it changes every day.

EOW: How do you train the servers?

SP: Well, we meet before each shift. But it's also if you're used to doing things that way, people tend to stay up on it. Meaning, if you have a restaurant that rarely changes it menu, let's say it changes once a year, when that change comes up, everyone's nervous, worried, because it's new, and it's like "I don't know." But when you get in the rhythm of everything changing every day, you become comfortable with that, and you tend to remember more, you tend to pay more attention. It's not the easiest concept, but I feel like the area that we're in, even Houston itself, has developed a lot in the last five years.

EOW: You're not grocery shopping, are you? People are bringing food to you, right?

SP: We do both. We have several farmers we work with, that we order from, that bring food to us. But on Saturdays, Ray goes to the Urban Harvest Farmers Market (Buffalo Speedway and Richmond), and he looks, he scouts out, he calls me and asks "can you use a little of this or that," so maybe whatever we weren't able to get a hold of during the week, we get on Saturdays or any other day he goes to a different market. Other purveyors, if we can't get it local-local, we venture out of Texas or even further, but it's still very natural or organic. The majority of our fish is from Galveston. We use local fishermen with smaller boats that go out for one or two days at a time, and they'll call me and say "okay, we're about to unload, here's what we have," and bring it the next day. So everything we get here is 24 hours out of the water.

EOW: So obviously there's been some criticism. You've marketed this as farm-to-table, but when you're sourcing outside the local area...

SP: Well, people obviously have their right to opinions. I feel like at the same time, if I can venture out to other great concepts in US, then why not?

EOW: So what can you get elsewhere that you can't get here?

SP: It's really hard to get mussels in Galveston. It's hard to get Alaskan Halibut out of Galveston, even though I think it's a really great fish. So I get it flown here from the Northwest, and if we use it from out there, it's still fresh, it's still wild, and it still falls under the criteria that we feel is appropriate for this place.

EOW: Which is...

SP: Which is wild fish. We use zero farm-raised fish. It's all wild, it's all caught within the season. Texas has had kind of a hard summer, which is kind of sad, because a lot of people have had to give up cattle and stuff to slaughterhouses in order to survive. It's been a rough season. Three years ago it was a really good season, it rained a lot. This season has been really dry. We use what we can that's local, that is great. But if we have to go out a little bit to get some ingredients that's still seasonal and that's organically or naturally produced...We are supporting farmers. At the same time, we want to have variety of menu. I know some people would be completely happy choosing between three items every day, but the majority of the people would like to have a longer menu to choose from. And for us, it's nice too. We buy stuff from Austin.

EOW: Your menu is quite extensive, how many dishes are you serving?

SP: Generally the lunch menu is somewhere between 12 and 15 items. And we do what we call an innovation menu, it's a three-course menu, that's very much reflective of what we feel like that day, and maybe a way to expose people to something different. And than for dinner, we are generally running 15 items that includes starters and mains, and then we have a five-course prix-fixe, which is again...some of the the courses are grabbed from the actual menu, and then there's usually a couple of items that you get on the chef's menu that you can't find on the regular menu. So there's variety, and if you have some interest and the time to enjoy, then we can match the wines. You can choose it with wines or without the wines. If you want to go all the way, surrender to us and just let us take care of you.

EOW: Take me through the thought process of how you create a dish. Your dishes are just beautiful and everything that comes out of the kitchen I look at and think "I want that!"

SP: I think, for me, there's three different things that matter huge for me. One is obviously flavor. It has to coincide flavor-wise, there has to be a reason why it's on that plate, it has to add something. The other part is textures. One thing is when you eat something, in order for it to stay interesting all the way through, you want to have different textures. So that's a big thing for me. And then finally, we also want to present a nice, appetizing plate. So, thinking about those things, you kind of think it all the way through before writing the menu.

EOW: Do you actually have to taste it when you create it?

SP: No, a lot of things I'm actually very familiar with. I have been cooking for a long time, I'm very familiar with the flavor profile of different things. Now other things, like sauces, we play with it. I have a really good staff. We've been in there now for three months, and we started training two months before that, so now we're starting to get a little more in sync. We still fine-tune things -- this needs a little more salt, this needs a little more acid, but it's like a soccer team, it's like a family, it's harmony, it's only as strong as your weakest person. It's important that everyone's at the same level and understanding of what you're trying to do.

EOW: A lot of executive chef's don't work the line, but you actually work the line, right?

SP: Yeah, absolutely. At lunch or dinner, I'm on the line. A lot of stuff I start and I let other people finish. Obviously I need a team, there's a lot of things that go into running a restaurant.

EOW: Okay. Best meal that you've had that someone else has made. Where. When. And who?

SP: The first thing that comes to my head is this small restaurant in Copenhagen that does a six-course prix-fixe, and that's all you need. Translated, it's "The Little Fat One." But I really think they're trying to do this concept of "We are the professionals, we are the ones that are doing this. Rely on us to help you make some choices that you would not have otherwise chosen."

EOW: So what did you have?

SP: Let me try to remember because it was part of a six-course meal. And one part that I really enjoyed was the wine. They did a really good job matching the wine. I believe we had a lobster terrine, another pâté, we had some smoked venison, nice cheeses for dessert -- Danish local -- but really light little touches.

EOW: Do you have a favorite cheap eats or take-out in Houston?

SP: Yes, Barnaby's on Fairview. They have a great comfort menu. That, and sometimes we have pizza. Or maybe we'll grab a good burger.

EOW: Where do you go for a burger?

SP: I like Lucky Burger on Richmond.

EOW: So, if you were to have a last meal, would you make it yourself or have someone make it?

SP: I would make it myself.

EOW: You would. And what would you have?

SP: As a kid, my dad had a boat. We used to catch a fish, catch some flounder, and we would clean it right there and lay it right in the pan right there on the boat. We had the grill going, as soon as we'd get it up, we'd clean the skin and boom, lay it under the grill. And we ate it with a little fresh lemon and a little salt...How can you match that?

Check back with us tomorrow when we taste some of Pedersen's dishes.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham