Alex Hong was just trying to make good food. Between 2014 and 2017 he created 135 refined pop-up tasting menus studded with Italian-influenced dishes—like lamb shoulder dumplings with wild mushroom tea and burrata agnolotti with corn and black truffle. And 135 times, every single seat at his itinerant eatery, Sorrel, sold out.
When the project went from pop-up to brick-and-mortar in 2018, Hong and his team were suddenly thrust not just into the San Francisco culinary spotlight, but the American one. Within a year, the not yet 30-year-old chef was nominated for a James Beard Award and Sorrel was crowned with a Michelin star.
The offers to join the celebrity chef circuit began rolling in. Guy's Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, and Top Chef all came knocking. But Alex Hong was still just trying to make good food. The fame at his fingertips, he just didn't have any interest in it. "I don't necessarily need that or am looking for that or was ever looking for it," he explains.
Even the fine dining scene in which Hong is now a primetime player was never really part of a plan. "It just kind of happened," he says. "Getting nominated for a James Beard Award and a Michelin star kind of puts you on a different path." The journey's been a wild one, but Hong, now just barely into his 30s, has miles to go before he sleeps.
"Now that I've gone down that route of fine dining, I'd love to open some sort of restaurant with good drinks, live music...and do some really fun, casual-format, family-style food," he says. "Whether that be seafood driven or small plates, I'm not really sure, but I think that's the kind of atmosphere I would do next in a venture."
Until then, Hong finds his laidback entertainment beyond the kitchen's four walls. "Being outside is the number one thing for me," he says. "On my days off, I'm escaping San Francisco and trying to find some body of water or warmer weather, or go on a hike or go camping. Just trying to do something outside is super important to me to keep my mind at ease."
His apple doesn't fall far from the tree on which it grew, in an adventurous, athletic family in Boulder, Colorado. It's there he'll be returning for Christmas this year. And while he's usually the "meat guy" at Thanksgivings spent with friends in SF, at home in Boulder, he gets to indulge in dishes he joyfully takes no responsibility for.
"My aunt makes a really amazing wild rice and oyster stuffing, which is my favorite," Hong explains. "My dad makes this honey baked ham that's lacquered with brown sugar and maple syrup. It's basically like candy."
That's not to say Hong can't hold his own at a family celebration—the chef makes a mean sweet potato gratin with tarragon and white pepper and lots of cream—but after 16-hour shifts in a busy restaurant all year, it's one of the few times when he doesn't have to.
Although Sorrel will be closed on both Thanksgiving and Christmas so that staff can spend the holidays with their loved ones, the restaurant's autumn tasting menu makes the most of the season, with an Italian twist. Hong's chestnut raviolo is a likely contender.
He makes his filling with fresh, peeled chestnuts (though the canned version works just as well), pancetta, quince, onion, garlic and some herbs, then stuffs it into a fresh flour-and-egg pasta. "The hardest part of the dish is to sheet out the dough and form it correctly," he warns, but you can decrease the challenge some by buying pre-sheeted ravioli dough from spots like DeLaurenti or Good Eggs.
Pair the raviolo with a spiked cider or cold toddy, suggests Hong. "I think that would be really nice with the fall flavors of the dish."
// Sorrel (3228 Sacramento St, Pacific Heights) is open for indoor and outdoor dining Wednesdays through Sundays, will be closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day; sorrelrestaurant.com.
Recipe: Sorrel Chef Alex Hong's Chestnut Raviolo With Quince and Robiola
Chef Alex promises the hardest part of making this dish is forming the pasta dough, but you can also buy pre-made ravioli to get the job done quicker.
5 raw peeled chestnuts, shaved thin and fried in 375-degree canola oil until golden brown
2 tbsp robiola fonduta*
3 tbsp brown butter*
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp parmesan
*For the robiola fonduta:
1/2 cup robiola
1 tbsp creme fraiche
1/2 cup cream, warm
*For the brown butter:
1/4 cup butter
1 tbsp sage (The Spice Hunter)
1 tbsp rosemary (The Spice Hunter)
1 tbsp mulling spice (The Spice Hunter)
For the chestnut filling:
1 cup chestnuts, peeled
2 tbsp pancetta
1 tsp butter
1/4 cup yellow onion, diced
1 garlic clove
4 cups water
1 cup quince, diced
1/8 cup parmesan, grated
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste (The Spice Hunter)
3 tbsp brown butter
For the pasta dough and pasta assembly:
2 cups all purpose flour
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tbsp olive oil
For the robiola fonduta:
Blend all ingredients on high. Set aside and keep warm.
For the infused brown butter:
Brown ingredients in a pot, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when you have achieved a dark brown color and strain.
For the chestnut filling:
Crisp up pancetta in butter (no color). Add onion and garlic until soft (no color). Add chestnut and quince until soft (no color). Add water and cook nuts until tender. Blend all in a Cuisinart. Add parmesan and more liquid if necessary. The consistency should be like a thick smoothie.
For the pasta dough and assembly:
Place the flour on a clean work surface and make a nest. Add the eggs, olive oil, and salt to the center and use a fork to gently break up the eggs, keeping the flour walls intact as best as you can. Use your hands to gently bring the flour inward to incorporate. Continue working the dough with your hands to bring it together into a shaggy ball. Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes. At the beginning, the dough should feel pretty dry, but stick with it! It might not feel like it's going to come together, but after 8-10 minutes of kneading, it should become cohesive and smooth. If the dough still seems too dry, sprinkle your fingers with a tiny bit of water to incorporate. If it's too sticky, dust more flour onto your work surface. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Dust two large baking sheets with flour and set aside. Slice the dough into four pieces. Gently flatten one into an oval disk. Run the dough through the pasta roller attachment three times on level one (the widest setting). Set the dough piece onto a countertop or work surface. Fold both short ends in to meet in the center, then fold the dough in half to form a rectangle. Run the dough through the pasta roller three times on level two, three times on level three, and one time each on levels four through six. The pasta should be almost transparent when held up to a window.
Cut the pasta into 3x3 inch squares. Place 1 tbsp of filling on the half of the squares. Wet your fingertips and brush the edges of the pasta and place another sheet on top. Work the air out, going around the pasta filling until the sheet is molded together. Place on floured tray in refrigerator until ready to cook.
Cook ravioli in salted boiling water 1 to 2 minutes until al dente. Combine pasta with brown butter, parmesan, lemon juice, and salt to taste. Garnish bowl with fonduta, then fried crispy chestnuts on top.
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For more festive dishes with global flavors prepared by top California chefs, go to 7x7.com/holiday-recipes.