Class Of 2019: Alex Hong

What grew from a pop up to now one of San Francisco’s Michelin Star awarded restaurants, Alex Hong and his new food haven, Sorrel, know no bound.

We talked to Alex about how he’s managed to run an increasingly successful restaurant, the importance of fresh and locally sourced ingredients, and what he has in store for the future of Sorrel. 


Q

Tell me a little bit about what Sorrel is and how it came to be what it is today.

A

It started off as a pop up in 2013. I was basically a private chef at the time but I got kinda bored with the job. It was very repetitive and I was alone and I kind of wanted to do something a little bit more creative. So I got together with one of my best friends and we looked on Craigslist for event spaces and we found this little boutique hotel in Union Square that was hurting for cash and they just wanted to liven it up. So we did a three course tasting menu for like $25. No one knew about us. It was really hard. We were like standing outside, trying to get people in, running down the street, trying to show people menus and what not. We were just inviting all of our friends and family and all that stuff then it started to get a little bit of word of mouth. We hired some more people and we did it over the course of three years – 135 popups total. During our last year we were in like 10 different locations. I have always had this dream since high school to open up a restaurant so I found a partner, Colby, who was in commercial real estate at the time and helped me look at spots for probably a year. We found the spot and we opened. It’s pretty much been nonstop since then. It’s been really good and rewarding. I couldn’t have been here without all of those popups.

Q

What’s the story behind the name Sorrel? 

A

I didn’t want to name the restaurant after myself but I really wanted to name it something kind of vegetable or like an ingredient or something like that. Sorrel was basically an herb that kind of grows everywhere around San Francisco and it has a season and it’s kind of like a weed to everyone but you can do a lot of things with it. We grow it on the roof and use it in some of the dishes.


Alex outside of Sorrel in the sun.Alex outside of Sorrel in the sun.

Alex outside of Sorrel in the sun.

Q

What does food, especially fresh food, mean to you?

A

I would say nourishment. For me, cooking for other people is really rewarding and makes me happy and pushes me to get better and better. Also, just to look at an ingredient from a raw state and then tweak it and manipulate it and put so much creativity into it – it’s not really like any other industry. You can really put a lot of work and creativity and then eat it at the end of the day.

Q

Do you have a specific fresh ingredient that you really enjoy using or one that’s just your all time favorite?

A

I think if I was going to pick one ingredient that we use a lot here is probably seaweed. It’s a super subtle flavor that gives a whole bunch of umami to anything that you put it in. We’ve been really testing it out lately by cooking like a little pearl onions in like duck fat and seaweed and grilling them and then you eat them and it gives this incredible sea flavor. Another one would just be this stuff called Koji juice, which is basically kind of like white soy sauce and it just adds this other really nice umami flavor. We add that to vinaigrettes and sauces and kind of based it on our proteins. 

Q

Your menu focuses on really fresh and seasonal ingredients. How do you source those ingredients?

A

Myself and another person from the team, we go to the farmer’s market every Saturday and see what’s new and try to make these relationships with the farmers so that we can get the best stuff. There’s a couple of purveyors that we have that are just the best quality. There’s one purveyor who just does asparagus and another who just does figs. Just creating a relationship with those people and having a standing order to make sure we’ll always get the best stuff.

Q

Is there any one plate that you’re the most proud of?

A

We’ve had the duck on the menu since day one which is really good. It’s duck that we get in from Sonoma and we dry age it for about two weeks and then lacquer with honey and fennel seed and it gets like this really crispy skin and a mid rare center. And our oysters.

Q

You’re fairly young for like having opened your own restaurant. Were there any challenges you faced with people taking you seriously? 

A

Yeah. When we opened up, it was really hard. I was like twenty-eight. I was never a manager. I never owned a restaurant. I never part of like a management team. Yeah. So that was really hard. Leading people and managing people was stuff that I’ve never really done per se. I also hired all of my good friends to help me out that I’ve worked with at other restaurants and that was really hard. It’s really hard to work with your friends and to be their boss. 


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Q

What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs? 

A

I would say take a management class. Learn how to cope with people and understand people and match their personalities and understand where they’re coming from and also learn how to coach them. People want to be taught and coached and managed completely different ways. Get to know your staff and understand where their lives have been and what they know and what your goals are and what the goals are for the restaurant. I think making sure everyone’s on the same page is very important. 

Q

What are some core values that you try to uphold with everyone you work with?

A

The most important thing for me is having a good attitude, coming into work every day and being happy and then also treating others with respect that’s like number one for me. We’re such a small crew here. So we definitely feel like a family but when everyone’s on the same page and everyone’s pushing to strive better and going for the accolades they’re just in a different mindset and they want to work for you, they want to work hard and push hard during long work hours.

Q

There’s a lot of high end restaurants in the city. So why do you think that your restaurant stands out from all of them? 

A

I think we have a great culture here. Front of the house and back of the house, I mean, we all strive to be the best that we can be, whether that be the best food that we can put out or the best service that you can give. Our general manager, he’s such a personal guy. He’s gonna come to you and he’s gonna ask about your day and just kind of get to know you a little bit more. It’ll feel just a little bit more like warmth and welcoming. I’ve been to restaurants where it’s just cold and the service just doesn’t feel good. I hope that we are changing that and really making everyone who comes into this restaurant feel like family.

Q

How has the restaurant benefited the city or even just like the local community?

A

We tried to do a lot of charity events. We’ve done No Kid Hungry and Meals on Wheels and we one helping out the homeless so we try to do those as much as we can. We’re doing an event coming up that’s donating a portion of our sales to Mission graduates. 

Q

The restaurant was given Michelin star this year—Congratulations! What was that experience like for you and everyone at the restaurant? 

A

It was a huge surprise and I was totally in shock. Colby and I got this invitation to Huntington Beach to go to a Michelin party. We weren’t really gonna go cause we were busy, but then our PR company was like, you should just go and shake hands and you know, check it out. So we ended up going and it ended up being an unveiling for Michelin stars in the whole state of California. They just started giving away Michelin stars and they ended with San Francisco. They called my name and I was crying and I got up and it was really emotional. It was just awesome to come back to the restaurant and the whole team was so stoked everyone just knew that all this hard work and long days were paying off.

Q

So what’s next? Do you have any future plans for the restaurant? 

A

We just opened up a little cafe in the morning. We’re doing like coffee and pastries. We’re gonna open up for Sundays, which we wanted to do for a while. So that’s going to be like kind of like a Sunday supper with a three or four course tasting menu. 

// Follow Alex on Instagram here. Want to stop in for dinner at Sorrel? Check out reservations here. 3228 Sacramento St., Laurel Heights; sorrelrestaurant.com. Photography by Anthony Rogers.


 


 

Class Of 2019: Alex Hong
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