Sophina Uong comes with an impressive resume - Executive Chef at multiple Bay Area restaurants, and Grand Champion of this summer’s Chopped Grill Masters competition. To be honest, her resume is intimidating to an interviewer. However, what also comes across when you meet the Executive Chef of Oakland’s Calavera, is how approachable and family-oriented she is.
On a recent sunny afternoon in Berkeley, I joined Sophina, her fiancé William (also of Calavera), her daughter Roan, and Roan’s friend Katie for a lunch of tacos, ceviche, and tortilla soup at Tacubaya to discuss how she’s developed her commitment to sourcing locally and supporting farmers through her work.
Sophina is quick to point out that her move into sourcing locally happened over time and wasn’t always the easiest endeavor. As sous chef at Waterbar, she was first exposed to working with local farmers by wandering the Ferry Building with the restaurant’s purchaser to learn about sustainable seafood options. This gave her a taste of both the challenges and the satisfaction that comes with planning a menu comprised of local, seasonal ingredients. “When you’re used to having different ingredients available to you all the time, shifting to using seasonal and what can be delivered by a farmer or fisherman on certain days of the week is a challenge to your menu planning. But you learn to adjust because it’s worth it.”
Her usage of ingredients grown within a 100-mile radius increased when she joined the team at Revival Bar & Kitchen where she found herself using the whole animal as part of Revival’s commitment to “vitalitarian” cuisine. "It definitely made me think more carefully about my menus, as well as how to introduce new and unusual cuts of meat to our clientele.”
Over time, Sophina’s growing reliance on local ingredients fed her commitment to partnering with farmers. Recently, she’s been excited to partner with KTA client Happy Acre Farm, located in the Sunol Farm Park in Alameda County. “Our staff at Calavera has been really excited about the possibilities of this partnership too,” Sophina says. She adds, “buying locally and getting to know who is growing and raising the ingredients I use has really increased my respect for farmers and ranchers doing the right thing – using sustainable farming techniques, treating the animals respectfully, and working to provide us with healthier and ethical options.”
As Sophina’s commitment to sourcing locally and seasonally has deepened, so has her involvement in the local food movement. She’s energized by her work with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), Cochon 555’s Heritage Fire + Heritage Board, and increasing her partnership with Kitchen Table Advisors to access more local farmers and ranchers. She participated in last year’s Grazing at the Kitchen Table, and is thrilled to return this year and contribute a meat dish featuring lamb from Skyelark Ranch.
When asked what kind of contribution she’d like to make to the Bay Area food scene, she’s clear that she’d like her food to be known as “approachable, quirky, fun and yummy.” Her daughter, Roan Pearl, was willing to add some of her insight on her mother’s culinary vision. “She’s good at Korean barbeque and she can come home, look in the refrigerator and put together random ingredients you wouldn’t think go together, and it’s delicious!” Fun, quirky, local cuisine brought to you by the reigning Chopped Grand Champion Grill Master.
The Bay Area is ready for local and sustainable to also be fun and quirky, and Sophina is clearly the right chef to remind us that a commitment to local and sustainable is not diametrically opposed to joy and playfulness in the kitchen or on the plate!
Join Chef Uong in her wondrous world of food on September 22nd, 2016 from 6.30pm to 9.30pm during Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The event will be hosted at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.
Photos courtesy of Sophina Uong.