Restaurant Gwendolyn San Antonio

Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn on how constraints make us more creative

San Antonio chef Michael Sohocki doesn't look or sound like an iconoclast. But set aside the white apron and pay close attention to his slow, deliberate cadence, and you'll learn of a chef who can barely hide his disdain of food that comes out of a box, worse if it's delivered by a trailer truck. The same attitude goes for distributors and industrial agriculture—all of it, the whole commercial restaurant supply chain. If it were up to him, old-school cookery would be the only way to go.

That's why Sohocki's Restaurant Gwendolyn is an anachronism. The fine dining establishment, opened in 2010, is a physical manifestation of his belief in "honest food," or food prepared without machines in the style of the pre-industrial age, back when occupational surnames were par for the course.

Step inside today, and you'll find just 10 tables, an ever-changing daily menu and absolutely nothing with a motor or plug. No deep fryers, no mixers. Ingredients, meanwhile, are sourced within a 150-mile radius. All of which is to say everything you need to know about Sohocki's approach to sustainability and the culinary arts: In a world of endless gastronomic delights—exciting and progressive they may be—to limit yourself to the old ways of preparing a meal might just be the most radical act of all.

"The more machines you add to a process, the more of the identity you take away," Sohocki explains. "It was our limitations that shaped us." 

At Gwendolyn, which is named after his grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, a recent dinner included quail paprikash and beef agnolotti with a red wine reduction. The restaurant breaks down whole animals and dry-ages the cuts according to the manners of the Victorian age, as well as the traditions well before it. That means Gwendolyn also smokes its own bacon, cans its own strawberries and grinds its own sausage. You get the idea.

"By having anything we want, anytime we want it, we've debased and devalued our entire food system," Sohocki points out. "We might spend months at Gwendolyn making one of the products that go on the charcuterie board. We sit around and talk about these things all day and all night. Everything is done very much by hand to tell the story of the food and land and people. We're trying to recreate the culture as it was."

That doesn't mean Sohocki won't cook in a modern kitchen. In fact, he's currently raising  a legion of restaurants in San Antonio, counting two new ramen bars, plus a deli slated to open later this year. They'll complement his other interests in San Antonio, which, in addition to Gwendolyn, include the popular wood-fired pizza restaurant, Il Forno, which is built around a stone oven assembled by the chef himself. 

He's spinning all these plates, because it gives him a cushion for his passion project. Gwendolyn, after all, is the restaurant that earned him a nod as a James Beard Award semifinalist, and he'll do whatever it takes to keep it going. If he has to dabble with a few more commercial projects to make that possible, so be it. "I think Gwendolyn tells young and upcoming cooks that you can do something good for the world, that you can pay your bills and still sleep at night."

Naturally, Sohocki's ambitions go beyond the kitchen to the source: "The next thing for me is actually to be more involved in how animals are raised and where the food actually comes from," he says, explaining how he bought a 10-acre parcel of land just south of San Antonio. "I'm interested in regenerative agriculture and studying and practicing how to raise a unit of food, where you put more back into the earth than you take out."

High-minded ideas, however, don't pay the bills. Sohocki knows this as well as anyone, since he actually dabbled for a time as a visual artist when he was a younger man. He ran away from his mother's house at 16. He fantasized about working as a sculptor and tried unsuccessfully to sell his artwork in Corpus Christi. 

The general public didn't buy what he was selling back then. They are now, of course, even though, sure, it's a different kind of creation today. But isn't that the way these things go? Surely, the search for meaning and fulfillment has the power to turn a failed artist into a chef who sees the world at an uncompromising angle.

"The deeper you look, the more layers of telling the truth and understanding your connection to your food supply and water and oxygen and sunlight—the more complex it all gets." Sohocki says. "So, your understanding of all of these points of reference has to get more acute. There are so many more moving pieces with which to familiarize yourself."

Andy Meek is a writer based in Memphis. Follow him on Twitter at @aemeek.