A Chat With No Va’s Brad Sorenson
We romped over to Rainey Street late last week to catch up with chef Brad Sorenson, the force behind the new No Va restaurant (pronounced “nova”). The loquacious, friendly chef is known for his appearances on Food Network Star and Chopped, but he told us that the day people forget he was on those programs will be a happy day for him. Raised in Michigan, Sorenson moved to Austin about five years ago on a whim with his brother after picking the city’s name out of a hat. Before opening No Va, he cut his teeth at places like Asti Trattoria in Hyde Park. Now he’s busy in the kitchen, refining recipes and holding down the fort at the beautiful modern space on Rainey (for example, he’s working on a bread program, and he told us his signature bread will likely have bacon in it). No Va just opened for walk-ins on Monday, and we’re eager to see what the neighborhood has to say about the restaurant.
Zagat: Have you always been interested in cooking and baking?
Brad Sorenson: Not really, to be honest. Growing up, I was pretty sure I was going to be a computer analyst of some sort. I was a nerd. I still am a nerd, but I’m a different sort of nerd. The Internet and computers started coming along when I hit my early teens, so I would build computers, programs, do all that kind of stuff.
It’s so cliché now, but literally it was the book Kitchen Confidential. It had that badass picture of Bourdain on the cover, and it caught my eye. After I read that, I read everything I could get my hands on that was narratives, not necessarily cookbooks. Around that time I started dating girls, and I never had a lot of money. Cooking became a way to have a date without having to spend that money to go out. I made a lot of chicken parmesan early in my career.
When I was 13 I got a job as a dishwasher in Jackson, Michigan, and then I got an internship at that restaurant. I immediately fell in love with it. After about six to eight months I was working the hot line. I love the environment, I love being on my feet all day, I love the pressure. Line cooking is the most fun sport that I’ve ever played. It’s got a huge element of teamwork and timing and precision. And there are a ton of outliers. We deal with knives and fire. There’s a certain level of danger to what we do. Not like I’m Indiana Jones or anything, but I cut myself all the time. I became obsessed. I really wanted to go to CIA, and eventually I got a scholarship.
Zagat: So you came to Austin on kind of a whim, right? What has made you stay here?
BS: The attitude of the people. Everybody is really community-oriented. Also, for my industry, it’s the best city to be in in the United States. [It's] getting national recognition as a food community, but [it's] also small enough so that it doesn’t feel like forced. We have a lot of good individuals opening up places, doing wonderful things, like Bryce Gilmore and Uchiko. If Uchiko had opened in New York City, I’m sure it would have been successful. But to have the recognition and grow as a restaurant without all that big-city pressure, I think it’s benefited a lot of places and a lot of chefs in town. Now all we need is time.
Zagat: How does No Va fit in to the Austin scene?
BS: I don’t want to say we’re offering something completely unique, because at the end of the day we’re a restaurant-bar and there are dozens of restaurant-bars in this town. But what I think we offer is a little bit of an obsession, especially on the food end. We operate what I would call a neighborhood restaurant, a little bit more casual, home-style restaurant, with the same integrity that a fine dining restaurant operates. Our from-scratch mission plays big into that. I don’t want to buy mustard and put it on a plate. That doesn’t satisfy me. I don’t want to buy burger buns from somewhere. Even though we have burgers and pizzas on our menu, the man-hours and prep that go behind it are very similar to what would go into a fine dining place.
Zagat: What is it like to be doing nicer dining on Rainey Street?
BS: Ask me in a month after we’ve been open for walk-ins. Because I don’t know what the mix is going to be. With us keeping it reservation-only for the first two weeks, that's really just to get our practice in and make sure the guests have the best possible experience. But so far the response has been great.
Zagat: You’ve been on a couple of reality shows. What is it that draws you to reality TV?
BS: Nothing. In 100% complete honesty, the moment people forget about that will be a really happy day for me. I ended up on the Food Network Star kind of randomly. I had just moved to Austin, and my mother saw a post on Craigslist about an audition for a Food Network show. She strongly recommended I give it a try. I showed up to the audition and was told the wait was going to be five hours – there were hundreds of people there, because a lot of people in Austin want to end up on reality television – and I was like, “Bye.” I went home, made myself some food, was sitting on my couch. My mom called me up and was like, “How’d it go?” I said, “I wasn’t waiting five hours for that.” “Bradley, get your a$$ back down there!” When I got back, it was almost five hours later. I walked in, told them who I was, and it was an immediate thing. They were like, “We want you to come back for the second interview tomorrow.”
The whole thing I’ve always stressed is, I’m a professional cook. I work my butt off on long shifts in the kitchen, and I sweat. I wasn’t doing it for the television aspect. Going into it, I thought it could be a good opportunity to gain exposure, but if I had to do it all over, it wouldn’t even be a choice. No way.
It would have been different if I had ended up on a show like Top Chef, although I don’t know if I’m the caliber of chef yet that would be able to do that show. But the show I was on was much more about, are you a Food Network personality? And I’m not. I’d never been in front of cameras before. The whole time in the show, you’re supposed to have a theme about what your show is going to be, and I never had one. My first idea was to call it “Pro” because I’m a professional chef and I wanted to teach people how to cook. That got shot down because I was 25 and they didn’t think that qualified me to be a professional.
On the food end, I kicked butt on all the food challenges. I can cook. I love doing cooking challenges. Some of that was actually fun. Waking up every day with a camera and a boom mike in your face? Never having any privacy? I’m an extremely private person. But the downside of having a likeable personality is that I was on the show for a long time. I finished second in the fan vote, which blew me away. I just tried to be myself. I don’t know how to be fake. I’m not trying to say I’m super cool or anything. I expend all my energy in the kitchen, and I don’t have time.
Zagat: You were also on Chopped, right?
BS: Yes! That one was awesome. Being on Food Network Star gave me the opportunity to do Chopped. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Mystery basket cooking is in my opinion the purest form of competition cooking. No planning, no cookbooks, no sous chefs. It’s you, these ingredients and a time limit: go.
I love cooking for chefs, especially well-established chefs, because – pardon my language – I know they’re not going to bullsh*t me. If they don’t like something, they’re going to be up-front and honest. I had an old-school style upbringing in the kitchens, I worked for a lot of mean European chefs who weren’t shy to tell me what they thought of my food, of me, my future. I feel like I respond well to criticism.
Everybody likes hearing positive stuff. But what I really care about are those critiques. Because if one person thinks it, at least a few others do. And if it’s a pattern, something needs to be changed. I changed up my pineapple on the bass plate because I read somewhere that it seemed like it was straight out of the Dole can. The way I took it was, it was pineapple, but it was nothing special. We cure the pineapple in a little salt, let it sit overnight to let all that moisture build up, and then compress it in a vacuum pack. But it looks like it does come from a Dole can, but it’s intensified. It’s in its juices and it becomes more pineapple-y, but there wasn’t anything adding to it. Now I garnish it with a little cilantro, shallot and black salt, and so it really pops more on the plate.
I have high aspirations for myself and this restaurant, and I’d like to think we have a shot. I know I work hard enough. I think I’m moderately talented when it comes to writing recipes. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I don’t hold a super high opinion of myself. It’s a curse of me being the way I am. We have the hard work, the location, the building. My team is amazing. The front of the house is starting to get there. And if I continue to hold true to what I believe and don’t start making sacrifices because I’m tired or it saves me a few bucks, I think we can take this to a special place while still keeping that neighborhood feel.