And his newest restaurant Kembara serves as one of Sosa’s stories. It's told in a mouthwatering format composed of many diverse chapters with Asian street food as its voice.
On a Tuesday morning, while Sosa strolls through Kembara, he shares a few tales.
Kembara doesn’t open for another week but standing at its entrance where future diners will be greeted by a giant illuminated ring, he talks about Marco Polo’s journey to the East along the Silk Road and how the Singaporean food stalls influenced his latest venture.
After taking several steps into the restaurant, Sosa leans on a Japanese-style wood dining table and scrolls through photos on his phone. He pauses to show some featuring graffiti-flanked streets in the Malaysian state of Penang that he says sparked the concept of his upscale dinner-only restaurant at the J.W. Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa.
He moves to the center of the dining room which is lined with sumptuous leather banquettes and a massive graffiti wall inspired by those photos. Here, Sosa opens up about his past, explains how food was his lifeline throughout a difficult childhood and gives thanks to his aunt Carmen. She's the namesake of Sosa’s southwest eatery Tia Carmen, which is also at the resort and a quick 30-second walk from Kembara.
Sosa’s 25-year career in the industry spans staging in restaurants to helming high-end kitchens, several of them in Asia. This new venture allows him to showcase what draws him to the continent’s fare.
“Kembara (represents) the cuisine that I love,” Sosa says nine days before the restaurant’s anticipated opening date of Dec. 7. “The cuisine itself is my interpretation of my journeys, the scope of what I saw and what I wanted to take away from them.”
Taking a deep, delicious dive
The menu pays homage to Asia’s street food stalls, the families who’ve owned them for decades and time-honored recipes passed down through the generations.
All of the restaurant's noodles are handmade fresh onsite, yielding a texture and bite that dried packaged versions cannot duplicate. The dim sum is also freshly made and ingredients such as the fragrant curry leaves that Sosa leans on for many of his creations, are grown in the onsite garden.
Among the highlights are the Tuna Thai Jewel, a balanced sweet and savory starter of tuna sashimi, turmeric tapioca-dusted jicama, fresh herbs and basil oil, chilled in a coconut lemongrass ginger broth.
Crab fried rice is loaded with lump crab and gets a delicate punch from oyster sauce and a fresh crunch from sugar snap peas. The lemongrass pork collar is inspired by a Vietnamese grilled pork chop and marinated in lemongrass, garnished with herbs and dressed lightly with fish sauce.
A vegetable curry with Persian and Indian flair is among the vegetarian options. Sosa’s version is accompanied by Japanese yams, carrots, bamboo shoots and warming spices.
Desserts include Vietnamese coffee donuts that are tossed in a Vietnamese cinnamon and sugar mixture and served with Len’s Vietnamese Coffee. Condensed milk is on the side for dipping.
The eclectic menu reflects Sosa’s experiences, travels and three months of serious hands-on research with longtime business partner and restaurant developer Mark Stone.
Sosa and Stone, who also collaborated on Tia Carmen, delved deep into the sea of Asian street food delights. Singapore, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Taipei, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo were a handful of places they hit, consuming as much as they could.
“I wanted to dive very, very deep into the culture because the culture is where the story and the beauty is,” Sosa says. “I wanted to intertwine how to tastefully do this and how (the dishes, culture and their stories) all speak to each other.”
This is also reflected in the bar program, which Stone spearheads.
It features a sake list curated by renowned sake judge, ambassador and sommelier Eduardo Dingler and one of the largest collections of Asian spirits in the country.
But literary fans would be impressed by the 12 signature alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails that are named after noteworthy books by Asian authors.
A long cement bar sits in front of vertical gold bars that provide a visual rendition of bamboo. Here, Stone points out the mix of historic and contemporary books, some of which are his personal favorites, that inspired the cocktails and sit on either side of the shelves housing the spirit bottles.
The titles include The Namesake, a twist on a mango lassi made with frozen mango, coconut milk, Greek yogurt, makrut leaf syrup, sea salt and ground cardamom. The Committed is a Vietnamese coffee martini made with coffee beans from Vietnam that are roasted in Massachusetts.
But the showstopper promises to be The Sympathizer, named after the prequel to The Committed. It’s a concoction of Akashi Whisky, genmaicha tea and toasted rice syrup. It’s smoked with cherry wood chips, served from a teapot and poured over a big cube in a lowball glass. The drink is served in front of the guest and the presentation of the teapot and glass on a bed of small stones echoes a zen garden.
The toasted rice element is an example of the connection between Kembara’s kitchen and bar, Stone explains.
“Toasted rice is used in a lot of the cooking,” Stone says. “In many of the cocktails, there’s a link between the ingredients used in the food and drinks.”
A journey of discovery
For the look of the restaurant, Sosa tapped the expertise of designer Thomas Schoos, who also worked on Tia Carmen and is responsible for Kembara's Whooping Crane wallpaper gracing the walls and ceiling and neon fuchsia rope lights hanging from above.
At a small gathering area just past the entrance, guests may peer down into a wishing well holding a round mirror. Pendant lights hanging from the ceiling above the mirror change color, creating a multi-dimensional view of those looking at their reflection.
The open kitchen gives diners a show as chefs work their magic. Two private dining rooms are adjacent to the main seating areas. A patio will offer outdoor dining and sipping with day beds and a landscape that beckons the tropics of Bali and Indonesia.
Kembara is a Malay word meaning to seek and discover. Sosa interprets it as a journey. Marco Polo’s travels and his trade were the impetus behind this style of street food dining, Sosa explains.
Sosa’s penchant for juxtaposition permeates every aspect of the restaurant, whether it’s the precision of Japanese tables with clean lines against a free-spirited graffiti wall or the artful push and pull of flavors and aromas in his favorite dishes that have the power to transport diners with a single bite and deep inhale. Take the fish head curry for example.
“You have this beautiful fragrance of curry leaves, so you’re in Singapore or India. But at the end, you have this elegant broth and you could be in New York City at Jean-Georges or Le Bernardin,” Sosa says. “There’s this constant dance.”
Sosa handpicked every piece of tableware from the deep red bowls that bring the food to life to the plates that flaunt an aged crackle pattern and the custom stone chopstick rests embossed with Kembara’s logo - a lotus flower.
“It’s a symbol of resilience. It grows in murky and muddy waters,” Sosa says. “How many times in life (do) we come out of something of death and resurrect and reincarnate?”
Food as a lifeline
Sosa was 9 years old when found his professional calling.
As he was growing up in the farming town of Durham, Connecticut, Sosa’s family would make the two-hour road trip to his aunt Carmen’s home in Queens, New York, for the holidays and special occasions.
Every visit was a respite for Sosa. His self-description as a “shy and docile child” is a far cry from today’s "Top Chef" alum and personable restaurateur who is a hugger and takes every opportunity to spout a joke with killer deadpan.
“I grew up in a very disruptive, very mentally hard and physically abusive home. My tia Carmen saved me,” Sosa says as he holds his hands at his heart. “She showed me the beauty (of how) food can transform pain into love.”
Carmen’s culinary skills and the luscious aromas they produced pulled Sosa into the kitchen. He describes feeling love in that room.
“I watched her for hours. (I thought) if this is what love is and looks like, this is what I want to do,” Sosa says. “That was my lifeline.”
Sosa’s partnering of rich and thick slices of pork belly with crunchy leafy pea shoots tossed in a bed of delicately sauced handmade noodles is an example of the opposing forces at play on his menu. However, every dish flaunts a trinity of sweet, sour and salty characteristics that create the ultimate impeccable bite.
“It’s like life. You need the sweet, you need the sour, the salty, the bitter, the umami. Life isn’t always like this… it’s like this…” Sosa says, holding his hand steady and then moving it up and down in a wave motion for emphasis.
Sosa’s goal with Kembara is to live up to its name by taking guests on a journey through his most beloved parts of Asia without a passport, lengthy security line or flight delays. When talking about what he wants guests to come away with, Sosa translates a Japanese mantra that means every moment is unique and will never recur.
“We captivate you, we create that experience, we create that moment. Some flavors will be new and maybe others will be familiar,” Sosa says. “I want to reincarnate memories. Or create new ones.”
J.W. Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa
5350 E. Marriott Drive