In a T-shirt bearing a slice of bacon and a University of Michigan baseball cap, chef Brad Sorenson doesn't look nearly as clean-cut as he did on The Next Food Network Star. In fact, after working in the kitchen of his new Rainey Street restaurant NO VA Kitchen & Bar all morning, he looks a bit scruffy.
At NO VA, Sorenson's venture with owner Oscar Laurel, the menu is based simply on food that Sorenson enjoys. "I want people to feel like they're going to their grandma's house, but grandma went to culinary school," he says. He describes the food as "recognizable and approachable but fun," without being too "complicated" or "modernist." That philosophy is embodied in high-low dishes like sous vide chicken breast with fried red and wild rice, and strawberry shortcake with a red berry sauce designed to taste like Fruit by the Foot candy.
Reality TV is long behind Sorenson, who now calls NO VA his entire life. "I'm here from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. everyday. I made a promise to my staff that I won't miss a single service for the first 12 months," he says. "One of my biggest pet peeves is once chefs gets notoriety, [they] don't cook anymore.... they're not in the kitchen, tasting the food." During service, Sorenson plates every entrée so if something is sent back, he takes full responsibility for it.
One reason he needs to be in the kitchen all day is because the team makes everything from ketchup to hot sauce to breads to pickles from scratch. They also break down whole fish and land animals from large cuts, and source locally whenever possible, though Sorenson doesn't claim to run a farm-to-table establishment. "It's a chef's responsibility to source the best products," he says.
The bright bilevel space at NO VA has a clean, modern aesthetic, accented with leather and mahogany. The restaurant is divided into the bar and lounge area, a private dining room, the upstairs dining area, and a spacious patio.
As for his future in television, don't expect to see more of Sorenson on the tube: "I hated it. Reality TV sucked," he says, explaining that he didn't feel like he was being judged on the quality of his food. The only show he'd consider appearing on is Iron Chef, where he feels chefs are still measured by their craft, though for the moment his designs are focused purely on the kitchen.