LA Chef Steve Samson

(Originally published April 1, 2013 on Examiner.com).

Turn on a television today, and you may get the impression that all chefs are egotistical screaming lunatics who cook everything in less than hour. Such shows tend to reinforce many misconceptions about what it takes to be successful, and what motivates chefs to cook in the first place. For Sotto’s chef, Steve Samson, he’s always viewed the chef’s role as that of a humble servant making food for others, and his biggest motivation has always been his family both past and present.

The best meals Chef Steve Samson’s ever had were those meals cooked by his grandmother and grandfather at his mother’s family house in the middle of the woods in the Apennines mountains midway between Florence and Bologna. Over an open fire his grandfather started, his grandfather would grill sausages and pork chops while his grandmother would stir a big cauldron of polenta that she’d then dump out, cut with a string and serve with ragu bolognese and grated parmesan.

These meals Steve had here with his grandparents were the same meals that have been served for generations at his humble family home that dates back to 1621. When he visits this home, he still sleeps in the bed that both his mother and grandfather were born in.

So instead of following in his father and brother’s footsteps as a doctor, Steve finish the Post Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Program he started at Columbia University but didn’t apply to medical schools. Instead he chose a different route motivated by this desire to connect more directly to his family and its traditions, particularly those meals made by his grandparents; he enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education also in NYC. For Chef Samson cooking is all about connecting to his family and its traditions.

After finishing school, and working in different kitchens in the New York City, a friend Steve’s father, Valentino’s Chef Piero Selvaggio’s set-up Steve’s first round of stages through Michelin starred Italian kitchens. After finishing these stages about a year later, Steve moved to Vegas, to help Selvaggio open up the Valentino located in The Venetian as the executive sous chef.

Once this new Valentino location was up and running, Steve moved back to Los Angeles to become the executive chef at the Valentino Group’s Posto in Sherman Oaks. Steve worked here for three years. Before taking over the kitchen at Valentino in Santa Monica, Selvaggio arranged another year of stages for Steve in Italy, this time exclusively in Southern Italy, including Sicily the region where Selvaggio is originally from. Here Steve learned more modern Italian cuisine from chefs like Gennero Esposito andCiccio Sultano at their respective Michelin starred restaurants Torre del Saraceno and Il Duomo. Though more modern in their approach to Italian cuisine, both chefs were very regional especial Chef Sultano who sourced even his olive oil and wheat from Sicily.

When Steve returned to Southern California from Southern Italy, Samson worked as the executive chefs and Valentino in Santa Monica for another two years. After leaving Valentino, Steve joined David Myers’ Restaurant Group when they approached him to open up an Italian restaurant for them across the street from the now closed Sona Restaurant. Steve joined Sona in anticipation of this new Italian concept. Unfortunately that concept never happened. Though after a space in Costa Mesa originally slated to be another Comme Ca fell through, Steve opened up a more casual pizzeria concept for the Myers’ groups, Pizza Ortica in that location. The pizza at Pizza Ortica is Neapolitan, but the rest of the menu there was and is Pan Italian.

At Pizza Ortica, Steve hired sous chef Zach Pollack, who Steve met previously between jobs doing work for Neal Fraser and had worked with at Sona. Steve admired Zach’s passion and dedication. That relationship evolved, and wanting to get back to Los Angeles, the two partnered with restaurateur Bill Chait to open Sotto, a restaurant specializing in Southern Italian regional cuisine in 2010.

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When Chef Steve Samson opened Sotto, Steve and Zach decided to do a concept more focused on cuisine from Southern Italy. This decision was in large part made due to their desire to feature Neapolitan pizza on the menu. Sotto’s emphasis on Southern Italian food differentiates this restaurant from all the other Italian concepts in Los Angeles that have menus that are either Pan Italian or more chef driven.

Northern Italy is the country’s bread basket where cows are grazed. Thus in the North there’s more butter, and cows milk cheeses including triple creams. In the South, most of the cheese comes from sheep’s milk. So Sotto doesn’t use any ingredients from Northern Italy in its cooking like butter, balsamic vinegar or cow cheeses including parmigiano. All the ingredients from Italy used at Sotto are from Southern Italy. Additionally Sotto’s wine list only features Southern Italian wines as well to lesser extent biodynamic ones from California.

When Sotto first opened, Steve and Zach wanted to highlight authentic dishes that were lesser known. Though now there are both authentic dishes, and dishes that “in spirit” are Southern Italian. So Sotto’s chefs integrate Californian produce and ingredients, buying as much locally as possible, and treat these items like similar ones used in Southern Italy. Since the topographies are similar, this helps that transition. Plus when the chefs get really good ingredients that aren’t available in Southern Italy, like sand dabs for example, they take those items and prepare them in a way that’s consistent with a Southern Italian perspective, even if not really authentic.

Regarding authenticity, Steve admits that it’s a fine line sometimes. Though with Sotto’s Neapolitan pizza, Steve and Zach didn’t compromise since the most important thing about making Neapolitan pizza is the oven and the temperature of the oven. Neapolitan pizza must be cooked at a super high temperature plus there must be good balance between the heat from the top and the bottom. So Sotto’s Neapolitan oven was shipped over brick by brick from Naples and hand assembled by the designer Stefano Ferrera, who learned his trade from his father and grandfather.

Neapolitan pizza ovens are only really good for cooking pizzas Neapolitan style. The crust shouldn’t be soggy, or crisp, but chewy. A flawed pizza is one you can pick up from the edge as a whole. You eat a Neapolitan pizza with a knife and fork. One doesn’t fold one’s slices. Plus according to Steve, to the best of his knowledge, no other place in Los Angeles does a true Neapolitan pizza. Many other good pizzas that Steve enjoys are more bakers oriented.

At some point in the future, Steve also wants to do a restaurant that features food from the Bolognese region of Northern Italy from where his family is from for he noted he has this region’s cuisine running through his veins. Steve’s whole approach to cooking is rooted in tradition and family. For him cooking is a super humble profession where the chef gets satisfaction from feeding other people. Additionally what drives him now is being a dad, not being famous. So the whole notion of celebrity chefs not catering to customers needs is antithetical to his beliefs.

However he understands the need from a marketing perspective to raise one’s profile for exposure for his restaurant to help fill seats, but still does everything first and foremost for his family. Thus why he got into cooking, and why he continues to love cooking was and is the connection to what’s most important to him, his family.

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