Ratha Chau and Angelo Sosa Talk Authenticity and Empire-Building

Inside this sandwich lurks a corporate entity.
Inside this sandwich lurks a corporate entity.
jasonlam/flickr

As part of its International Chefs Congress, StarChefs held a panel earlier today to discuss the "Rise of the Asian Concept Restaurant." Num Pang's Ratha Chau and Xie Xie's Angelo Sosa were on hand to talk about their respective concepts; the third panelist, Michael "Bao" Huynh, was MIA, presumably off somewhere hatching more Baoguettes.

Both Chau and Sosa talked about their backgrounds and influences, and pondered the place of authenticity in their food. "What is authentic?" Chau asked. "That's a word that's going around a lot. Do I have to cook like your mother? You're telling me every French restaurant in the city is authentic?"

Upon tasting his cooking at Kampuchea, Chau said, his own mother asked him if he was sure he was Cambodian. The difference between what he and more "old-school Cambodians" cook, he said, is that "they're so used to having food in a third world country, where you kill and cook anything" to survive, and meat is overcooked "for safety, not flavor." But the idea, Chau said, is "not pigeonhole ourselves to staying old-world Cambodian: what can we do with new flavors?"

While Chau and Sosa may have similar concepts, their business strategies seem almost diametrically opposed. Asked if he had any plans to open more Num Pangs, Chau replied, "I don't have plans -- I never do. There is no master plan of opening Num Pangs all over the city...right now I believe in quality versus quantity. We haven't even been open for a year...Would I love to [open more locations]? Yes. But you put one tire a time on a car." The idea for Num Pang, Chau added, came about because he was "tired of eating the same thing at every store." Did he know there would be an Asian sandwich boom? "Not at all." And he's happy with what he's got: "I always wanted something a little small and manageable in terms of cost."

Sosa, on the other hand, had different ideas from Day One. "I set up Xie Xie to be a corporate entity," he said. While he's currently focused on his Ninth Avenue restaurant, he wants to "go global": think "Xie Xie Beijing, Xie Xie Shanghai."

However, there "is no time frame" for the brand's proliferation; right now, overseeing the daily operations and ensuring consistency of the existing Xie Xie is difficult enough. (That said, the restaurant's publicist tells us that the opening target for the St. Marks Xie Xie is "likely November.")

Sosa also revealed a bit about how he prices his five types of sandwiches, which start at $8.50. His food costs are 25.6 percent, as opposed to the 15 to 18 percent that's more typical of sandwich shops. That's a percentage more in line with a fine dining establishment's, and it's intentional. "I want to be associated with quality ingredients," Sosa explained. "We could use shrimp instead of lobster, but that would be kind of a cop-out. We're more boutique-ish;" higher food costs "fit our identity. We're not really about the sell; we're about the experience."

To cover the cost of that "experience," Sosa has to do about 150 covers a day, which seems paltry when compared to Num Pang, which does 700 covers a day. It's that volume, Chau said, which covers his food costs. And while he didn't talk about his vision for customer experience, he did shed a bit of light on the experience of working at Num Pang: "We have seven people in a 250-square foot kitchen," he said with a laugh. "We're all friends."


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