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News / Life / Clark County Life

Food & Drink: Elements cooks up a revolution on Main

By Rachel Pinsky, for The Columbian
Published: May 11, 2018, 6:10am
5 Photos
When Chef Miguel Sosa isn’t cooking at Elements at Willem’s, you can often find him wandering the restaurant and talking to diners.
When Chef Miguel Sosa isn’t cooking at Elements at Willem’s, you can often find him wandering the restaurant and talking to diners. (Rachel Pinsky for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When you talk with Chef Miguel Sosa at Elements at Willem’s, you can tell he loves his craft. His enthusiasm reminds me of a child just released from school on the first day of summer vacation.

This is a guy who loves to cook.

Sosa, who began his career at age 16 in Chicago, started washing dishes at one restaurant and, with hard work and desire, later landed a job cooking at the legendary Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in Rosemont, Ill. Soon after, he was promoted to sous chef. It was there that he worked with chefs that helped him build on his training in classic French cuisine. These chefs were inspired by Ferran Adra’s molecular gastronomy.

“The world just opened up for me with those guys,” he said. “It’s not just meat and potatoes. It’s not just fish and sauce. It’s exploring techniques, flavors, global cuisines.”

Sosa and his wife, Allison, moved to Vancouver to be closer to her family. Despite his strong resume, it was difficult for him to find a job as a cook in Portland.

“At two interviews I had, the chef said to me, ‘What is your background in Northwest cuisine?’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘Ah, what do you mean? You guys cook salmon, right?’ ”

Sosa’s aunt, who worked in the culinary department at Clark College, told him the Red Lion at the Quay was hiring. At an event at the Red Lion, he met Paul Klitsie (the owner of Willem’s). Klitsie recognized Sosa’s obvious talents and asked him, “So, what are you doing here? You are very talented. What is your dream?” Sosa told him he would like to own a small, intimate restaurant — 30 to 40 seats. Less than a year later, Sosa bought Willem’s from Klitsie.

This change in ownership hasn’t been obvious to the general public. And that’s just how Sosa wanted it. He did a secret menu takeover for Valentine’s Day, while Klitsie still owned it, to get a feel for the place and observe its customers. The sign still says Willem’s, but at this point the menu is Sosa’s.

The new name for the restaurant, Elements, has many meanings. It’s an expression of Sosa’s respect for the fact that all four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) are necessary to produce food. It also alludes to his use of layers of flavors from various food cultures skillfully brought together to make something unique, and all the flavor elements necessary to make a dish complete (bitter, sweet, sour, umami, spice, salt and texture).

On my visit, I sampled two veg-forward dishes on the menu — the roasted cauliflower/raisin puree/pine nuts/garlic/vinaigrette and the asparagus/potato/poached egg/caviar/wild greens. Chef Sosa has a fondness for plant-based cuisine and loves the challenge of playing in the kitchen to create vegan dishes (I recommend calling ahead if you’re vegan).

The cauliflower steak is a large section of cauliflower blanched in vegetable broth and then seared on the stove top with a handful of roughly chopped tomatillos. After it comes off the fire, sumac, salt and pepper are sprinkled on top. Dots of golden raisin puree are added for sweetness, and a roasted garlic vinaigrette adds another layer of flavor. A mountain of sweet, tender pea shoots (from April Joy Farms) add a whisper of spring.

The potatoes, asparagus and caviar topped with a yolky egg and microgreens were a springtime version of the cocktail hour classic — new potatoes with creme fraiche, chives and caviar. Caviar for lunch in Vancouver!? I knew this man was ambitious by perusing his cookbooks (Bouchon by Thomas Keller and Daniel by Daniel Boulud were perched on the bar); but serving caviar at lunch had the spirit of revolution.

Chef Sosa is taking risks and creating dishes we don’t normally see in Vancouver. But, he is doing it in the least pretentious manner possible. He has an old-school interest in the customer. He told me, “I love to watch people eat and see their emotion.” He enjoys strolling around the room and getting to know the people eating at his restaurant. While I was in his tiny kitchen with him and his right-hand man, Anthony Grant, several customers stopped by to thank him for their meals. This dedication to service — getting to know the customer and making their dining experience special, is a lost art. I’m glad to see Chef Sosa reclaiming it.

Rachel Pinsky can be emailed at couveeats@gmail.com. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @couveeats.

If You Go

  • Elements at Willem’s, 907 Main St., Vancouver. 360-258-0989, WillemsOnMain.com