There was a picture of me from a local newspaper hanging above the bar of Restaurant Gwendolyn that irked me for a decade. There stands a 30-year-old chef dressed in a white jacket and wrapped with a floor-length apron, handmade knife in a handmade scabbard on my hip, leaning awkwardly (trying to look cool) on the railing of a beautiful patio over the River Walk. I have this kind of “that’s right, come get me” look on my face. 

Because Gwendolyn was meant to be a revolution — and I mean that in the most classical sense. The whole reason it ever started was because, as a reasonably educated and strong young cook, I was grossed out by the industry and food system I was helping. All those things you saw on TV about the mad cows and concentrated animal feeding operations, exploiting immigrant labor, squandering water, polluting the streams and harming the fish with agricultural runoff, strip mining topsoil, spewing petroleum derivatives into the sky — that was all me. I voted for them every time I cranked the fire on a saute pan. I lay awake at night (sleeping on the floor as I did back then) trying to think of a way to do something with my career that would stop adding to this growing reality.

Then one night, it came to me: I would go back in time. Because before the industrial revolution, there were no gas-guzzling 18-wheelers or tractors or international railroad lines or meat plants or artificial fertilizers, let alone artificial flavors or GMOs or preservatives and a whole host of other things I didn’t want to see in the world. I set out to recreate the past: a past in which everything was made by hand and came from local farms, a past that cooked with the seasons, that used classic cooking techniques to keep the food honest and straight and benefit those things I wanted to see in the world.

We at Gwendolyn set out to find our identity again, to reach out for all those things we had culturally forgotten. And we did. We learned to use every piece of an animal, we learned to ferment and smoke and preserve in many ways. We’ve foraged wild everything. We tasted everything that was edible and used almost everything somewhere. I can now make my own pepperoni, bleu cheese and camembert, and if I put a little thought into it, a decent bottle of wine.

But my concept was born with two cracks in it that we never really healed from. 

The first was that, in an attempt to save the world, I opened a restaurant as a vehicle for education. I felt that thing we say, that “if I build it, they will come.” (Then by derivation people would try the food and be changed, and we would overhaul our corner of the world for sustainability and the resurrection of food culture.)

The second was that, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I had no intention (or any real knowledge of how) to make money. 

As for the first, we quickly discovered that there was no secret untapped army of devoted locavores waiting for us to arrive. We were in direct competition with absolutely everyone from fried chicken to barbecue and had to fight to gain a foothold in a tough market not by doing ethical purchasing or philosophical menu development, but by winning the basic value perception of food for price. This took years.

Michael Sohocki, San Antonio chef and restaurateur, smiles while flipping through a recipe book of Gwendolyn staples while moving the restaurant out of its downtown location on Wednesday.
Michael Sohocki, San Antonio chef and restaurateur, smiles while flipping through a recipe book of Gwendolyn staples while moving the restaurant out of its downtown location on Wednesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

The education part of my magnum opus trailed alongside the boat most of its life as the realities of running a restaurant took precedence. As a teacher, this broke my heart. The second problem is just math. A fancy restaurant that breaks even at 10 people is starving at four, and we’ve served four more often than we’ve served 30.

We scraped by and saved for many years and were able to open Kimura Ramen, which was an instant money maker the day it hit the ground. That child (and later Il Forno, too) carried Gwendolyn through many a bad season.

A fancy restaurant needs to consistently hit those numbers (100% capacity at least) to pay for all that darned china and crystal, not to mention the highly skilled and wonderful people who make it what it is. I could keep Gwendolyn going if I wanted to, but it’s unfair to my devoted staff who deserved raises four years ago that we just couldn’t pay because the seats weren’t full.

So now that my lease downtown is up, I am moving Kimura to my new location at 1017 N. Flores St., but I am leaving my beloved Gwendolyn behind. In its place I will open a restaurant at the new Flores Street location that is more relaxed and hopefully more relatable, that does more of the stuff you’d expect a restaurant to do and still supports those causes that I champion wherever I can. But this time, it will be for me.

Michael Sohocki

Michael Sohocki went from waiting tables in Corpus Christi to running center sauté in San Francisco, eventually quitting the business altogether in 2004 for a sojourn in Japan. He came back to San Antonio...