Chef News

Chef Todd Somma on Inspiration, Food Allergies, and Cooking at Hop Alley

When he was young, Todd Somma was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy. Someone else might have taken that as a sign to avoid the food industry, but not Somma. While he studiously avoids restaurants where his allergy might be a problem — for example, he’s only eaten at two Thai restaurants in his life, due to the risk of cross-contamination — he’s already had quite a career, most recently manning the kitchens at Hop Alley and Uncle, two of the hottest spots in town. (Both are owned by restaurateur Tommy Lee.) Keep reading to learn Somma’s thoughts on eating out with food allergies, how he prepped for the launch of Hop Alley late last year, and his two cents on the presidential election.

Westword: How do you want people to think of Hop Alley?

Todd Somma: Hop Alley is a Chinese restaurant. It’s an opportunity for us as employees, and the diners of Denver, to learn more about a wonderful cuisine that is underrepresented in our fine city — and the rest of the country, for the most part. We’re not doing sesame chicken and crab-cheese wontons. Some of the recipes we’re using date back 5,000 years.

How does it feel to branch out after all that ramen?

All culinary styles present their own challenges. Doing ramen for as long as I did, it never got boring. There was always room to improve on things. That being said, the menu style at Hop Alley is more in my wheelhouse. We’re trying to keep the menu right around fifteen items and have a somewhat constant rotation of new dishes. It’s what I’m used to, minus the part where we’re cooking Chinese food.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Inspiration comes from all over. An ingredient, a dish, a region, the weather, an old kung fu flick, an album, anything can inspire. The base we’re building off is knowledge, always. I’ve been studying China as much as I can for the past year-plus. It’s the same way I studied French food. Learn the culture, the geography, the history of food, the crops, anything that might be useful. From there, I just put myself in the mindset, as much as possible, of a chef from that area currently living and cooking in Denver.

Quick bio: How old are you, and what are a few of the restaurants you worked at before Uncle?

I am about to turn 29. I’m originally from New Hampshire, and have a few years of experience back there. For Denver restaurants, I’ve been the sous-chef at Z Cuisine, sous-chef at Fuel Cafe, and I opened Refuel with Bob Blair. I spent some time with Justin Brunson at Wild Catch and briefly at Old Major — we’re still good friends. I also was opening sous-chef for Ste. Ellie, and I’ve staged around a bit as well.

What’s a career highlight?

One time Patrick [Dupays, of Z Cuisine] said it smelled like his mother was in the kitchen while I was preparing a stewed ratatouille. That was pretty cool. Tommy’s dad also told me it was like I was half Chinese after eating at Hop Alley for the first time. Getting Uncle to the “Top Ten in the Nation” list for ramen from a few different publications was probably the biggest career accomplishment, though.
Do you have a signature dish?

I’ve done a lot of different styles, so I don’t really have a signature dish, per se. I have done chicken-fried duck gizzards at three different restaurants now, though, and continue to try to get people to eat them. It’s not about freak food, or gag food, or any of that shit. They’re just delicious.

Biggest flop you’ve ever served:

That’s tough. I’ve never served a dish I felt wasn’t delicious. I’ve definitely had things not sell, but I still wouldn’t consider them “flops.” You don’t serve flops. You throw them out.

Hardest moment in your career:

Every day is hard, and it never gets any easier. That’s a lesson I’ve been learning every day for about ten years now.

What ingredient are you excited about right now?

I just helped open a Chinese restaurant. I can barely pronounce half the shit in my dry storage. Everything excites me right now.

One ingredient you wish would disappear:

All ingredients that are substitutes for something way better should disappear. Skim milk isn’t milk. Meat substitutes aren’t any better than a good vegetable. The majority of gluten-free bread is garbage. Raw ingredients are great. They all have something to offer. We just need to fuck them up less.

Do you ever cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?

My go-to at home is fresh pasta and my grandmother’s recipe (basically) for gravy. Gravy is red sauce, by the way.

What changes would you like to see in Denver’s food scene over the next five years?

The biggest change I’d like to see in Denver’s dining scene is in our food writing. It’s pretty bad and often simply careless. We have restaurant professionals putting in eighty-hour weeks on a regular basis, and people writing about it too lazy to use spellcheck. The balance is way off. It’s part of a bigger discussion, and I know that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to improve.

Best tip for a home cook:

If you want to get better, make a conscious effort to do so. Don’t just blindly follow a different recipe each night. Work on your knife skills, grab some books and learn. The ability to cook is not something that one can simply hand to another. It takes hard work and dedication. The more you know, the more rewarding your cooking experiences will be.

I understand you have severe food allergies. What kind of allergies do you have, and how do they impact your career?

I have a peanut allergy and a sunflower-seed allergy. The peanut one is more of an issue, though. If we’re prepping anything where nut dust can go in the air, I have to step outside. The entire crew has to be extra-careful to make sure I don’t get, essentially, poisoned. It happened once at Uncle, and it was pretty ugly. I forget exactly how it happened, but I spent a few hours lying down and occasionally vomiting in the dining room before I was able to clear my system and go into service.

Given your own allergies, how do you respond to guest requests for dishes to be made without certain ingredients?

I try to talk to every single person who has a legitimate food allergy who comes through Hop Alley. It’s something I always appreciate as a guest, and just to know that the chef shares your plight, it gives you more confidence in your dining experience. Just being able to walk up to a table and say, “I hear you have a peanut allergy. Guess what — I’m the chef and I have one, too.” You can see the relief in their eyes. The one thing I do always request of guests, though: Rather than substitutions on a dish, try a different one so you can eat the entire thing. If you take a component out of a dish, it’s not going to be as good. We’ll do it, but I always like to get guests to order something that isn’t altered, if possible. We have several options for celiacs. Our whole grilled bass is actually completely gluten-free, which is really nice. People faking allergies make it more dangerous for people with legitimate allergies to eat out. It’s incredibly frustrating when you take extra time to make a dish with no gluten for a guest, then see that person take a bite of a sandwich or something because they’re just “sensitive.” Allergies we’ll always bend over backwards for; people with sensitivities or preferences might not get exactly what they want. I’m not going to steam plain vegetables with no seasoning at all because you’re on some new fad diet. That’s not going to be delicious, and that’s the business we’re in — deliciousness.

Now, for something unrelated to food. What’s the first policy you’d like our new president (whoever that is) to focus on?

I’d like to see our next president work on lessening the income inequality in our country. I’d also like to see a lift on the federal ban of marijuana. Whether or not you partake, if you look at what it’s done for the state of Colorado and are still opposed, you shouldn’t be allowed to breed.

Hop Alley is located at 3500 Larimer Street; reach the restaurant at 720-379-8340 or
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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz