Q&A with Sang Yoon, visiting chef at the upcoming Hawaii Food and Wine Festival
Photo courtesy of Hawaii Food and Wine Festival
In the next few weeks, Biting Commentary will chat some of the celebrity chefs cooking for the festival. Today, it’s Los Angeles chef Sang Yoon, chef/owner of two Father’s Office restaurants, which ignited the whole gastropub movement in the US (and, according to Esquire, dishes out the best burger in the nation), and modern Southeast Asian restaurant Lukshon. ]
The following is an edited version of the interview, in which Yoon explains the difference between fusion and the food he cooks, the genius of McDonald's, and why gastropubs are exciting.
What do you plan on cooking for the Food and Wine Festival?
Obviously, seafood. If you don’t use the seafood, you’re kind of stupid. Since it’s an outdoor event, something cold, something raw.
I imagine you’ve done a lot of food and wine festivals, what’s the best and worst part of them?
Well, it’s sort of like sports. When you’re cooking away from your restaurants, it’s like playing a road game. You gotta bring stuff with you and tools. The cooking environment is very limiting. You bring some staff, but in order to do something successfully, you need to understand the limitations, be realistic. I think when you get too overly ambitious, things can fall apart on you.
The best part is obviously is getting to introduce what you do to a whole other crowd.
At Pebble Beach, you cooked a fusion lunch with Roy Yamaguchi and Charles Phan. Do you consider your food fusion?
Well, no, I don’t. My latest restaurant is called Lukshon. We refer it to modern Southeast Asian. If you look at this cuisine, it’s sort of been naturally jumbled. Southeast Asia has such a huge history of colonization. You have the French in Vietnam, the Portuguese in Macau, British in Hong Kong and the Dutch in Sri Lanka. Also, Southeast Asia is a crossroads. It’s where a lot of people migrate, mostly Chinese. There’s huge Chinese populations in Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma. It’s kind of an area that’s naturally jumbled up and fused.
I think fusion is when an artist takes two kind of disparate things that aren’t related and brings them together. We don’t do Vietnamese and Italian—that would be fusion. But Vietnamese-French is just part of their history. So we leave that part alone, but what we’ve done is modernize it. Southeast Asian cuisine is so rooted in tradition. They use old techniques, like a mortar and pestle. The food hasn’t really been advanced, like Western food. Even Japanese food has been modernized. What we’ve really done with Southeast Asian food is brought it to the 21st century and applied modern cooking technqiues. But the flavors are very, very authentic.
I was reading in an interview where you said cooking in a restaurant is not creative, it’s manufacturing. How do you make sure what you serve is made right everytime if you’re not in the kitchen, since you have three restaurants?
Well, whether you have one or a hundred, it doesn’t really matter. Cooking in the restaurant business, there’s only a few moments of creativity, like when you’re making an original dish or recipe. But then the trick is you have to be able to recreate it over and over again. And that’s the hallmark of a great restaurant. Not how good is the original, but how good is the copy, how many times can you recreate it? Because you’re not eating the original, you’re eating the copy.
And you need your someone else, your cooks, to recreate it consistently.
Exactly, and that’s why it’s manufacturing. For the best manufacturers of anything, the goal is to make it without defect, to make it identical. Whether it’s a technology product or a painting, whatever the product is, it’s about recreating it without variation. Restaurants are the same thing. I always get a lot of education from fast food and big restaurants. People think “oh, fine dining, what can you possible learn from fast food?” I think there’s plenty to learn about systems, making sure you can have repetitive steps to ensure consistency. In order to do something consistently, you have to embrace that it’s not really an art form at that point.
No matter how good the original is, if it can’t be recreated, if you can’t meet someone’s expectations time in and time out, who cares how good it is once?
I always say, anyone can be great once. You can be great by accident.
Look at McDonald’s. The genius isn’t in how good the Big Mac is, the genius is in how they can make it taste exactly the same all around the world.
But you’re not McDonald’s. How do you do it?
Yeah, well, that’s my big secret and my big challenge. That’s why I still have a job. I guess I know how to do this pretty well. It’s like programming a computer. It’s creating a list of steps and instructions people can follow easily.
So that means some menu items, no matter how great it is, will never make it on your restaurant menu because it can’t be executed consistently?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. There are things that we try to do sometimes and we can’t do it. We don’t have the steps to do it. Or we don’t have the manpower t o do it. Obviously yes, you can always create a mechanism to create anything as long as you build the machine big enough. But the price keeps getting higher and higher.
You’re credited with starting the gastropub movement in America. How do you feel about that?
Well, I’m thrilled about it. I guess I was one of the first pedigreed chefs to take a step away from fine dining, and this was 12 years ago, and especially in Los Angeles, there wasn’t anyone doing anything casual that was considered nice. If you weren’t in a fine dining restaurant with tablecloths, and paying a lot of money, you weren’t going to get a meal by a trained established chef.
When I was living in Europe, I was really enamored with the bar culture, the Parisian brasserie, the Spanish tapas bars, the Italian enoteca, wine bars, lively bar scenes.
I didn’t realize there was this sort of gastropub movement going on in England kind of in the late 90s. I didn’t really have anything to go off of. I just kind of decided I want to do something more casual.
And now casual is the new fine dining.
I know, the last 10 years it’s blow up. It’s sort of an international trend. In Europe, in France, they call it the bistronomic movement, where all the big time Michelin starred chefs are now focusing on lower price points, more casual restaurants. It’s not just an American thing. It’s exciting to see chefs who want to showcase what they do to a wider audience. And that’s just by charging less.
It’s nice to be able to say you can go to a restaurant and get something for $20 that’s made by a famous chef instead of having to pay $200. It changes the game a little bit.
I’m thrilled to be part of that. I had no idea that’s why I was doing, no idea that I was going to be part of a trend, emulated in any way. But it’s nice to be looking back and say yeah, I was one of the first people to do that.
Sang Yoon will be cooking at the Enter the Modern Dragon event, alongside chefs such as Joanne Chang and Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame. Tickets are $200 before August 15, $225 after. For more information, visit hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com