Q&A with Sang Yoon
We sat down with the inventive and irascible chef/owner of Lukshon and Father's Office, home to one of the best burgers in the country (Daniel Boulud called it his favorite), to talk about his restaurants, modern Southeast Asian cuisine and his favorite cooking tool. His vision is strong and his voice is clear so we thought it best to allow his own words do the talking here.
LUCKYRICE: Give me an example of how you modernize a traditional Southeast Asian dish.
Sang Yoon: Beef rendang is a good example. It’s a classic Malaysian dish that’s cooked like a stew in a big pot into a deeply flavored curry. The downside is that it’s not going to be tender. It’s going to be dry because you have to cook the hell out of it. How do you take a dish like that [modernize it] and keep all of the flavors exactly as they should be? We took beef short rib and cooked it in the exact spices in sous vide so you get this amazingly, meltingly tender piece of beef and then you deconstruct the stew and the spices into a sauce. You’re getting all the flavors of a classic rendang but you’re having a modern experience using modern cooking techniques. We didn’t introduce any other outside Western flavors. We just took it apart and applied our current technology instead of doing it the way that great-grandma did it.
LUCKYRICE: Why is fusion like the F word in the culinary world? Isn’t all the new Asian food that everybody is going crazy over really just fusion in a different guise?
Sang Yoon: I love the F word and get called it all the time. [laughing] I don’t think it’s such a bad word. It’s just not what I do.
At Lukshon, I don’t try to fuse anything together that never went together. I just try to reflect what’s already gone on and then modernize it.
Wasabi Mashed Potatoes is a classic example of real fusion. They took one Asian ingredient and they smashed it together with mashed potatoes. Two disparate things that have no cultural or historical relevance or connection in any way and somebody smashed them together.
A lot of people think that if it’s not served in a hole in the wall place where they don’t speak English, then it’s not authentic so it must be fusion. If you go to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo you can see very modern interpretations of very authentic Asian food but you don’t see that in America. A lot of people don’t understand that.
LUCKYRICE: Do you think L.A. is the best place in the U.S. for Asian food?
I don’t think there’s any city in the country that can touch the variety, depth and volume of Asian food that we have. Our Koreatown is something we’re very proud of. Koreatown is like half the city now. It’s grown like a weed. And, we’ve got Thai Town, Little Tokyo, Little Saigon out in Orange County. It’s endless. The ethnic neighborhoods.
In L.A., 20 years ago, there was no such thing as a pho shop and now there’s a pho shop on every corner. It’s as prevalent as Mexican food is here now and it’s amazing. That just goes to show the evolution of Asian food. It’s really embedded itself in our culture here.
LUCKYRICE: Use of Asian spices and flavors have increased. Non-Asian chefs are doing Asian food. Things have changed. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen over the past 10 years?
Sang Yoon: I think the lid’s been blown off. I think chefs might want to explore Asia as their core subject matter as opposed to just having Asian influence in Western food. Look at Andy Ricker. He’s not Thai but he’s doing real Thai street food. That’s awesome. I love that.
People are now saying give it to me and give to me the way it’s supposed to come.
I think the evolution is easy to understand. Look at Italian food. When it first landed on the shores here, it was red sauce and pizza. It stayed very safe for a long time. As we evolved and time went on, it became more regionalized. It became southern Italian and Pugliese and Tuscan and people now start to distinguish. That’s starting to happen with Chinese food, Korean food and Japanese food.
LUCKYRICE: What are some of your favorite flavors that you’ve been playing with lately?
Sang Yoon: Sichuanese peppercorn, bourbon barrel aged fish sauce. Things made out of soybean – tofu products.
The region I am in absolute love with is the Sichuan province [in China]. When you are playing with those flavors, it’s like playing with explosives. It’s dangerous and I love it. There’s no subtlety. It’s bold and everything is in your face and I think to be able to take chiles in that quantity and still create subtlety and nuance within it, that’s genius, that’s magic. I think there’s something truly amazing about that part of China.
How can I take something like mapo tofu and make it into a form that more people might be more amenable to trying. Can you take the core DNA of that dish and change the form physically? How do you take something that classic, that already tastes good and improve upon it in some way.
LUCKYRICE: You’re always experimenting and playing with technology. What are some of your favorite new tools?
Sang Yoon: At the end of the day, my favorite cooking tool is still the wok. With all the fancy stuff I have, there is still nothing that can emulate a wok, concentrating that much high heat into one place in a cast iron bowl and the wok “hei”, the flavor and aroma that is imparted by a well seasoned wok.
[Cooking in a wok] is like walking on hot coals. Just trying to bounce off of it without getting burned. You’re working at a temperature that should just scorch the hell out of the food. As you keep the food moving over that heat, it develops that flavor, that wok hei. You can’t get that out of a sautee pan and a typical burner. I find it funny that I’m talking about modernizing food and so heavily rely on something that is 3,000 years old.
There are no knives on a Chinese table. Putting a knife on a table is considered barbaric. Butchery in China is supposed to happen in the kitchen, not at the table. You have to cut everything into little bites so it can be eaten with chopsticks. I think there’s something very elegant about that.
There’s something elegant and purposeful about how a wok is used and how it dovetails with how you dine. There’s something elegantly simple about it. There’s something very Jedi about it to me.
LUCKYRICE: The image of Asian male chefs has changed a lot. What are your thoughts on this?
Sang Yoon: People have told me that I don't look like a chef but I don't know what that means. The shift for me is that I am actually quite excited and proud to not blend in, to have a unique heritage, to be able to speak a different language and that I come from a different place. I’m proud of that immigrant heritage and now you see people who are generally more curious about what I know.
I’m excited to see non-Korean people be excited to go to a Korean restaurant. [Asian food] is beyond embraced. It’s exciting. It’s adventurous. People love learning about it. I think it’s a great time to represent Asian cuisine and to be a culinarian. It’s an amazing amazing time.