“I was a pain-in-the-ass kid who only ate dry white meat chicken and hated seafood. I didn’t even try sushi until I was 15,” says Sang Yoon, the Korea-born, Los Angeles-bred chef-proprietor behind the revered gastropub Father’s Office and Southeast Asian hot spot Lukshon. This bland diet might have persevered if not for a lavish recurring dream that visited him as a child, featuring an ornate dining room decked out with chandeliers, wainscoting, and cut crystal.
“Where did this come from? I didn’t like watching old movies. It almost felt like a past life. Maybe it’s a Freudian thing,” Yoon explains. But it was that vivid dream, with women donning long gloves and smoking cigarettes, that sparked a need to entertain. “As much as the dream made me panicky, it was gratifying, and I went to bed hoping I would have it again,” he says.
Cooking was a natural outlet for this newfound passion, and with busy parents working in fashion and newspaper publishing, Yoon was often left to his own experimental devices in the kitchen. Culinary school followed, but he was thrown out “for basically being a dick. I was a bored, smartass know-it-all and questioned their traditions. It was a failed experiment for me.” Moving to Italy and France, and apprenticing for Joël Robuchon, yielded better results. “I fell in love with European bar culture. People ate great, inspired food in a casual setting and they weren’t relegated to wings and nachos,” he says.
I like to make things harder for myself. The challenges are worth getting up for.
Back in the States and working at Michael’s, a temple of Califnoria cuisine, Yoon got fidgety. Inspired by those transcendent, low-key bar meals in Europe, he decided to take over the Santa Monica dive bar, Father’s Office, and transform it into an unfussy gastropub. Soon, it became a nationally renowned destination for craft beer and its controversial, no-substitutions burger with caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, and Gruyère and Maytag cheeses.
“It was probably the dumbest thing I’d ever done. Here I was, 28 and, by all definitions, doing well. The next logical step would have been to open my own fine-dining restaurant, but that was illogical to me. L.A. didn’t have Jean-Georges, Daniel Boulud, and Eric Ripert, and couldn’t hold a candle to New York. We were capable, but no one gave a shit. It would have been like theater without an audience,” he explains. “Once L.A. finally realized it was good at casual, we were able to let our hair down. I’m proud to have been part of that evolution in dining.”
He has helped pioneer the gastropub concept across the country; pushed Southeast Asian cooking into new territory with creations like a lobster roll “banh mi” at Lukshon; and, next year, his quest for improvement will be channeled into the resuscitation of the historic Helms Bakery, which ceased churning out loaves in 1969.
“I like to make things harder for myself,” says Yoon. “The challenges are worth getting up for.”
From a nostalgic beef ball shared with dad to that cultish cheeseburger, the restless immigrant son reflects on 10 of the dishes that helped him “literally chase a dream.”
Japanese Beef Ball
When I was eight years old, my father took me to breakfast at this teeny little place down an alley in Tokyo where cab drivers ate before their shifts started. It was a 12-foot-counter, diner-type place and like many places in Japan, it was a one-dish-only menu. I remember the classic beef ball—with steamed rice, sweet soy, onions, egg, and thin pieces of beef—was delicious. It was such a huge portion I never got to finish it, which is probably why it’s so memorable. But I think it was really the place that made such an impression. It was a cold morning and when we walked in, it was warm and steamy. I got to spend time with my dad, who traveled a lot, and had my beef ball with an orange soda, something that I wasn’t usually allowed to have growing up. (Photo: Japan Food Addict)
I first met Jacques Pépin when I was 18. I asked him what makes a great chef and he said, “Learn to make vichyssoise.” Really? It was one of those fortune cookie moments, where it doesn’t make sense and you don’t know what it means until 20 years later. That’s when I realized he meant to go and master the basics and pay attention to the fundamentals of cooking. No matter how simple a dish is, no detail should be overlooked. As a teenager, of course, I blew off his advice. (Photo: Buzzfeed)
Growing up in an immigrant family in LA in the 1970s, you’re almost ashamed of it. You just want to fit in and not be the weird kid. When I worked in Paris, I learned that the French really loved Asian food but didn’t understand it. I had never actually studied Korean food other than eating it as a kid, but because I was Korean, they asked me to make it for family meal. They gave me money and told me to go to the Vietnamese grocery store a few blocks away. Kimchi is the most identifiable dish in Korean cuisine, but I obviously didn’t have time to ferment cabbage for this. Buying the chile powder, cabbage, fish sauce, and garlic for this impromptu version, I realized the importance of kimchi to Asian cooking, and that maybe I should finally learn how to make Korean food. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Father’s Office Burger
Los Angeles is where the burger cut its teeth. McDonald’s may not have been invented here, but it happened here. My first burger growing up was a Big Mac, so it sort of makes sense that when I opened my first restaurant, attacking and elevating the burger would be important to me. The no-ketchup rule at Father’s Office bothers a lot of people. When you say you can’t change the way it’s made, they ask, “Why not?” I was raised on burgers and it’s really a product of eating a lot of them. I put the things I loved on the burger and eliminated what I thought didn’t contribute anything. I had to sneak around to eat fast food, so I owe Father’s Office to my rebellious nature as a child.
I lived in northern Italy for a while, on a farm that was owned by family friends. They had olive trees and made olive oil in tiny amounts. It was here that I got to experience making risotto outdoors in kind of a witch’s cauldron. It was an iron pot that hung on a wooden hook, and cooking in it, it made sense to me why you need to always stir risotto. The only way to change the heat of this thing was to kick dirt on the fire. There were these 8- to 10-year-old boys who would come in with buckets of porcini mushrooms, so I made porcini risotto ad nauseam. On weekends the fishermen would come by, so I learned how to separate the cuttlefish and make the classic Venetian risotto nero. I’m really good at making risotto for parties now. (Photo: Food52)
I love the spices in beef rendang, but it’s usually very dry. When I opened Lukshon, the whole point of view was to modernize Southeast Asian cuisine. I always thought beef rendang was delicious, but it needed moisture. So I set out to reinvent it, using the modern technique of sous-viding short ribs and making my own coconut milk. It became the restaurant’s first signature dish and one of the most popular. It stirred my creativity, and I’m glad I was able to take a classic and transform it through current-day technology. (Photo: Food GPS)
There are so many Asian-style chicken wings out there and I wanted to make one that was different. This is where my love of Sichuan cuisine came in. With my practical nature, I don’t like how messy wings are. What makes them messy is that you have to eat them horizontally like corn and play them like a harmonica. So I made them into lollipops, where the meat is all on one end, and flavored them with Sichuan spices and peppercorns. They are hot and numbing, which I think of as a tug of war between sumo wrestlers—two powerful opposites tugging at each other. The chicken wings evoke a war of evil pain and pleasure in your mouth. It’s the dish that’s most identified at Lukshon—and it’s delicious and not a pain to eat. (Photo courtesy Lukshon)
Someone ordered shrimp toast from a take-out Chinese place and no one ate it because it was too greasy, so I did. In the back of my mind I thought fried bread and shrimp had potential. So when I opened Lukshon, I thought, how do I make that a better dish? We inverted it, using a ball of ground rock shrimp spiked with chiles and herbs. We tediously hand cut tiny square croutons of bread—the prep guys were none too happy—and then rolled the shrimp in the croutons rather than using bread crumbs or Panko. It was another triumphant moment of reinventing a classic. (Photo: KevinEats)
In Asian families fried rice is not a dish you order in a restaurant; it’s leftovers, fried up with whatever else you had the night before. It was always a head-scratcher for me when my American friends said they loved ordering pork fried rice. I think the reason I had such disdain for it is because it was never about the rice but what was in the rice, and the rice was just the vehicle. I tried to change that perception and set the bar with the Black Rice dish at Lukshon, cooked with sweet Chinese sausage and roasted garlic. It puts an emphasis on the forbidden rice itself, not the ingredients added to it. (Photo: Starchefs)
Chili Oil Dumplings
To a lot of people, little boiled wontons set in a swimming pool of chile oil is off-putting. But done properly, I think it can be an incredibly good dish. I had been trying to make it for years. I’ve eaten it so many times in New York, L.A., and China, and I’ve tried to grasp what the soul of the dish is and harness what was good about the best versions. It took a little over two years of trial and error, but really, it’s about the ratio of pork to fat and keeping that war between hot and numb going. It was a deep, deep study, and I tell you, not having made this traditionally with a grandmother in the Sichuan province, it can consume you. It’s the dish I’m most proud of making in the last 10 years.