Q & A With Sang Yoon, Part 2: His Jewish Grandmother, Duck Tongue + Why The Chef Wants A Centrifuge
Sang Yoon outside Lukshon
At the conclusion of the first part of our interview with Sang Yoon (Lukshon, Father's Office), the chef was considering the relative merits of using heat as a weapon and why you can ask for sriracha at Lukshon although to ask for ketchup at Father's Office is, well, simply not done.
Turn the page for the second part of our interview, in which the chef -- pictured here in Lukshon's cozy outdoor patio and sitting dangerously near his own personal Olympic flame -- discusses how Lukshon got its name and if he should buy a centrifuge. If you happen to have one at home, let us know your favorite ways to use the thing in the kitchen. (Anybody at Caltech read this blog?) And be sure to check back later for Yoon's recipe for shrimp cakes. Yes, you can make them at home without a centrifuge. Or an immersion circulator. Or a cannister of nitrogen. Good to know.
Squid Ink: Ah, so what's next on your horizon? More Father's Offices?
Sang Yoon: Oh, come on, it's only been a couple months.
SI: You can be a hard man to track down.
SY: No, there's nothing that's set in stone. Never is with me. I have no growth plan. I have no Five Year Plan. I don't know. I always say that planning to open another restaurant is like the most dangerous thing you can do. I think it has, for whatever reason, to be completely serendipitious. It's like meeting your soul mate. You don't find it by looking for it.
Si: Forcing the issue tends to be a very bad idea.
SY: Well, if you do, I think you can talk yourself into almost anything. You can make sense of it, like, This is the best location ever because look at all the people walking around. Or you could say, Look there's no one here, we would make the neighborhood. You can literally justify anything.
SI: It's like opening the Bible. So how much research did you do for Lukshon?
SY: A lot. A lot. A lot of analysis paralysis.
SI: What does that mean?
SY: Well, you get locked into things. You start to examine things so deeply it gets crippling. In my brain the hourglass was spinning, it just kept saying, Come on, Sang. I ran into a lot of dead ends. We did a ton of dishes that we didn't end up using and maybe we'll go back to, but just ideas that didn't pan out. There were more ideas that didn't pan out than did pan out. There was a lot of time I had to study stuff. The question of like, how spicy? Well then, how authentic do I go? How far do I want to push this? Because there's authentic and there's like, No one's going to eat this. Where's that line?
SI: Where is that line?
SY: Well, no one knows; I think it's dynamic. Like I said, in '83 it was like wasabi and soy sauce and now we're like at fish sauce and shrimp paste and we've moved on. I think it'll continue to grow and like anything, if you're around long enough it'll evolve. The goal here is to carefully monitor what people like and what they say about it. And if the opportunity arises, to test dishes. Even in the next week or so, we're adding more dishes.
SI: Well, you have a test kitchen. It's hardly set in stone.
SY: Yeah, yeah, nothing's set in stone. Now we're going to stick a toe in the water, with things that are a little racier, a little not as friendly to the masses, I don't know. Not crazy weird stuff, just things that you might not think go together, some flavors that are pushing the boundaries of funky or authentic. I'm not going to do coagulated duck blood soup.
SI: That was the next question.
SY: That has its audience; I don't think it's here. I have no allegiance to duck tongue.
SI: Do people ask you about duck tongue a lot?
SY: People say, Are you ever going to do duck tongue? I had duck tongue once. I'm like, I don't really like duck tongue; I don't get it. I don't think it tastes particularly good. I had it recently in New York and I was like, Yeah, it's fine.
SI: It begs the question of whether you're just doing it for the entertainment value.
SY: I just found out that I have to give a talk at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival on the word 'value.' That brings up the question: well, what value does that have.
SI: Value of what?
SY: Value I guess associated with our business. I can say, well, I did duck tongue. What would the value of that be. I don't know. Some ingredients are maybe more interesting because they're rare, but whether or not they taste good or you actually want to eat them I'm not sure.
SI: You're running a restaurant and not a circus.
SY: Yeah, yeah. There are some ingredients that are more circus-y. That's a great word for it. Very look at me.
SI: You could serve live octopus if you wanted to.
SY: We serve live scallops. They're still moving when we cut them. They're like ridiculously fresh. They're from Maine, Deer Isle. They have some of the greatest scallops. Short season though.
SI: So people ask you about duck tongue. Is there anything else people are oddly fixated on?
SY: They ask why I don't have many more noodle dishes. And I'm like, well, it was never meant to be a noodle place. We'll add new noodle dishes eventually, and we'll probably end up opening for lunch in the near future. But there was an odd sense that people thought it was going to be a noodle place or a ramen shop or something. Well, I never said that. And the word Lukshon means noodle in Yiddish. So that's another reason maybe people thought that.
SI: Does it mean anything in not-Yiddish?
SY: I made sure that in Mandarin it doesn't mean toilet or something. But it has more to do with my surrogate Jewish grandmother.
SI: Is she why you called it Lukshon?
SY: She was the first person who taught me how to cook, as a very young child. It's a mini-homage to her. And plus it just sounds like a funny Asian word. But it doesn't mean anything in any Asian language that I researched. Maybe there's some strange dialect of some weird Himalayan mountain village language that maybe 6 people speak. Maybe it means duck tongue.
SY: But I had to look. It means this in Yiddish, but... It's like the Chevy Nova, which means 'don't go' in Spanish, which is fantastic. Great name for a car, guys.
SI: Yeah, so much for R&D. So, an homage to your Yiddish grandmother.
SY: She used to speak a little Yiddish to me. And it was kind of funny. It wasn't even my idea; it was a friend's idea. And I couldn't think of a better name. That's the best one. It wins. And Father's Office was taken. I like having the restaurants next to each other.
SI: It cuts down on your commute.
SY: Tremendously. I kind of feel bad for all my colleagues who have all these restaurants in different cities across the country. They have to fly around all the time. Man, that would be hard. It's hard enough being in the same city.
SI: You wonder what Wolfgang Puck's frequent flyer mileage looks like.
SY: And everyone else's. There are a billion chefs who have restaurants all over the place. I don't envy them that at all. People always ask me, hey, are you going to open here here and here in all these other cities. And I'm like, Man, that would put a real damper on my life. I don't really like airports. It changes your lifestyle. I see other chefs, I'll ask Tom Colicchio, he's always running around.
SI: You wonder how much time they have to cook.
SY: Well, they don't. Really.
SI: So how much time do you spend behind the stoves these days?
SY: I do all the experimenting. At the genesis of every dish, that's where I'm at. At the foundational point.
SI: Was that the genesis for the test kitchen?
SY: Well, we were offered that space. The kitchen wasn't there; we had to build it. It used to be a caterer and we took it down and rebuilt it from scratch. The idea was to have a place where we could kind of study.
SI: Very El Bulli-ish.
SI: In that you can experiment.
SY: We've got cool toys and we can do all the scientific stuff in there.
SI: What's the coolest toy you have?
SY: We have a great cooking line. We have a rotary evaporator.
SI: Do you have an Anti-Griddle?
SY: No. I don't really like the Anti-Griddle. PolyScience will never sponsor me now. That's okay. It's the one piece of equipment from PolyScience that I don't really get. I still struggle to find an actual practical use for that, other than to show your friends, Hey, look what it can do.
SI: Like having your own Xerox machine?
SY: I'm just probably not smart enough to figure out how to use it. But just, every time I see it, I'm like, I saw that trick when it came out. What can it do beyond that? And this year I'll go to the trade show and I'll be like, I still don't know what it does. No idea. It's so radically innovative but, in my opinion, so profoundly useless. Like I said, there are probably a handful of people who are doing amazing things with it, I'm sure in the right hands it can probably do something, but not in mine. It would be a waste of space for me.
SY: Oh, yeah, all that stuff. The roto-vap is kind of cool because we can isolate flavors, you can distill things without boiling them. So we can do really low temperature distillation and take jalapenos or serrano chiles or Thai chiles -- this is a fun trick -- and take all the flavor compounds out and isolate all the heat. So I can get all the volatile organic compounds isolated and absolutely zero capsicin. So I can have it in a concentrated colorless liquid form and I can put drops of it into dressings and stuff, where you're not increasing volume but adding straight extract. So get the uncooked raw flavor of the chile and then you can add heat. You can decouple the flavor from the heat and then manipulate heat independently. That's fun. That gives you a layer of precision that you don't have normally. You're playing with much finer instruments now, it's sort of like, first you had the tongs, now you have the tweezers. Then you have the microscope.
That's where it's all going. It's about manipulating things on a finer level. Immersion circulators are all about controlling heat, but more gently, more exactly. We have all the toys to do that kind of stuff. That's all we do: apply heat. All cooks really do. Take an ingredient and know how to heat it. So we have all the vacuum chambers, the dehydrators, the big humungous ones. The only thing I don't have is a centrifuge.
SI: Well, you could get the Fermilab to sponsor you.
SY:I did think of a cool use for a centrifuge for us. Because I didn't think I had one. A use for one. Separating coconut milk is really hard, like time consuming: the cream from the water. So if you had a centrifuge you could do that super fast. 40,000 rpms. Whhzz. I gotta get one just for that.
SI: How much do they run?
SY: New they're like, Jesus, they range from like 15K, I've seen them for 40K. It depends on the size.
Si: Doesn't CalTech have one you could borrow?
SY: Haha. Probably not without germs in it. No.
SI: Atomic particles.
SY: But I kind of want one. The other thing you can do is separate your nut oils. That's always fun. We use a lot of candlenuts, and I thought if I had a centrifuge I could make candlenut oil. I'm just trying to justify my purchase. If I can hit 5 things, I'll probably buy one. I'm up to maybe three. Otherwise I'll just be spinning things for the sake of spinning them. Just to see what happens.
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