Sang Yoon is not an easy man to pin down. He moves quickly. He doesn't like interviews, or at least so it's always seemed to us. But when he actually sits down and starts talking, he often doesn't stop. Which is very cool, since he's got a lot of interesting things to say. He's also hilarious. And he makes a damn fine bowl of dan dan noodles these days, especially since he's fiddled with the recipe as much as normal people mess with their car engines or their resumes. Not that, as Yoon is quick to tell you, Lukshon is a noodle restaurant, nor was it ever meant to be, issues of place names and grandmothers notwithstanding. (Read the whole interview.)
Turn the page for part one of our interview with the chef, whose long anticipated Lukshon opened in January. (Read Jonathan Gold's review here.) And whose second Father's Office outpost is conveniently located right next door. Oh, and let's not forget Yoon's test kitchen, a chef's playroom — blast freezer, cans of liquid nitrogen, vacuum steamer — that is across the Helms Bakery complex parking lot. More fun with speed walking.
Squid Ink: So congratulations on the opening of your latest restaurant. It took awhile.
Sang Yoon: It did.
SI: It seems like yours took longer than other people's sometimes do. Or is that just a misperception.
SY: There were a lot of moving parts. [Pots crash in the kitchen.] And clanging sounds in the back. I think my projects take longer for a certain set of reasons, whereas other people's might take longer for other reasons.
SI: Like building codes?
SY: Well, I don't know. I don't think I've broken any time records for how long records have taken. I mean, either way, neither the fastest or the slowest. There is a lot of preparation and detail that goes into stuff I want to do, so as far as the construction of the restaurant, there were a zillion custom details that were sort of fawned over and thought of over and over again. There's nothing off the shelf in there; everything had to be built. That's why it took so long. It wasn't regulatory, necessarily. We had our normal share, but not our unfair share. It took about a year.
SI: That's not that bad.
SY: Yeah. You can build a restaurant in half that time, or less, if you really wanted to. You can, it's just you get a different product. It's like anything.
SI: And you make pretty much everything.
SY: Oh, yeah. When people think of Asian food it seems like there's a lot of emphasis on sauces and condiments. The sambals and srirachas and hot sauce, stuff like that. And I wanted to make as many of those things as possible. So the first order of business was to create a pantry, a working pantry, before we came up with any of the dishes. We made our own XO, our own hoisin, our own sriracha, our own collection of sambals, the Malaysian sauces and noodle bases, curry bases, dry spice blends, just as a fundamental basis. No finished dishes, just like let's create the pantry. We spent a lot of time procuring interesting spices. We had a lot of herbs planted for us because we couldn't buy them. So we had to find seeds.
SI: And wait for them to grow.
SY: Yeah, that was a lot of that first year and a half: literally planting seeds. Literally. Like, I want to use this herb, where do you buy it? You can't. So okay, who do I know in Singapore. Send me a box of seeds, put them in the ground, see what happens. Yeah, the first several months of recipe testing was all — we didn't have a dish — it was just, let's come up with 15 different curry powders.
SI: It sounds like you were building your own meth lab.
SY: Sort of, yeah. The test kitchen kind of looks like that. Just building the foundation, like creating your own store to shop out of. We tried everything. We tried making our own fish sauce; that didn't really work. Stunk to high heaven.
SI: Doesn't it take months to make a good fish sauce?
SY: Yeah. We tried a quick ghetto version. It takes some time and you have to really know what you're doing. It's not something that you can just make at home. Not to mention, I don't think that most people can tolerate the smell.
SI: Tell us more about your test kitchen.
SY: It's a luxury to have. I always say it's like a musician having his own recording studio. It's like a place to play; it's a kitchen that has a ton of toys. It's actually next to a patio, so we can do some private events. It's across the parking lot. The nice thing is that there's no service, there's no customers, it's not attached to a business.
SI: It's a lab.
SY: Yeah, so it's a true lab environment. You can be in it anytime you want; there are no hours. You can be there in the middle of dinner service, at 3 in the morning, weekends.
SI: Is it open to the public? Will it ever be?
SY: Well, there's a patio attached to it. I'm working on this project called FO Dining Club, and it's a series of themed dinners that I'll do on the patio. So it's right outside the kitchen. But no, I don't take people into the kitchen, no. It's not a public space. My space.
SI: So what's the coolest thing you've made. Other than the fish sauce.
SY: Fish sauce was not the coolest thing I made. No. Um, we made smoked sriracha. That was pretty awesome. We made a green sriracha and a white sriracha, all based on different types of chiles. There's a variety of jalapeno called a white jalapeño; I don't think it's really a white jalapeño, but they call it that. There's a farm I deal with in Northern California and they sent them to me. They look like jalapeños but they're white and we made a sriracha out of it. It's beautiful. It's not really white — it's kind of beige colored, but it's beautiful; it tastes great. We did a sriracha out of green chiles. Then we decided to take some red Fresnos, smoke them in the smoker. That's insane. That was fun. I think I saw smoked Tabasco once, and I thought, well, if I can make smoked Tabasco I can make smoked sriracha. That was the inspiration.
SI: So what about heat? How do you decide how hot to make dishes for the average Los Angeles palate?
SY: Hahaha. Well, there's no scientific method. When I was thinking about opening this restaurant, the impetus was… I used to work at Chinois, years and years ago in the 90s, and when that opened in '83 that was a massive very avant garde statement, because the whole notion of pushing Asian food together with a European sensibility was super new. And I think back to then and the palate for Asian flavors was by today's standards very rudimentary. It was like soy sauce, wasabi, miso. Those were exotic. And now those are grocery store items. That opened in '83. I didn't work there in '83. I was like in 6th grade.
Moving forward now, it's been like 30 years. If you examine how far the Western palate, even our local palate, for Asian food has come, I think you can directly attribute it to now people can travel to China, they work in China, you can travel to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, those are like vacation destinations, whereas once they were very closed off and taboo. I think because of that, and the discovery of the San Gabriel Valley by people who live west of the 405. It's obvious that there's a deeper and heightened curiosity, and I think there's a greater desire for more authenticity. And I don't think that people want Asian food that's as Westernized or dumbed down as maybe they did in the past.
So I think this next generation of people, current generation of people, are of the mind that they can tolerate more heat, they can tolerate they'll eat shrimp paste and oyster sauce. I've never seen so many people ask for sea urchin. I remember growing up, no one would go near it. It was like, I'd rather eat my own snot. And now, yeah, I see people eating fish sauce and they want more fish sauce. And places like Jitlada are so popular now. The question is how you determine how much heat you put in a dish, is well. I just say, I try to keep it as authentic as possible. If I've had a dish like that in Asia. I'm very cognizant of heat. I don't want a dish to be like, too painful. I think we definitely push heat though; it's not gratuitious. It needs to be part of the flavor profile; it can't be scorching hot for no other reason. We definitely use it as a weapon, but it also plays a huge role in southeast Asia's food. Food without heat, that's like drinking decaf. Why bother.
SI: Can people ask for a higher level? Or is it like the ketchup thing.
SY: Haha. No, they can't. I mean we have our housemade sriracha, if they want to squirt some on they can do that. But we don't have like mild, medium and spicy options. We find a heat level we like. No one really asks for anything hotter.
SI: Well, I mean everyone knows you have a no-substitution policy at Father's Office. I guess I don't think they'd ask you, of all people, but still.
SY: I guess. I don't know. Some people ask for sriracha, and that's fine; we have it.
SI: Because you make it, so why not.
SY: Yeah, it's really good. I'm happy for that: Here, try it, it's delicious.
Check back later for the second part of this interview and Yoon's shrimp cake recipe from Lukshon