Fort Lauderdale Magazine: What does your new place bring to the Fort Lauderdale culinary scene that hasn’t been here before?
Sunny Oh: We strive to bring classic American sushi to our customers. I say this all the time, but sushi has only been in America, in South Florida really, for about 50 years and the cuisine has evolved so much. Finding classic sushi is hard, especially with the lack of quality chefs around, lack of sushi chefs in general. So we’re talking about bringing classic, American sushi but also trying to have some whimsical ideas and dishes to play off of in a nice setting. We glorify the food and the location by turning it into a destination and experience.
FLMag: Are there dishes on the menu that you think best sum up your approach to the work? What are some favorites?
SO: Definitely – the Rainbow Roll, Spicy Tuna, and the classic Teriyaki. These are staples; these are the American approaches to certain Japanese dishes. The Spicy Tuna Roll is American-born. There are other rolls, such as the Rainbow Roll that are American-born, but the Spicy Tuna Roll is truly the most American of the rolls.
FLMag: Tell us more about your love of diverse cuisines and bringing them together. Do you enjoy discovering new culinary traditions you hadn’t known about before?
SO: I love food. The truth is to be a chef is more than just being able to have a recipe or make a dish. It really is the understanding of how to take a dish and manipulate it and move it in the direction you want it to move in. Understanding how the components come together. I try to get out at least once every month, with my limited schedule, to dabble and try something new, something different. Whether it’s different interpretations of dishes and seeing whether I enjoy them or not. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve learned a ton about different culinary traditions. Whether it’s Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, French, or even Latin. I love food history, and in my spare time I research and enjoy understanding diverse cuisines and their traditions.
FLMag: The granola business sounds interesting. How did that come about?
SO: Sunny Poke and our granola is very close to my heart, it’s my family. It’s my wife and my daughter. My wife is a pastry chef by trade. I met her at the hotel where we both worked and she was always making granola. She wanted to create something that was not so sweet or full of sugar, so she came up with her own granola recipe. And that recipe has remained unchanged for nearly 20 years now. She still makes it and the die-hard fans love it. Sunny Poke came about when my daughter was growing up. We had to make a choice, make a decision of who was going to be keeping an eye and taking care of my daughter while I was working. So my wife decided she would step back and take care of family responsibilities and do her granola and stuff on the side. As my daughter grew older, she loved poke. There was a moment where poke was getting national attention and poke shops were popping up everywhere. My wife would take my daughter to have poke bowls before I had ever even had one. They tried to convince me to go and I was very hesitant about the idea. I got dragged to a poke shop one day because I was with my daughter, so I finally took her to get poke. To this day, my daughter still tells the story of how my eyes lit up and I realized that this was something I could implement and create as a sister company to Sushi Garage, and that’s how Sunny Poke was born. It all comes full circle, because we now sell my wife’s granola at Sunny Poke as well.
FLMag: As a South Florida native, how do you view the food scene here now compared to what you remember from when you were younger or growing up here?
SO: I grew up in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. I never thought I grew up in a small town, but when I started going to Miami to hang out, that’s when I started to realize it. I remember growing up and going out to Fort Lauderdale as a youngster and thinking it was such a big city but now looking back I grew up in a small town, with a beach town mentality.
Over the years, as new places started popping up, I saw how the food scene in South Florida evolved. Ironically, I still can go to a handful of places I grew up with that are still there. Whether it’s my little New York pizza shop or my little Italian restaurant. I think those two stand regardless of time. Even though there might be a bigger name, there are still the classics and the restaurants that have been here forever. I believe you can make good food, but once you create your client base, that’s when you’ll be able to withstand the test of time. In South Florida, a lot of people come in bulldogging, bulldozing the idea that they are from a big city so they think they are going to show us something. I think it’s funny, sometimes they don’t realize, whether it’s Miami or Fort Lauderdale, there’s a food scene that’s here in its own right. There’s a dynamic here that you have to recognize if you want to bring in your ideas from another city or another state. I see the change, but I’ve also seen a lot of restaurants fail coming in (with) that “We’re from New York, so we’re going to teach you guys a thing or two” mentality.
FLMag: Are there dishes from early in your life that inspire you? Specific food-based memories that shape who you are as a chef?
SO: I remember when I was a young chef, working and learning about fish and so forth, learning the transitions and stages of when a person doesn’t like raw fish, and how to introduce them into that world, so I had to figure out how to do that. For me, tuna is by all means one of the most profound of those dishes. The Spicy Tuna Tartar that we have at Sushi Garage is one of those dishes that I’ve been making for years. That recipe is so old, in my mind it’s been there forever. I want to say that it’s been in my mind for over 20 years. The balance of the components defines who I am, whether it’s the sesame oil, the tosazu, the chilies, they all balance it out. It’s very much something that has been with me for many years. Another dish is the Maple Miso Sea Bass. That’s one of those dishes that is like a comfort food that your mother or grandmother would make for their family and kids to enjoy. It’s also very special to me.
Memories really define everything that I am as a chef. No matter when or where I am, I cannot stop being a chef. I go to restaurants, I eat food, I try food, and it becomes a memory. A memory that encompasses all of the places I’ve been and foods that I’ve eaten. To be a chef is like being a sommelier. A sommelier, like a chef, understands the palate. By understanding the palate, a chef or sommelier can then pair foods eloquently; this is why most chefs have good taste in wines. All of my memories inspire my thoughts, and therefore, have very much shaped the ideas of what I do and create every day.
The Dish: Maple Miso Sea Bass
For the sea bass and Garnish
- 4 pieces of Chilean sea bass (7 oz each)
- 4 oz soy sauce
- Basil (handful chopped)
- 2 cucumbers
- 4 pieces shitake star
- 4 pieces breakfast radish
- 4 baby bok choy
- 3 oz micro arugula for topping
- Vegetable oil for cooking
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
For the sauce
- 7 oz maple syrup
- 5 oz shiro miso
- 7 ozgranulated sugar
- 5 oz manjo mirin
Heat vegetable oil in sauté pan until hot. Season fish with salt and pepper. Pan sear the sea bass on one side until golden. Flip and place in preheated oven at 450 degrees for approximately 10 min or until fully cooked.
Mix all ingredients in a pot, then use a double boiler to cook the mix until sugar dissolves and miso changes to a caramel color.
Slice cucumbers with mandolin. Slice radish with mandolin. Star shitake mushroom with a knife. Blanch then sauté halved bok choy with shitake until cooked.
Place bok choy on top of the cucumbers, then place fish on top of the bok choy and finish with sauce, then garnish with micro arugula for topping.