If you haven't heard of Kayson Chong or the latest poke craze, you may just be a slowpoke. Poke, a Hawaiian staple consisting of chopped, seasoned, raw fish, topped with seaweed and other ingredients of your choosing — kind of like sushi in a bowl — has been taking Los Angeles by storm. Needless to say, builld-your-own, Chipotle-style poke shops have been cropping up in the restaurant industry, consumers not only craving this island-rooted dish for its freshness, but for its perceived healthiness and sustainable qualities.
Chong, founding partner and chef of the LA-based Mainland Poke Shop, has been at the forefront of this craze, and has put a modern, gourmet spin on this Hawaiian classic. At Mainland, guests go down the line, piling on their fish selections, condiments, and toppings, but each artisanal ingredient is handcrafted by Chong, who blends traditional Hawaiian flavors with an elevated global approach and unique sauces.
But before his poke mastery at Mainland, Chong was a curious child who poked into the kitchens of restaurants and stared in awe at the chefs working inside. This inspired him to enroll in San Francisco's California Culinary Academy in 2002 and work with the team at the acclaimed Chef Wolfgang Puck's Postrio after graduating.
From working under Chef Julian Serrano at the five-diamond French restaurant Picasso to BLT Steak in Los Angeles to becoming the opening chef de cusine of GO Burger, Chong's culinary career is just as rich and flavorful as his creations. Want to learn more? Read to see what he said to say when we asked him six, quick questions.
The Quick Six
Foodable: Who is one person that you would love to cook for (that you haven’t already)?
Kayson Chong: I've had the greatest opportunity to cook for many chefs, all types of stars, and athletes while working in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It is kind of hard to think about anyone I wouldn't want to cook for again. But, I would love to meet and cook for Corey Lee, a fellow Korean-American chef. I did have the pleasure of cooking for his mentor, Thomas Keller, on a couple occasions, one being his birthday.
Foodable: Who is your culinary mentor?
KC: I have many culinary mentors and colleagues after being in the business for about 13 years now. But the chef that I keep in touch with frequently is Noah Rosen. He used to be the toughest on me and kept pushing me to become a strong cook and leader in the kitchen. He was the chef I owe the pleasure of making me a sous chef for the first time.
Foodable: What’s the first meal (that you can recall) that changed your life?
KC: A meal that changed my life was when I lived in Las Vegas, working at Picasso Restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel. I came in for a dinner with my family, who was visiting from San Diego, and had the best wines and dishes presented to us. Everything from crab, lobster, foie gras, white truffles, turbot, bone marrow, venison, lamb, filet and petit fours came to our table.
My family had never eaten in a restaurant with millions of dollars worth of paintings and ceramics by Picasso. I guess it was the whole experience as it made everyone at the table so full with good eats and all the staff made sure we had the best dining experience ever.
Foodable: Where is your favorite restaurant to eat at when you aren’t working?
KC: Whenever I'm not catering an event, flipping burgers, or cutting up fish, I like dining at Oo Kook with friends and family. It's an affordable AYCE KBBQ on West 8th Street with a great selection of cow and pig cuts. I love eating family-style whenever I can. The banchan there is pretty decent too.
Foodable: One ingredient you could not live without?
KC: If there was one ingredient to choose from besides salt and pepper, it would probably be tomatoes. You can use them in so many different ways. They can be eaten raw, smoked, made into soups, sauces, curries, and stews. There are so many types and variations of tomatoes to choose from to make the best Heirloom Tomato Salad, Tomato Bisque, or Pomidoro Sauce.
Foodable: What's the most important lesson you learned (good or bad) in your first year of owning a restaurant?
KC: My experiences have taught me that there is a lot of trial and error to build a better and more streamlined product. I’ve learned that it is especially important to have people by your side and investors and partners who “get it”.