The restaurant industry is saturated with Asian-fusion concepts.
Although the majority of restaurants serving Asian fare would fall into this category, most aren't what you would call "authentic."
There's nothing wrong with that. Each chef has his or her own twist on a dish, so you could say an entire menu is made up of a fusion of influences.
But today's educated and adventurous consumer is often looking for authentic fare from somewhere they may not have ever been.
With that in mind, the creator of The Cheesecake Factory, opened RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen, a restaurant serving authentic dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Similar to The Cheesecake Factory, the LA restaurant's setting is dramatic and over-the-top, yet the extensive menu is approachable and comforting.
We decided to sit down with Chef Mohan Ismail, the culinary mastermind behind the Emerging Brand RockSugar to learn where he gets his menu inspiration from and why he thinks the restaurant has become wildly popular.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
Chef Mohan: I originally moved to New York in the early 90’s to pursue a career in the fashion industry, but at the urging of my friends, I began taking classes part-time at New York’s French Culinary Institute. I quickly discovered my true passion for food and within two months, I gave up my full-time job to pursue cooking classes.
I then landed my first professional job at the Metropolitan Museum, where I worked my way from line cook to pastry chef to sous chef. From there, I spent five years at Danny Meyer’s Tabla on Madison Avenue where I worked with famed chef, Floyd Cardoz ultimately working my way up to chef de cuisine. After Tabla, I joined the opening kitchen team as executive sous chef at Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market, where I helped shape the restaurant’s reputation for gourmet South Asian street food.
After Spice Market, I went on to be part of the opening team at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill which was one of the first true farm-to-table restaurants. We raised everything on the farm, and what we didn’t raise we sourced from neighboring farms. It was a wonderful experience that gave me a tremendous appreciation for knowing where your ingredients come from.
Where do you get the inspiration for the menu at RockSugar?
Chef Mohan: My inspiration for the menu comes from my upbringing in Singapore and my travels throughout Southeast Asia. Some of the most popular dishes at the restaurant were actually inspired by ones my mother used to make for me. When I created RockSugar’s menu, I wanted to curate a menu that was friendly, flavorful, and comforting and that highlighted the best of Southeast Asian cuisine.
What are some of the most popular dishes and why?
Chef Mohan: The Lacquered BBQ Ribs. I use a secret Chili-Caramel Sesame Glaze that gives them the perfect touch!
What trends are you seeing emerge in the industry and how is RockSugar incorporating them?
Chef Mohan: With social media use on the rise over the last several years, one of the most prevalent trends we are seeing is how “instagrammable” a dish is. Guests love to take pictures of their food and the more photo-friendly the dish, the better.
For instance at our new restaurant in Oak Brook, IL, outside Chicago, we introduced a Vietnamese Che Sundae on the menu when we opened. It’s shaved coconut ice and sorbet with fresh fruit, palm seeds, basil seeds and pandan water chestnut dumplings. It’s my own twist on street food. It’s brightly colored and visually impressive, and the whole idea was to incorporate some fun into eating. Guests love to photograph this dessert!
What makes RockSugar stand out from the other LA restaurants?
Chef Mohan: The entire RockSugar experience is quite unique. The restaurant itself is impressive. It’s very ornate and beautiful, but at the same time it’s very warm and comfortable – not at all pretentious. Our staff is very welcoming and they also project a comforting vibe that spills over into the food which is comforting and not at all stuffy.
All of these things are like pieces of a puzzle that fit together to create something very unique and special. We like to say that our guests feel like they’re transported somewhere far away when they dine at RockSugar.
Any future plans for the restaurant?
Chef Mohan: Since we’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary in Century City this June, I’m working on a special menu that will debut this summer. It will feature updated versions of some of the menu items we featured when we first opened. Also, we just opened our second location in Oak Brook, IL this past December, so that’s been my focus recently.