Behind the Line with Mike Lee

Published Mon, Sep 17, 2012 10:39 AM
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Chef Mike Lee from Sono in downtown Raleigh. Photo by Peter Musser

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

Rollin' with the times in the area's oft-dubbed "best" sushi spot, Sono's decorated chef Mike Lee rolls a fusion of trad and trendy into the Triangle’s tastiest round treat. Chef and owner of the hottest “cold kitchen” in town, this Seoul native makes sushi—and a host of hot-kitchen Japanese staples — sexy (and scrumptious) at downtown Raleigh’s Sono (Japanese for "the").

But the devoted husband and dad didn’t always plan on cookery. Lucky for us, it planned on him: “Honestly I wasn't looking for cooking. I set out to be a computer engineer and in computer information systems, and my first year that changed. I think cooking found me, and I'm glad it did.”

With know-how he acquired via an assembly of years under two Master chefs, followed by training in over two dozen Japanese restos scattered across the U.S. (he came of age in the States), his boho approach has yielded the sweet success that is now Sono — or “the” spot to be.

Q&A

What's it like craftin' rolls in the cold kitchen of what's been repeatedly dubbed the best sushi spot in the Triangle? It's exciting and fun each and every day. The better our reputation gets, more improvements are constantly expected. That keeps us on our toes and makes it fun. When we have to constantly search for ways to improve, it's a never-ending battle against ourselves.

Sushi definitely got trendy in the last few years — feeling a thaw after the surge of pho and bacon—but Sono is still packed. What keeps them coming? We update our menu with new and exciting items regularly, but what really sets us apart is the fundamentals: the best rice, best vinegar, best ingredients. Even with the tough economy and prices of the ingredients soaring through the skies, we have always looked for and purchased the best ingredients that we can get. It's not easy. It is very tempting to downgrade since many of our specialty ingredients and fish have increased up to 200% in just the past year alone, but we have always stuck with our promise to use the best products possible. I'm sure we will make more money if we buy items that are 30~60% cheaper and join the “buy one get one free” sushi restaurants, but that's not what we do and our customers know that.

You've worked in as many as 25 Japanese restaurants across the U.S. over the last 15 years. What moment stands out as an easily defining one? I intentionally hopped around many restaurants during my training years. It wasn't easy because of constant moving and the low pay. No one wants to hire a chef that says they will leave after two to three months. I had to make deals where I got half of what I normally would make and offer my assistance with new menu items and my knowledge that I gained in order for them to hire me for such a short periods of times. But it was totally worth it, and I still keep in touch with most of the restaurants, and we help each other out. There were many greats places, but I think I gained the most creative new ideas when I briefly worked at Las Vegas—so many different cultures and so many creative Japanese/Sushi restaurants in one area.

What Asian and European cooking techniques define your approach to your contemporary Japanese cuisine? I try to utilize many techniques to come up with the best way to do a certain dish. One example is using an immersion circulator to cook traditional items like Onsen Tamago (slow-cooked egg) and other proteins to gain a very tender result, without sacrificing any traditional flavors.

You have described your menu as a little bit out of the box. How so? I take a dish and I try to improve it for the customers according to that region and area. You have to realize that what worked in L.A., Calif., might not work here in North Carolina. You have to keep your customers’ taste preference and culture in mind when designing dishes. One example would be that I incorporate bacon into our gyozas (pan seared dumplings) to improve the flavor and give it a nice little smoky element.

You're known for your unique food pairings. Which ingredient pairing on your current menu do you find most surprising in its tastiness? I did a tasting menu a couple of weeks ago where I used warm melted butter with white truffles to enhance a tuna carpaccio dish. You normally would think of carpaccio with olive oil and the dish to be completely chilled, but warm truffle butter helped to loosen up the mild flavors of the tuna to create these luscious flavors in your mouth, creating the perfect balance with the acidity of the ponzu (Japanese vinaigrette). Another one would be where I used pickled jellyfish to create a unique 'crunch' in a salad dish. Normally one would use croutons or some fried or dried items, but the addition of lightly poached, then pickled, jellyfish added a unique and unfamiliar crunch that amused the tasters.

What inspires these less-tried tasty combinations? And how do you know? Is it like ingredient roulette? Divine inspiration? What makes for this brilliance? I try to make the dishes exciting, not just tasty, especially for my tastings dinner. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes I think it's good and the customers disagree and vice versa. Only out of trying can you create and achieve higher things, and I want people to try things that they are not familiar with or something they’ve never had before.

All of that edginess aside, as you've said in a previous interview, the sushi/Japanese cuisine has gotten diluted a little bit, making you committed to honoring the tradition of it. How so? There are lots of sushi/Japanese restaurants that only concentrate on fancy rolls with lots of sauces. I understand the rolls are popular and it is what the majority of the customers want, but we have to realize and keep in mind what sushi really is and where it came from. It is a simple, yet complicated, art of creating a dish out of essentially two ingredients, rice and fish (or vegetables). For this to be accomplished you have to have really good rice and really good ingredients. And for what might seem really simple, combining these two ingredients was and is one of the hardest to master, and we don't take it for granted. One of our sushi chefs has been working with me for about five to six years, but I still don't let him make nigiri sushi for customers. He makes good maki (roll) sushi but is still in training in nigiri sushi.

Sono is known for their quality fish. Tell us where they come from. It's comes from all over the world, depending on season and availability. We usually get our yellowtail, kanpachi, red snapper, octopus, eel and other staple ingredients from Japan. We use local bluefin tuna when it's in season. The bigeye tuna is always fresh and consistent from Hawaii.

While sushi poses an obvious sustainability challenge, you have a reputation for focusing on local eats as much as possible. How do you bring the local land into your kitchen? Being a sushi restaurant, we have to get some of our ingredients from far away. But for everything else we try to use local and domestic as much as possible. Obviously most of our vegetables and produce are local if possible. All of our chicken we use for entrees are from local Ashley Farms, and pork from local Heritage Farms. Flounders, striped sea bass, shrimp and other seafood are used when in season and in good quality.

You were one of a select few top local chefs who contended in the inaugural and wildly popular Got to Be NC competition dining series Fire in the Triangle (congrats on that by the way) ... what did you take away from that experience? It was a blast and honor to be part of. It reminded me of how difficult it is to create a great dish out of simple and limited ingredients. I also gained better understanding of our local products from North Carolina and will be utilizing more of it in my future menus. Meeting these great chefs and making friends with them is priceless as well. It was competition, but everyone respected and helped each other out; it was beautiful.

Your sushi spot, Sono, in a word is sexy. How do you think that ambiance complements the concept you want to create with your food? I try to create food that is simple, yet seductive, with good balance and minimalist touch, which is what I think sexy is. I think the dark and red ambiance promotes appetite and goes along with sushi in general very well.

If you followed your nose around town where would you sniff out the best eats? It all depends what I'm in the mood for. I usually dine at a restaurant that does few things in specific. For Vietnamese cuisine and noodle soups, I go to Pho Far East on Capital ... yes, that's their real name. For pastas and Italian, I usually head towards Bella Monica. For French, St. Jacques. Mexican, Dos Taquitos. J. Betski's for German. Chuck's for a proper burger.

What chef has served as your muse? Thomas Keller of French Laundry.

If you were limited to one ingredient, what would it be and why? Onions. It's such a simple and cheap ingredient, but a staple, and important to so many dishes.

Any advice for upcoming chefs? I recommend exploring different regions and working for great chefs and restaurants. It won't be easy. Working for great chefs and restaurants is not glorious and often times make less money for more work, but the experience you gain is invaluable. If you want to become a great chef, you have to be willing to sacrifice much of your time.

If you’re not cooking, what are you most likely doing? Spending time with my family.

Where do you see yourself in five years? I have a couple of concepts for restaurants that I want to start. Both will be small and concentrate on specific things utilizing almost everything local. I want to bring something that people will be excited to see. Something that is unique and delicious that is not just another “Asian fusion.” Above all, I want to continue to improve to become a better chef each passing day. I want to become a great chef and make an impact in the industry. It's not going to be easy and may not happen, but I am going to give it my best.

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