MIYA’S CHEF, OWNER AND GASTRONOMIC VISIONARY
People used to call him Chop Suey.
Favorite drink: Sake. Because we have to go to the woods and get the ingredients.
Went to elementary school with: Paul Giammati
Hometown: Hong Kong
Favorite Food Network show: Man Versus Food. Adam Richmond is sharply witty. He’s one of the best things on Food TV.
Q: How did your mom come up with the idea for Miya’s?
A: She always wanted to be in business. She knew how to cook and felt that a restaurant would be a great place to start. She wanted a place where people can get away and hang out and enjoy themselves after a busy day. She always wanted a place that’s really kind of cozy and not shishi.
QHow did you come up with Miya’s menu, and how is it different from your mom’s?
AHers is a very traditional cooking. Now, we have eight rotating chefs. I trained every one. I spent over a decade really thinking about what I’m doing. I don’t have any influences in terms of chefs and restaurants, and that’s why we’re completely unique. I’m self-taught. I like to read a lot.
Q: What do you read?
A: Anything and everything. I literally have shelves and shelves of books. Food is a medium of expression for other ideas. When I create a lot of the more sophisticated dishes, the first ideas often have nothing to do with food. If there’s one chip on my shoulder, I feel that I just don’t know enough. The more you know, the wider the selection of choices you have. You don’t want to be a one-trick pony.
Q: Walk me through a design process.
A: This summer I’m working on the Kill-Gore trout. Kurt Vonnegut. Wild-caught trout. It’s inspired by what the Native Americans of the eastern woodlands around here ate. We delve into ideas like that to celebrate humans in all their cultural diversity. Often, one recipe will represent one idea or region or a place in time or a moment in time or a childhood memory. I’m working with a couple of anthropologists, an herbalist, a person from the School of Forestry, a filmmaker, all sorts of different people in order to get this done.
Q: What’s your favorite sushi?
A: The tiger tiger. It’s named after the William Blake poem. In it, he asks why God created the tiger the way it is. He’s asking why God created the universe the way it is. I asked myself why did sushi have to come from Japan. The answer to that was it didn’t have to come from Japan. It didn’t even come from Japan. Sushi comes from China, along the Mekong river, one of the longest rivers in China which goes through many, many countries. It’s a freshwater cuisine that originated to preserve the fish. A lot of the sushi traditions existed in Africa. Africa is arguably a more important continent because all human beings originated in Africa. I love that idea because it’s a very romantic idea, with all the divisions we have, to know that we’re all one.
Q: Why are you called Bun?
A: Bun is Chinese. I was born in Hong Kong. I heard that it means scholar. My dad had some idealistic scholastic hopes for me.
Q: If you were a customer at Miya’s, what would you order?
A: I often eat the really, really simple stuff. I will get the curried okra or the kimchi seared salmon roll. Or kimchi tuna. I love our salads. I love our miso soup, because it’s got pumpkin and acorn and sweet potato. All the rice is multigrain. It’s really healthy. If I were on a date, I might try the more complex stuff, which isn’t meant to be eaten every time you’re here anyway. It takes the magic away. I would order the Kanibaba. It’s supposed to look like a sculpture.
Q: What are you eating when not at Miya’s?
A: I eat at Mamoun’s a lot. It’s really healthy. I eat at Miya’s mostly. I don’t really go out much. All my friends come here and hang out. It’s really peaceful here. I hang out with the guys that work here. We went to Mexican church on Easter. We did Seder on Saturday. I don’t want to get influenced by other cuisines. I want to be in my own bubble.
Q: How is Miya’s changing sushi?
A: When it first started, it was a traditional Japanese restaurant. But I can’t really say we’re not traditional now. We are the new tradition. We’re way ahead of anything that’s going on in the universe of sushi and, in many aspects, food. We don’t consider ourselves fusion. We’re the logical evolution of people within this time and what they eat. You can have a restaurant that does all things organic, doesn’t use overfished. But it takes a lot more than that. You’ve got to actually create recipes. I’m talking about reinventing cuisine. We want people to open their minds up. The sweet potato roll is the ubiquitous cheap roll we started 15 years ago. Now, you can get it on every menu.
Q: Where did the name Miya’s and the slogan (“Because Man Cannot Live On Rice Alone”) come from?
A: The restaurant is named after my sister, who lives in Atlanta. The slogan is a humorous twist on the Biblical ‘man cannot live on bread alone.’ It’s not about feeding your stomach; it’s about feeding your soul. The operative thing is, there is more than just money. One couple came from Vermont, stayed at the Omni only to eat here and sat for six hours. We don’t rush anyone. We don’t want to maximize the amount of money we make. Yet 2008 was our busiest year. I think people get the practicality of the cuisine and the earnestness of what’s behind it. It’s a high-quality product, whether you pay $3 or $170.
Q: Who is Miya’s audience?
A: I think Miya’s, not on purpose, alienates a lot of people because it’s a cuisine that is hard to understand and doesn’t market itself. We don’t dumb it down for anybody. But I also don’t believe in elitism, I don’t believe people are better than other people. If you walk in the door, you’re my audience. But what does it end up being? Probably some of the brightest people on the planet. If someone came in and they’re interested in the food and didn’t have money, trust me, they can hang and I will give you the spread. It ain’t about the money. I’m in love with human beings.
Q: What is the future of ethnic cuisines in America?
A: What’s really cool about America is reflected in its food, with its diversity of subcultures. Dean Sakamoto, the architecture professor, is from Hawaii. He talked the other day about spam sushi. It’s reflective of a time when they couldn’t get meat during World War II. Or you can drive around and see taco places run by Chinese people. There’s a tremendous melding of different cultures and cuisines. In California, they make bulgogi taco. You find Korean and Mexican at the same time. Wonderful things are happening all over, and that is the future of food.