Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)
Executive Chef/Co-Owner Chris Chung was born in Honolulu, but grew up in Macao, a former Portugese colony where food was often a combination of influences from east and west, and Chung became intrigued by it at a very early age. A family dinner at one of Joel Robuchon’s high end hotel restaurants there was transformative; at the age of eight, Chung vowed to make haute cuisine his career. The family returned to Hawaii, where Chung was educated, but he spent his summers in various Japanese restaurant kitchens on Oahu, learning how to perform every position, from server on up.
A meeting with James Beard Award-winning chef Kenneth Oringer in 2004 led to Uni, an intimate sashimi bar adjacent to Oringer’s Clio in Boston, where Chung served as chef. Chung lived and worked in Los Angeles for a few years, but returned to Uni in 2009 and was named a Rising Star Chef that same year. In 2010, Chung left Uni to open AKA Bistro in suburban Lincoln, with his business partner Christian Touche.
Now onto the interview--
How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
To me, culinary creativity means that my brain contains a database of flavor profiles, which I constantly combine in both traditional and surprising ways.
What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity?
In my case, it’s WHO are my inspirations, not what. In this order: Joel Robuchon and Ken Oringer.
Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
I research simple recipes and find ways to translate them into something fresh and new, or to reconstruct them in an original way.
What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
I often draw a sort of Food Tree on paper, containing 10-12 items, and I play around with the branches of that tree until I see a pattern emerge that I think might taste good.
Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Yes, I depend upon AKA's assistant sashimi chef, Tony Messina, whose judgement I trust.
How do you test new recipes/dishes?
We invented a testing night for consumers; we call it "No Boundaries." It happens every Monday night. Diners pay $45 to try six courses of whatever I’m playing with, and we solicit their reactions. If they make a face, that dish never gets on the menu. If they rave, it goes on the next day.
Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
No. The day I cannot come up with a creative idea for food is the day I shoot myself.
Relate an unusual or interesting anecdote about the creation of one of your dishes.
Accidents, happy or otherwise, don’t often happen in my kitchen. One time, however, a customer ordered our spicy tuna tataki dish and I added some chunks of foie gras to it, just for fun, and it was a hit. Now it’s practically our signature appetizer.