Executive Chef Mohan Ismail has some sage advice for everyone, “Always make mom happy.” That's one of the simple theories behind his cooking, and the inspiration for his menu at RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen. Down home Asian cooking, spun with his own signature style. The Singapore native sat down with us and talked about his experiences as a chef, and the genesis of the RockSugar restaurant.
L.A. Restaurants: How did you get your start in the kitchen?
Chef Ismail: It was in the early 90's and I was living in New York, working in the fashion business for many years. I had always cooked for survival. It was the encouragement of my friends, who told me I should go to cooking school. In '94 or '95 I attended the French Culinary Institute part-time. Within the first two months, I gave up my full time job and went [to cooking school] full time
LAR: Your partner in RockSugar, David Overton is most well-known for his Cheesecake Factory chain of restaurants, but RockSugar is a much different kind of place. Was there any worry on your part that people would expect an ‘Asian Cheesecake Factory'?
CI: We wanted a completely new kind of restaurant: A little more upscale, family style restaurant. The main focus is still on the food, and quality of service. RockSugar’s menu is also much smaller than Cheesecake Factory, and of course with Southeast Asian food.
LAR: So the purpose was to open an Asian restaurant, but aside from that, what was your inspiration for the menu?
CI: It's all food from my childhood, basically food my mother used to make. I try and bring that memory I had when I was growing up into the food. Being from Singapore, it’s such a melting pot. There's Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian … all the flavors are there, but it's not a fusion of the different groups. I wanted to keep it clean. If you have a pad Thai dish, it's pad Thai.
LAR: You use a lot of exotic ingredients in your menu. Was it a problem getting them for a restaurant of RockSugar's size?
CI: I worked on the menu for 3 years, so I had all that time to make sure my vendors could get what I wanted, and I'm very brand specific. If my mom used a brand back in Singapore, I wanted to make sure (my suppliers) could get it in. And I'm very fussy about spices; we get all our spices shipped in from a company in Queens (New York). I only use whole spices, and we grind them all here.
LAR: The restaurant itself, the architecture and decor, is spectacular. Did you have a hand in that?
CI: I had a hand in the finishing touches, like the silverware, the place settings, but that was all David (Overton).
LAR: Then were you surprised when you saw it?
CI: It was such a long process, and I was thinking to myself, how are they going to transform this? But the next thing I knew, I walked in and was like... oh my god! How did this happen? It's amazing! And after all this time, I walk in every day and it’s still breathtaking.