The Fire of Greatness

Interview by Jeffrey Steen |
Culinary Personalities

A seasoned and passionate chef, Jin Heo of Laguna Beach’s much-lauded Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar has been dishing up Japanese fare in the U.S. for 12 years. While his roots are definitely in the culinary traditions of Japan, these days, Chef Heo is keen on making each and every menu item his very own. It’s this unfettered creativity that recently earned him top nods from Best Chefs America—an honor the humble sushi master never expected, and accepts with unparalleled grace. In the rush of business and many congratulations, we sat down to chat with him about this honor, his beginnings, and how far he’s come in seven short years.

For those who aren’t familiar with robata cooking, can you explain the process and how it differs from other popular styles like tepanyaki?
Tepanyaki is really just cooking with gas. It’s also all about showmanship and performance. Guests gather around a flat grill while a trained chef flips ingredients and dazzles with fire tricks. Robata grilling, on the other hand, is rooted in charcoal cooking. Unlike tepanyaki, guests can’t hover over the sizzling meat and vegetables; at peak temperature, a robata grill reaches 1,200 degrees. It’s a wonderful way to cook—it produces succulent, tender, juicy meat that’s unbelievably delicious.

But a lot of that flavor must come from the ingredients themselves, right?
It does, and I buy locally when possible to ensure items are fresh and seasonal. I use California ingredients mostly—it just makes sense. But when it comes to authenticity, Okura is not strictly Japanese, so I’m not reaching for ingredients halfway across the world. When you look at my menu, it’s a merger of Italian and Japanese flavors. Sometimes, for example, I’ll make sashimi with a Mediterranean-themed sauce on top. Why Italian, you ask? Well, there are some Italian chefs out there whom I love, and they’ve inspired me to incorporate Italian flavors into my menu.

What have been some of your challenges, then, as far as sourcing ingredients is concerned?
When I make a new dish, I use the ingredients I have on hand. That’s all you can do. But I make sure to try all ingredients available to me before I use them in a dish. With all of that tasting and experimentation, sometimes it takes a month before a new menu item is ready to serve.

If you were to highlight one sushi roll on the menu that is a perfect example of the fusion of East and West, what would it be?
Here’s one that I really like: the Serrano Octopus Roll. I serve it with an extra virgin olive oil, yuzu juice, and soy sauce mixture on top.

How often do you change the sushi rolls on the menu?
Seasonally. We change the whole menu—even the robata dishes—twice a year. I’ll make little tweaks to the sushi menu more regularly, of course—like changing the toppings on my Albacore Sashimi, for example—but nothing big.

Tell us about the design of Okura. Was the dining room patterned after or inspired by anything?
It’s a cross between Italian and Japanese design—just like the menu. I wanted to make it represent the food. It’s an older style, and very quiet. Mostly, we wanted to make it comfortable for the customers—not too flowery and not too loud.

You’ve been doing this for almost seven years. What’s your favorite part of it all?
At first, everything was hard. That’s true of any job, though. Over time, I learned how much I love making new dishes. I’m always searching online for ideas, or reading cookbooks. There’s nothing better than taking an idea and making it your own. And, of course, I love making my guests happy. Even now, I’ll send out a dish and ask for their feedback, then make adjustments until I feel the dish is perfect. I’m just so passionate about the process and the food—I love it all.