Chef Mohan Ismail recaptures his mother’s rendang, and other flavours of his Singaporean childhood, in the A-list Los Angeles restaurant, RockSugar.
Text by Kavita Daswani
The first time Mohan Ismail’s mother flew from Singapore to dine at his Los Angeles restaurant, RockSugar, she sampled his dishes and said, with some surprise, “This is my kind of food.”
“That was the best compliment she could have given me,” Ismail says. “She was eating so much I had to pace her.”
The executive chef at the acclaimed, sophisticated pan-Asian hotspot, which attracts a constant stream of A-list celebs through its imposing doors, credits his Singaporean childhood with shaping his love for food and the cuisines of Asia. As a child, he remembers snipping pounds of bean sprouts for his mother, stirring a pot if she had to step away and watching her choose the freshest whole fish at the wet market.
“When I was growing up, there were no video games, local TV had only three channels, I wasn’t into sports and didn’t want to sit in my room doing homework, so my life became all about food,” Ismail says. “My friends and I would discuss where to find the best noodles or food stalls, and as I got older, the scope of that just widened.”
Like most of those friends, who grew up to become stylists, designers or magazine writers, Ismail got a job in the fashion business and moved to New York.
“I knew I was just going through the motions, but I didn’t know what else I should be doing,” he says. “It just didn’t feel right.” Dining out was a luxury he could not afford, so he started cooking for himself at home, going to the farmers’ markets, trying new dishes. Then he heard about a nine-month diploma course of evening classes at the French Culinary Institute and enrolled. After a couple of weeks, Ismail was astonished at how quickly the craft of cooking came to him.
“The first week, I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “But after that, I couldn’t believe how naturally it came to me. They were teaching me these techniques, but somehow I already knew them. My knife skills were great. I didn’t have to study much, and I just absorbed everything.”
He landed a part-time job as a line cook at the Trustees Dining Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which may have been a bit staid and corporate, he admits, but “there wasn’t a lot of screaming”. He worked his way up through the ranks to sous chef, an experience that fortified his confidence in the food world and galvanised his commitment.
“Then I heard chef Floyd Cardoz was opening an American restaurant with Indian spices.” It was Tabla, which went on to become one of New York’s most highly rated restaurants before closing in 2010.
“The restaurant was still under construction when I interviewed for a job there,” Ismail recalls. “They were doing the interviews in a makeshift space in the lobby of a building. I came rolling in wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops. They took me on anyway and put me in the salad station.”
The pre-opening time of a restaurant is monumentally stressful, but Ismail remembers it as one of the greatest learning experiences of his life.
“I was washing pots and pans, unpacking boxes, mopping the floors, setting everything up in a raw space. It was exhausting and I lost weight and I’ve never worked so hard in my life. But by the time I left, five years later, I was chef de cuisine.”
From Tabla, he became executive sous chef with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market, where he helped shape the restaurant’s reputation for gourmet South Asian street food. Then he switched tack to join chef Dan Barber at Stone Barns near Ismail’s then-home in Westchester, where he was exposed to the farm-to-table concept, foraging for herbs and raising pigs and lambs. Next he ran the small showpiece restaurant at Kalustyan’s spice store on New York’s Lexington Avenue. When that stint ended, he took a break.
“I went back to Singapore for a month,” he says. “But while I was there, I got a call.”
He had been tracked down by David Overton, founder of the Cheesecake Factory, who wanted to create an Asian restaurant in Los Angeles, and wanted Ismail to run it.
After three years of work, RockSugar opened in 2008 in Westfield mall, Century City, and has drawn crowds ever since. Ismail says he rarely follows food trends and goes with his instinct, what’s in season, what’s in the restaurant cooler and, of course, his mother’s cooking.
“For me, cooking is less of a science and more about soul. Whenever I create a dish, or cook it for the first time, I do it without thinking about it that much. Eventually, by the third time around, I will have a complete recipe, with notes taken from scribbles on bits of paper.”
Some of the most popular dishes at the restaurant come from his own culture – or directly from his mother’s kitchen. His mother’s beef rendang is Ismail’s favourite dish, and he has turned it into a menu staple, adding Indonesian spices to boneless short ribs, braising them in coconut milk and lemongrass and garnishing with cilantro and red jalapenos. Festive rice, typically served during Malay celebrations, comes with whole star anise and cloves, enhanced with crushed green cardamom, lemongrass and turmeric cooked in coconut milk. Flat rice noodles with heaps of bok choy, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms and chilli soy is another homespun favourite.
“I try to put a lot of myself into each one of these dishes,” Ismail says. “They are all a reflection of where I am from.”
My Favourite Things with Mohan Ismail
- What do you find yourself using most in the kitchen?
Thai basil. Our produce supplier says our restaurant uses the most. I put it in sauces, braises, salads, stir-fries – it has such a nice, distinct flavour and aroma.
What piece of equipment should every home cook have?
A good, trusty sauté pan. Non-stick if you are worried about burning, but otherwise, stainless steel works great.
What Asian dish is easy for novices to try making at home?
I love one-pot cooking and stir-fries are great for that. The key is to add everything separately to retain the different textures and flavours. Use some soy sauce, oyster sauce and Thai sweet chilli – just keep it simple.
Do you have a secret ingredient or technique?
Something I learned from Dan Barber is to keep cooked puréed onions on hand. Purée the onions, cook them really slowly and keep them in the fridge for adding body to dishes.
If you could eat your way through one country, which would you choose?
Thailand (pictured). I love their cuisine. I hope Singapore doesn’t hate me for admitting it.