Chef Michael Hung admits to breaking some rules in the kitchen, but it’s all in the name of reflecting the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles. His culinary career includes stints at award-winning restaurants Jardiniere and La Folie in San Francisco and consulting on Pixar’s Ratatouille. And his latest role, as executive chef at Faith & Flower, gives him the freedom to cook outside the lines. So after his kick-ass presentation of Jerk Chicken at The Taste, we asked Hung about his new gig, kitchen creativity and a secret craft he’s been mastering.
“If you’re too much in balance, the food becomes monotonous. So, you need to have some sort of punctuation. A lot of times I do that through bright pops of acidity like pickles or through crunch. Crunchy things are always a huge way of finding contrast.”
What inspired you to become a chef?
My inspiration for being a chef had a lot to do with my mother getting sick when I was a child. She got sick when I was about 12, and from that point on I did a lot of the cooking for the family. That was a strong part of it, but the second part was that my father and my uncles were very big gourmands. A huge part of Asian culture is going out to eat. That’s something that they imparted to me from a very young age.
How would you describe the menu at Faith & Flower?
The menu is a real strong reflection of Los Angeles, which is a large, international, cosmopolitan city with a lot of different ethnic influences. One of the things that I love about the city is that ethnic food takes such a huge center stage. Faith & Flower kind of reflects that and my cooking style also reflects that. I take a lot of different influences from Chinese, Japanese and Korean… and not just from my traditional European background.
Epicurious called you a “restaurant rule breaker” and put you in a similar category as Ray Choi and James Ta, mixing it up in the kitchen with different cuisines. Would you agree?
I definitely agree. It’s very flattering to be held against the same sort of cloth as those two chefs. One of the things for me is not just that I’m breaking rules, but that I’m cooking L.A. Roy Choi says this best, he’s an L.A. Son. So, the food he is cooking is L.A. I’m American. I grew up here in New Jersey and the food I’m cooking is American.
Tell us about creating contrast in your dishes. Do you do that through flavors, colors and textures?
Yes, all of that. There’s always a strong interplay between balance and contrast whenever I’m cooking or conceiving a dish. I want to make sure that everything is in balance in terms of umami and salt and acidity and sweetness. But at the same time, if you’re too much in balance, the food becomes monotonous. So, you need to have some sort of punctuation. A lot of times I do that through bright pops of acidity like pickles or through crunch. Crunchy things are always a huge way of finding contrast.
Dunno about you, but this is pretty much the best-looking salad we’ve ever seen.
Do you think about the drink/food combinations at Faith & Flower and work with Michael Lay, the chief mixologist?
Honestly, Michael and I don’t really sit down and brainstorm about this. I trust, and know, that he makes good cocktails. When he makes them, he’ll bring them to me to taste. The flavor profiles and ingredients that he uses tend to naturally pair well with what I’m doing.
What are your favorite fall ingredients? Any recipes you’re looking forward to making?
My favorite fall ingredients really are things that ride the cusp of fall and summer… things like corn and peppers, which kind of cross over between seasons. I like to pair those with things like butternut squash. Peppers and butternut squash for me are a really great combination.
We’ve read that you are into fiction writing. Do you have plans to marry the two crafts and write a book related to cooking?
Yeah, I’ve already written a collection of short stories. Right now I’m in my ninth or tenth draft, which means I’ve got about 54 more to go. But for me, fiction is something that gives me a world away from the kitchen. Also, the idea of creating and the creative process is very similar. So, my writing and my cooking inform each other from the creative sense…
Photos: Kiana Laing