Chef Sang Yoon makes his mark with beer and burgers

Food critics, beware. One of the hottest young chefs and entrepreneurs around also is a terror on the ice. Sang Yoon, a South Korea-born chef whose beer-and-burger joint, Father's Office, has helped launched a casual-food craze in the fine-dining industry, is a fast-skating forward in an amateur hockey league here.

During one recent game, Yoon — who briefly played goalie in college — sped across the rink and slammed his short, muscular frame into a 6-foot-5 enforcer on another team. The stunned enforcer banged hard into the boards, and Yoon got his respect.

"Sang is pretty competitive and aggressive," says Martin Sweeney, a teammate and screenwriter. "But he's also calm under fire. When there's chaos in the kitchen, you need to stay in control."

The 38-year-old Yoon isn't gun-shy, reaching the top of his competitive profession while in his 20s.

He's worked and trained in Europe and the USA with a bevy of world-class chefs, including Michael McCarty and master French chef Joel Robuchon. He's also former executive chef at Michael's in Los Angeles and has cooked for the Academy Awards Governors Ball and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Yoon seemed to be following the career paths of other chefs who opened pricey, high-class restaurants around the world. But he shocked friends and family in 2000 when he bought a dingy former bikers' bar here and started serving craft brews and, by many accounts, the best gourmet burger in the USA.

From Europe to the USA

Yoon loved Europe's bar culture, where people drank and enjoyed small dishes all night. He imported the idea to Los Angeles, serving world-class beers and fine appetizers in casual, unpretentious setting.

"People thought I was crazy — it didn't make any sense, and that's why I decided to do it," Yoon says. "I was tired of the fine restaurant scene. I wanted a cool, comfortable place to hang out and have a beer and good food."

At first, foodies sniffed at Yoon's experiment. LA Weekly recently called Father's Office "easily the most controversial restaurant in town," either a "mecca of cuisine" or a "hop-scented mosh pit."

But Father's Office, or F.O. for short, quickly became a popular watering hole for locals in Santa Monica, a beach town south of Malibu. Lines snaked out the door, and Hollywood luminaries from Steven Spielberg to Brooke Shields craved Yoon's food.

Yoon and his juicy $12 burger — dry-aged strip steak, blue cheese, arugula and onion compote on French bread — beat other chefs in a Today show cook-off, and Esquire dubbed it the best in the land.

Yoon believes that microbrews complement some foods better than wine can. So Father's Office offers 36 brews, including an ale made by Japanese sake masters and a Belgian beer called Delirium Tremens, that range from $6 to $72. Diners can nosh on smoked Dutch eel, spicy lamb skewers and other tapas-style dishes.

Partly due to Yoon, gourmet burgers have became so popular that other famed chefs have opened upscale burger restaurants, including Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace in New Jersey and Hubert Keller's Burger Bar in Las Vegas and St. Louis.

Several trends are boosting the popularity of casual restaurant-bars, says Bill Guilfoyle, a management professor at the Culinary Institute of America.

Diners love "gastropubs," or local bars that serve fine food and beer. Celebrity chefs and cable TV's Food Network have made dining a bigger part of American leisure culture. Restaurants also are catering to Generation X consumers, who prefer to eat quickly made, first-rate food.

"It's the casualization of the restaurant industry," Guilfoyle says, "the idea that you can enjoy high-quality food without the fine silver and glassware."

Spreading the gospel

Now, Yoon is spreading his casual-dining gospel to the masses. He's working with his business advisers and private investors to grow the Sang Yoon brand like Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Rachael Ray and other food celebrities who sell products from cookbooks to fine-wine labels.

A second Father's Office just opened in the spring in the historic Helms Building in Los Angeles, a short drive from Venice Beach. The new restaurant draws a crowd from nearby Sony Pictures Studios and other entertainment giants.

Rather than launch a catering service, Yoon is finishing a 20-foot mobile kitchen trailer — designed by a Porsche consultant — that will sell beer and burgers at movie sets and corporate events. He's working on a 15-room boutique hotel in Newport Beach, Calif. Yoon also is writing a cookbook, and there's talk of hosting a TV cooking show.

"It's not enough to be just a chef today. You've got to understand the business," Yoon says. "It's about setting the table for growth while honoring the quality of the food. Our goal is to evolve without losing the soul of the business."

'He'll do very well'

Daniel Boulud, a famed French chef who owns the Daniel restaurant and Café Boulud in New York, says that Yoon has the culinary talent and business skills to grow his brand without diluting his products.

"He's the superstar of Los Angeles casual dining," Boulud says. "He has a great formula and reputation, and if he stays true to himself and surrounds himself with good people, he'll do very well."

Yoon runs the 60-employee Father's Office as a streamlined, profitable small business. Customers call him a "burger Nazi," because he won't serve his dishes with substitutions. In reality, he's a perfectionist who enjoys brainstorming with his team.

For his beer tap system, Yoon employs high-tech medical tubing used for blood dialysis that purifies the beer. He's persuaded winemakers to ship him wine in kegs rather than bottles, which cuts packaging costs.

His huge, gleaming kitchen in the new Father's Office boasts state-of-the-art ovens, freezers and other custom equipment and features.

"I want to do everything better, faster, cleaner, cheaper than any traditional kitchen," he says.

Yoon says he serves food cheaper than fine restaurants do by eliminating the white tablecloths, extra staff and other costs. A $30 French sea bass dish at a ritzy restaurant goes for $17 at Father's Office.

"For me," Yoon says, "it's a game of what's the least I can charge?"

Yoon credits his mother, a former model and radio disc jockey, for his rebellious and colorful side. He credits his father, a founder of The Korea Times newspaper who endured World War II in Japan, for his tough business style and survival instincts.

Who taught him how to cook? A family friend and elderly Jewish woman who introduced him to gefilte fish and kreplach during his youth in Los Angeles.

Says Yoon, grinning, "Who would have thought an Oriental kid making matzo balls for Passover would have come this far?"