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.

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