Last month, I had the privilege of traveling with chef Michael Mina throughout Southeast Asia on a cross-promotional culinary tour. By day, we visited some of the most extraordinary Eastern cities, including Chiang Mai in Thailand, Kyoto in Japan and Seoul in South Korea. By night, we cooked at sold-out dinners in Singapore, Bangkok and Koh Samui in Thailand. And when we weren’t working, we were eating.
Each city opened my eyes to new ingredients, new flavors and unbelievable experiences.
I started in Singapore where I hit the markets, whether the stalls in Chinatown, the late-night hawker stands in Tiong Bahru or the enormous Tekka Centre in Little India. We also met up with D.C. transplant and former general manager of The Source, Adam Crocini, who fed us incredibly well at Cut and took us on a late-night tour of the city
In Chiang Mai, I was lucky enough to catch the celebrated Sunday market. This is a 500-year-old tradition, in which much of the Old City becomes a pedestrian thoroughfare and hundreds of vendors sell food, art, handicrafts and much more. It was more than a feast for the eyes. It was here that we ate amazing Thai sausages seasoned with chiles, spices and kaffir lime leaves; I also had the best pad Thai I have ever tasted, not to mention some really unique and delicious desserts.
The techniques and flavors found in Chiang Mai cuisine were different from anything I tried elsewhere in Thailand. The city also has a sizeable Muslim population, which has had a tremendous impact on its cuisine. It was also in Chiang Mai that I met up with Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame, and we hit a number of obscure side-street huts. I had my first taste of ant larva, raw beef larb seasoned with bile, pork blood spiked with lemon grass over hand-cut noodles and crispy chicharron-style frog skin. My taste buds are only just recovering.
In Tokyo, we went to the live tuna auction at the world famous Tsukiji market. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such high-quality seafood on such a large scale. It was no surprise that I had the best sushi of my life in this city, but the shock came at Kanesaka where I witnessed the respect with which the chefs prepared sushi, the progression of the courses and the way they cleaned and handled all their incredible fish.
Another once-in-a-lifetime experience in Tokyo was our tour of a Wagyu slaughterhouse. We witnessed the beef auction and actually had the opportunity to participate in the grading process. As a result of the connections we forged during this visit, we will now be offering New York strip Wagyu from Japan at Bourbon Steak. We’ll have it for as long as we can get a steady supply. We present it to the guest in its raw state, cut it, pan sear it and glaze it with soy, sake, red wine jus and butter. This is some of the most incredible beef you’ll ever find in the States.
I think my biggest takeaway from this entire trip was the cooking philosophy I found across Asia. Seeing the way food is cared for and respected, that’s something I would like to carry over and reinforce with my team here. I’ve also learned that if you find yourself in Asia, and someone tells you that you’re eating “crispy rice salad,” chances are quite high that you’re actually scarfing down ant larva.
For the record, it was delicious.
Adam Sobel is the executive chef at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Sobel spent seven years in Las Vegas, first working for chef Bradley Ogden at his eponymous restaurant in Caesar’s Palace, then as chef de cuisine at Restaurant Guy Savoy. Since joining Michael Mina’s team at Bourbon Steak in early 2011, Sobel has worked to develop relationships with farmers and producers to provide guests with unique offerings, including dry-aged pork, Toulouse goose and now Japanese Wagyu beef.