Roka Akor: Always Looking to Make it New

I had to send my wife back to China,” smiled Ce Bian (pronounced Say-Be-Ann), Group Executive Chef at Roka Akor.

It was an understandable move. Over the next few weeks, the Roka Akor mini-empire is scheduled to double in size. In addition to his current locations in Chicago and Scottsdale, Ce will be overseeing two new Roka Akors: one inOld Orchard and another in San Francisco. “I won’t be around much,” Ce said, “and while I’m traveling, my wife will be happier with her family back home.”

“Back home” is Northeastern China where Ce was born. At some point in his teens, his parents, Ce said, told him “you have to get out of the house.” So he went to Europe, attending schools in Scotland, Paris, and finally London, where he landed his first restaurant job. He’s used to becoming accustomed to new locations.

In Chicago, Ce has been working 13-hour days to build up the Roka Akor brand. His efforts are evident. In addition to the two soon-to-be-opened restaurants, Ce is also enhancing and renewing the Roka Akor dining experience in Chicago. Asreported in Eater, there’s now a DJ on Fridays and new items on the menu, perhaps most notably Wagyu beef.

The Wagyu beef served at Roka Akor is graded A5, which means it’s extraordinarily marbled and tender. Cooked on a robata grill, which uses binchotan charcoal for consistent heat and the more customary lump charcoal for flavor, this beef is about as tender as meat can be. It’s because of the fat. A Wagyu slab that Ce showed me was almost white with marbling; “if you leave it on the sidewalk in the sun,” said Ce, “it will melt, and all you’ll have is a puddle of oil with some threads of meat.”

At Roka Akor, there are two main tasting menus: the kaiseki and omakase menus. Wagyu beef sometimes appears on the kaiseki menu, which is constantly changing because, as Ce explained, “the kaiseki menu is all about seasonal items. The omakase menu is more based on what the Chef feels is the very best that evening.”

Given the choice between the kaiseki and omakase menus, we went with both…the better to taste not only what’s seasonal (somewhere in the world) but also what’s best in the eyes of the chef. Ce said he’d be okay with letting Eater readers in on a little secret: you can actually have both kaiseki and omakase menus combined. (Note: some staff may tell you it can’t be done, but just say you read about it on Eater.com).

There’s a lot of competition among sushi joints. As Ce said in disbelief, “You can now get sushi at frickin’ Cheesecake Factory!”

So how do you differentiate what you’re doing at Roka Akor from what’s being served at the other zillion sushi places currently operating in Chicago?
I will not allow anyone to have better ingredients than me. Challenges make the product better, and I will accept any challenge…except a challenge on price. The reason we have a smaller menu than many other sushi restaurants is that you can’t guarantee you will have a huge range of fish available all the time. We get the best available. If it’s on our menu, it’s the best.

In an Eater interview last year, the owner of Roka Akor, Dr. John Kapoor said, “The chef is like an artist and you give him freedom.” That idea of a sushi artist reminded me of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a film I’m sure you’ve seen, right? 
Yes, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” touches close to home, because the customers are the focus of every decision Chef Jiro makes. Chef Jiro’s top priority is to serve his customer the best he can. I strive to do that with every Roka Akor customer. I am continually driven to improve the experience. Yes, I’m proud of everything I do and I love what I made last week, but I’m always trying to figure how to top last week’s creation with a new and even better creation this week.”

How often do you change the menu?
Daily. We change the menu daily. As summer arrives, we’re excited for all the local, seasonal items, like morel mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes and lots of fresh summer fruits like lychee and dragon fruit. Since Roka Akor’s concept (especially on the kaiseki menu) is all about premium seasonal product, we’re always looking for ways to make it new.

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