Chef Sunny Jin

Cooking With the Community

He is a world traveler, an artist, and even a fly-fisherman, yet none of these things are actually on his resume. The multi-talented man is Chef Sunny Jin and he is the Executive Chef at JORY Restaurant at the Allison Inn and Spa.  The 37-year-old started working there six years ago and he has helped shape it to be the success it is today. Chef Jin and his team at JORY focus on using locally-sourced food from around the community.  Their goal is to build relationships with the people around them while also serving exceptional food.

His confident demeanor, matched with his humility, makes for a man who is well- deserving of the 2015 James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best Chef Northwest. Chef Sunny Jin has worked in some of the world’s most celebrated restaurants, but you won’t hear him brag. Instead, he is just ecstatic that he gets paid to do what he loves, and it’s clear that he is doing what he was born to do.

Where did you grow up? What was it like?

“Geez, what was it like? Cold, from what I remember. Minnesota is a strange place where I grew up in Rochester. It’s home to the Mayo Clinic. You have got to picture 90,000 people in this town; and around 5,000 of them are just doctors.”

How long did you live there for?

“The majority of my life. I was born in Korea, moved there (Minnesota) when I was four, and stayed there ‘til about 22.”

Did you like it? Is that why you stayed?

“I love it. I have had the opportunity to go and see other places and it’s amazing how much I still enjoy going back to Minnesota. I know it has a lot to do with upbringing, but I like the familiar outdoors and remembering how I grew up.”

Do you do a lot of outdoor activities?

Where do we start?  Yesterday, I was foraging for morels.  I spent my day just searching new places. I enjoy snowboarding every year on Mt. Hood.  Fly fishing is my favorite new sport.  There is something about the tranquility of it.

Did you remember cooking as a kid?

“Growing up, we sat and had dinner as a family together. I look at it now with new eyes and consider what a privilege it was to actually have a mom who really cared enough to do that.  Even at an early age, beginning in kindergarten, I come home, and instead of watching cartoons I would always be watching cooking shows and making myself a little something to eat. I remember I could truss a chicken, and I learned how to baste correctly even at that early age.”

Do you think that’s because of your mother?

“The thing is, it was just always so interesting to me. She never once tried to push it on me. In fact, she never really asked me to help her. To this day when I go home to my very traditional Korean family and ask my mom for a recipe, she’ll say, ‘Just go buy it in the store,’ or ‘I’ll just send you some.’  She makes really awesome kimchi, but don’t we all say that about our mothers?”

Is there anything else that you remember her making?

“You know, there were so many routines to what she did.  Looking back, I think the most valuable thing is when we would go forage together, harvest what was in season at that time, and preserve it to try and extend its life.”

Where did you go to school?

“I went to Western Culinary Institute, when it was here [Portland].”

Did you learn a lot?

“Yes, I did.  But the funny thing is. If I were given a choice and if I knew then what I know now I would not have gone. I think the better option would be to go and find a suitable restaurant, work six months for free, and really gain knowledge that way.”

What did you do after school?

“The last course in culinary school is what is known as an externship.  Each student is required to work three months at a restaurant for real kitchen experience after all of the culinary classes. I had the opportunity to go to Napa and work at a great restaurant. It was amazing.

What restaurant?

“The French Laundry in Yountville.  I ended up staying for three years.  That place taught me kitchen confidence.  If there is any one place I could speak of in the highest regard, it would be that place.”

Why would you say that?

“The structure of the restaurant generates great chefs, who are collectively driven and inspired.  Every single night we would rewrite the menu, a 13-course menu for our next service.  Say you used tomato in one course; you couldn’t use it anywhere else on the menu. If there was a Mediterranean theme to a dish, then that would be out for the rest of the courses as well.  That was every night.

At The French Laundry, what you gained is no comparison to any school or book because how they collaborate and teach. The greatest moment was when the service began.  We were strongly discouraged to look at the tickets.  It’s mostly on memorization.  We had to memorize how each dish was composed at first glance.  The direction of the turnip, the slight swoosh of the sauce, the count of lardons in the left corner… it all mattered.

What’s something you took from working there?

“Structure and organization. I think that is something that we instill here at JORY.  I try and remember that this should be more of an education than a job.”

What did you do after being at the French Laundry?

“I spoke with Chef Thomas Keller.  He asked me about my goals, and I told him there was this restaurant in Sydney I was focusing on. Little did I know that they were friends!  He personally called the chef there and got me in. I couldn’t believe it!”

Where did you work in Sydney?

“The restaurant Tetsuyas, after Chef/Owner Tetsuya Wakuda.”

Did you like it there?

“I chose Tetsuya’s because I didn’t know much about seafood.  I wasn’t afraid of another fish again after that experience.”

How long did you stay there?

“I stayed there for a little over a year.”

Why did you only stay there for a year in a half?

“I gained as much as I had hoped for.  Also, I was selected for an opportunity to go work in Spain. That opportunity is what led me to leave Australia.”

What did you do in Spain?

“I worked in a restaurant along the Costa Brava called El Bulli. I worked there for the 2009 season.”

What was it like?

“It took three years for me to get there. They only select 40 people from around the globe to enter that kitchen and work for the season, which is 6-7 months. The restaurant really teaches you how to see food with a creative, different eye.”

Can you talk about what you mean by “creative” food?

“A good example would be a dish called ‘Shabu Shabu.’  They used this particular edible Japanese foil packet that can retain moisture on one side, but not the other.  A liquid is poured inside of this little packet and when the outside touches another liquid it begins to melt. They poured pine nut oil on the inside and served it with a pineapple broth.  The idea is to dip the packet in the broth and immediately eat it.  Once in your mouth, it dissolves and becomes one flavor.  It’s such a creative experience; it’s one of those dining moments that you will never forget.”

What did you do after El Bulli?

“After that I came stateside.”

Once you got to Oregon, did you like it?

“I’m very much at home in Oregon.  I came here with an open mind and a desire to dig my heels in.”  

What is the kind of food that you serve here?

“Our menu is locally-focused on neighboring farms, and seasonal.  Our end goal is to showcase the agricultural community around us.  We get our eggs from a farm on the other side of our vineyard, and our blueberries come from across the road.  The majority of our produce is selected from around our region, or even brought to our door by locals with boxes of fresh finds.”  

Are all of your ingredients locally sourced?

“We try to get in as much local product as possible.  We also forage as a team to remember our roots (get it?) and get the seasonal ingredients of the Valley.”

Is there anything that you prefer to cook?

“Winter is my favorite cooking season. I could enjoy an entire day just preparing and slowly braising a roast with root vegetables.  The final outcome of a great meal through traditional preparation is what I like.”

Is there anything that you don’t like using?

“The one thing I don’t like is baking. I just don’t like it; it’s just too precise and methodical. Like, if I feel like that one thing needs more salt, I would like to just be able to add it. I totally get it, I just can’t … don’t have the patience.”

If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be doing?

“Photography or painting. I paint a lot at home.  I enjoy capturing what seems every day with a different angle, hue, or interpretation.”

Are they just hobbies that you have picked up along the way?

“They’re all just hobbies.  I do a lot of woodworking at home as well. I use reclaimed wood and pallets to make usable furniture.  I’ve built entertainment stands, coffee tables, and full outdoor patio tables. It’s almost a perfect stress relief ripping apart a pallet and banging together into something new. “

How do you think the Allison Inn and Spa has grown since you have been here?

“Kitchen culture and philosophy are paramount to drive a focused direction.  I can be honest about where we were because we are proud of what has happened and who we are now.  We’ve come a tremendous distance from the beginning.”

Are you still learning new things about cooking?

“Every single day. That’s the best part about this job. I get the opportunity to play with food all day long.  Last year I was able to harvest over 200 pounds just in different varieties of mushrooms. There’s an abundance of naturally growing produce right outside our doorstep once your eyes open and you begin to notice.”

Do you see yourself in Oregon for forever?

“Oh yeah, I’m so happy. I am.”

www.theallison.com/culinary

Photos by Tim Sugden

About The Author: Jordan Hernandez