One of the newest and hottest restaurants in the city right now is Roka Akor! Ce Bian came with the group from Arizona to open the restaurant and has been cooking for robata a long time. But, I learned he has an MBA and if he weren’t cooking would be back in Hong Kong. A native from China he has a colorful background and experiences he brings to his cooking.
His focus is all about the guest and providing the best experience possible. In our conversation, he struck me as much more mature then his 31 years might have you think. The detailed execution on sushi alone makes him one to watch. I recently had a great experience in the restaurant and the sushi had the whole table taking notice. He has the background and pedigree to be one of the top sushi chefs in the city.
I was thankful he took some time out of his busy schedule to answer my 20 questions. You’ll see he has little down time.
Name Ce Bian
Restaurant Roka Akor
Kids Not yet
From Born in China until 16, Raised in London
Culinary School Cardiff University - MBA
Twitter Handle No
1. What did you have for breakfast today?
CE: I had some toast and milk. I try to keep it healthy.
CFS: Do you put anything on your toast?
2. Place you eat most often on days off?
Ce: Honestly, I don’t have many days off. I had 12 days off this past year.
CFS: Oh wow, so you sleep on your days off?
Ce: No, I go out and do stuff since I have so few.
3. Favorite ingredient to work with?
There are a lot. For me this is what I get excited about. I love truffle a lot but only in the summer.
4. If I gave you $10,000 how would you spend it?
Ce: I would take a vacation. I really want to go to Hawaii.
CFS: Why Hawaii?
Ce: I’ve never been and I hear it’s beautiful.
5. First word that comes to mind when I say foodie?
For me it’s different, growing up it means looking at things in a good way. I want to see what the restaurant is doing different and good. Each restaurant does its own thing well and I want to see that. I don’t worry about what they don’t do right.
6. Favorite Charity Event that you do?
Breast Cancer Month; we do a lot of stuff. I’ve had some new ideas this year which is fun.
7. Last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in?
Ce: I would go to Hong Kong. It’s really different. It’s the capital of Asian cuisine. You can see all of the cuisines in one place and you can find good restaurants to. Plus they have great street food.
CFS: I was lucky to go long ago. Just walking through the market is great and seeing the variety is amazing.
Ce: Europe I’ve traveled a lot and America. Hong Kong is one of the best I’ve ever been.
8. If you weren’t cooking, what would you do for a living?
I wasn’t planning to be a chef. I love what I do and graduated with a different degree. I’d probably be home in Hong Kong as a banker or something.
9. Most exotic vacation destination?
I love all my vacations. I’ve only taken a few the past few years, (laughing). But going back a few years ago and seeing my family was great. I hadn’t been there in a while and I got to see them and travel around China.
10. If you left Chicago to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Honestly, I would say New York. It’s one of the best food towns in the US. I know it’s a huge challenge but it would be good for me to grow as a chef.
11. Most embarrassing cooking moment?
Ce: It was a French restaurant, years ago. I was one of the cooks making stocks and it was my first kitchen job. I dumped out all the liquid and kept the stuff.
CFS: So you got rid of all the liquid and kept the chicken stock ingredients.
Ce: (Laughing) ya, it was a long time ago and I didn’t know anything.
12. What are you most excited about right now?
Getting a day off (laughter), no I’m kidding. I’d love to see the city for a few days. I haven’t seen enough here. It’s a beautiful city. But we’ve just opened so it’s a lot of work.
13. Do you have any pet peeves?
14. How does Japanese food in London differ then in the US?
It’s very different. For Japanese food, the US has a longer tradition of Japanese food. It got famous in the UK late in the 90s. Nobu educated a lot of people. America takes the traditional food and makes it its own. I see a lot of maki and it’s very different and unique. The customers here have a great understanding of flavor and are very educated. I’ve been very impressed with the customers.
15. What’s surprised you about working in the Chicago restaurant scene?
How educated the customers are.
16. How does Robata differ to backyard grilling?
Ce: It’s about the fuel. I think grilling wherever gives a great flavor
CFS: What kind of Binchotan do you use?
Ce: The binchotan gives a great flavor and keeps so long with a great intense consistent heat. I could leave the wood overnight and it would still be burning and hot!
17. Your menu is big in that it has a lot of directions people can go from sushi to robata to entrees…how would you advise someone to enjoy your menu best?
Ce: Usually, if I do a tasting menu I would start with something light, oysters or something lightly seared and sliced. I would recommend sashimi next and then going with the robata next. Go lighter to heavy.
CFS: I was in recently with some friends and had a good time. One thing I think is unique is that you have the shiso with the sashimi and eating the fish with the shiso is great.
Ce: That’s a good point. Most people think it’s a decoration. It’s there to go with the fish. It’s very good and gives a unique flavor. I’m always looking for consistency. The sashimi I can get regularly all year so I have a lot of fish people might not normally see. If people are big sushi eaters, we should be recommending sashimi in the restaurant.
18. Roka Akor was named by Bon Apetit as one of the Top Ten Best Sushi places in America. What makes your sushi so special?
Two key parts - First is the ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. It’s all about great fish. Then it’s about the cuts. How do you clean and cut the fish. It’s all about that. Those are the two important parts. I go to the airport twice a week and get the fish from Japan, Europe all over. This is why I have so many fish and why I’m carrying fish many other places aren’t even getting in the city.
Sushi takes years to learn. In Japan it’s a 10 year process…pick the fish, slice the fish, how thick is the fish, how do you do the rice, how tight is the rice and pressure on the rice. So it’s about the thickness of the fish, the pressure on the rice and the amount of rice.
19. You talk about special food memories stay with you because of flavor. What flavor from your mom’s cooking do you remember most?
Ce: I miss not being home! When you’re young you remember what you tasted. I miss that feeling. I’ve been to great restaurants but it’s not the same. It’s more than eating. I want my cooks to provide an experience that people won’t forget. I want people to remember 10 years from now how amazing that dinner is. My mom’s cooking provides a great feeling.
CFS: When I worked front of the house. I would always tell servers in pre-shift, “There are two stories people tell on anniversaries and birthdays - the great dinner and the bad dinner. I don’t want to be the bad story.”
Ce: Absolutely, it’s about customer satisfaction. I want the servers and the cooks to know we’re here to make you happy. If you have a bad time I want to know. If you don’t like the fish today let me know. Even if you don’t like 1-2 out of the 20 dishes you try I want to know so I can get better and not upset you.
20. Growing up in London and then going to Cardiff University – do you cheer for the Welsh Dragon or the Red Rose of England?
Ce: (laughs) I prefer England.
CFS: You prefer the Red Rose.
Ce: Sorry, I do. (laughs)
Thanks for the time chef and can’t wait to come back for more great food.
If you liked these 20 questions, check out the how Ryan Poli, Francis Brenna, Giuseppe Tentori, Charlie McKenna, Chris Pandel , Michael Muser, Curtis Duffy , Rob Katz/Kevin Boehm, Michael Taus, Chris Curren, Patricio Sandoval, Bill Terlato, Matthias Merges , Vic Perdue, Sheila O'Grady, Adam Rapoport, Andrew Knowlton, Jeff Kauck and Nicole Pederson answered.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com. Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner. and contributes to Eater Chicago.