New generation of Atlanta’s Asian chefs nothing like their parents

Look around Atlanta’s ethnic dining scene and you’ll notice that it’s changing.

You can still fill up on cheap, authentic bites on Buford Highway. Then, trek north to Duluth, and you'll find more and more Korean restaurants opening their doors, growth that mirrors the increase of that suburban city's ethnic enclave, which boasts the largest percentage of Koreans in Georgia and one of the largest in the South.

But, turn your head the other direction. Look intown.

"The craze is huge in the past five years," Allen Suh, chef and co-owner of the new Korean restaurant Gaja in East Atlanta Village, said regarding the Asian cuisine movement within the city.

It is here that restaurants are cropping up from a younger generation of Asians. They are immigrants or children of immigrants, with ideas about food and dining that are distinct from their predecessors.

"We come from a different approach," said Michael Lo, co-owner of Makan in Decatur, which offers Korean- and Chinese-inspired cuisine. "I have no desire to serve the food that my parents did out of necessity."

Lo’s family emigrated from China was he was 2 years old. He spent his childhood in the mid-Atlantic region, his parents working in the restaurant industry.

Lo, who moved to Atlanta 11 years ago, was among Asian restaurateurs and chefs who participated at SouthEats, an Asian food festival held May 25 at Monday Night Brewing. The event celebrated the vibrant, diverse and ever-increasing Asian-American population in Atlanta while also raising funds to benefit the local chapter of nonprofit advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Participating restaurants included Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen, Bayou Boil, Brush Sushi Izakaya, Chateau Saigon, Gaja, Himalayas, Makan, Mamak Malaysian Kitchen, Sweet Auburn BBQ and Sweet Hut Bakery and Cafe, as well as Ama and Nexto, both opening later this year.

What are the elements of this new wave in Asian dining?

“The movement we are part of is that of being truer and better quality Asian food in town,” Lo said. “As second-generation Asians, we didn’t want a mom-and-pop type place. We want better food, cocktails while we eat, a beer with noodles.”

But the mold is being broken in other ways, too. In some cases, that means combining traditions and flavors from multiple Asian nations. It also can mean blending Asian flavors and ingredients with those of the South.

"During the '80s and '90s, a lot of Asian-Americans migrated to Atlanta to start their businesses. Some were restaurants," said Howard Hsu of Sweet Auburn Barbecue. "The next generation, the children of these people, are going to bring a new type of Asian cuisine to the city — whether that is introducing traditional Asian food in a modern setting and to markets that don't have it, or some creative Asian operators who are going to do something different, more of a fusion-type menu. You'll see more of that as boundaries cross."

Both of Hsu’s parents are Malaysian-Chinese. He was born in San Francisco, but moved here when he was 5. Hsu enjoys combining Asian flavors with the American ones he has grown up with. “The barbecue we do is obviously traditional and Southern-style barbecue, but we try to bring different worldly and Asian influences to the menu,” he said.

The changing composition of the plate should perhaps be expected, considering the culinary path some of these chefs have taken.

Suh, for example, spent time in the kitchen at Restaurant Eugene. His knowledge of classical technique, sophisticated plating, seasonality and culinary creativity was on display at SouthEats in the form of a fish cake with ramp soup featuring the last ramps of the season. He also had a vegan dish — a Korean-style sushi roll called kimbap, served with a wedge of faux Spam made from watermelon and a perfect brunoise of diced watermelon rind that subbed for a more traditional garnish of pickled daikon radish.

But, this change isn’t easy for everyone to swallow.

“A lot of first-generations are like, ‘My grandmother didn’t cook it that way.’” Makan Executive Chef George Yu said. Yet younger audiences are fine with it. “A lot of second-generations come in, they get it,” he said.

However, it's not just customers of ethnic descent that these chefs and restaurateurs want to attract. Non-Asians are on their radar, which is why some have made a conscious decision to set up shop where they did. Similar to Lo and Yu, Jason Liang opened his Brush Sushi Izakaya in Decatur earlier this year because of the clientele there. "They are willing to try new stuff, be more adventurous," Liang said.

“Everyone is making Asian food for Asians,” Lo said. “The hard part is making Asian food for non-Asians. But it’s also the exciting part.”