Mohan Ismail grew up in Singapore and honed his culinary skills in New York City working with chefs such as Floyd Cardoz at Tabla  and Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market. Later, he developed the menu for a cafe in the Manhattan spice shop Kalustyan’s.
That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when The Cheesecake Factory’s  chief executive David Overton tracked Ismail down to ask him to develop the menu for the RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen  concept that opened a year ago in Los Angeles, though the two had never met previously.
RockSugar—with its menu borrowing from the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Singapore—was a big departure for The Cheesecake Factory Inc., which operates the namesake brand as well as similar sister concept Grand Lux Café . Overton was looking for someone who knew the vibrant flavors of Southeast Asia and who could translate the cuisine for an American audience in an upscale-casual setting.
Ismail is hosting cooking classes at RockSugar to connect with his audience, and the company is looking for a second location.
He also is planning to bring a menu from RockSugar to New York’s James Beard House in October.BIOGRAPHY
Title: director of culinary, corporate executive chef, RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen, Los AngelesBirth date: Dec. 14, 1965Hometown: SingaporeEducation: Fashion Institute of Technology and the French Culinary InstituteCareer highlights: working for New York chefs Floyd Cardoz at Tabla and Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market
What are your interests outside of work? Do you have a family or kids?
I eat a lot. I never cook at home; I’m never home. I go to the gym every day and I run. I don’t believe in dieting. I travel a lot.
I have a partner for 18 years and no kids.
For someone with a fine-dining background, was it difficult to shift to a corporate casual-dining setting?
I had worked in fine-dining restaurants, but from Kalustyan’s onwards, that was basically where I found my real voice.
RockSugar is casual-upscale, but it’s something for everyone. It’s food that’s fun and that appeals to a really wide audience. Working for Cheesecake Factory is great. It’s such a big company and financially stable. You have a lot of support, and you don’t really get that at a smaller restaurant.
And the RockSugar concept was built around my food. It was like a dream come true.
Is it authentic?
The flavors are authentic, and the food is presented in a less traditional way. It’s the flavors that I grew up with, stuff my mom used to make, or at least dishes I think she made. I’m not scrimping on flavors or muting flavors or textures.
What brought you to New York?
I went to Fashion Institute of Technology and have a degree in textiles. I was always so interested in fashion, and I still am. After graduating, I worked on Seventh Avenue for a while, but I always cooked for friends. After a while, they could see I was a little disillusioned with the fashion world, so they encouraged me to attend cooking school. I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, and everything clicked.
Your first job was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
I was still in school then, working in the Met’s trustee dining room. It was my first foray into fine dining. It felt like working for a country club. I went from line cook to sous chef and pastry chef in two years.
Then I started working with Cardoz. I knew of him from Lespinasse and loved the flavors and food. I came to Tabla and introduced myself and said, “I’d like to work for you.” He said, “I don’t have a spot, but if you’re willing to work from the bottom…” I became garde manger and worked my way up.
I was older than the rest of the cooks, as a late bloomer, and I worked doubly or triply hard. I enjoyed coming to work; it was always a pleasure. I tell all my cooks now, you have to enjoy it, because if you don’t, it shows. I left Tabla as chef de cuisine, and I worked there for five years.
Then I joined Spice Market to open it. It’s always a team effort working with Jean-Georges. The chicken samosas there were mine. It was American food with Indian flavors, but I learned so much about things like butchering meat and cutting fish.
After Kalustyan’s, you were traveling in Asia when David Overton tracked you down?CHEF’S TIPS
Ialways grind my own spices. It’s fresher, and the oils are still there. I make my own curry paste. We blow through a lot of grinders and blenders at RockSugar.
When I cook rice, this is something my mother taught me: Always wash it five times. Everyone asks me why five. I say, “Because my mother said so.” It rinses off the starch. The rice is fluffier and it cooks faster.
I was away in Thailand. David had met Danny Meyer [whose Union Square Hospitality Group owns Tabla] and he told him he wanted to start this new concept restaurant with an Asian theme, but he wasn’t really sure. Danny suggested he look me up. It had been about two years since I had talked with Danny. Thank God he remembered me.
RockSugar just celebrated its first year anniversary. Will there be more opening?
David is looking at locations. We have a couple in mind, not in Los Angeles. It’s about finding the right one and the right time.
Why are you teaching cooking classes?
When I was at Tabla, Floyd used to do it and I used to assist. It’s fun, and I want to give back somehow. I can meet people and get to know what people like and what they’re looking for.
Is this your first time that you plan to cook at the Beard house?
It’s the first time I’m cooking my food there. I have cooked there in the past, when I was at Tabla, as a sous chef. I have volunteered to help other chefs there. This time I will do a RockSugar menu. We’ll have crispy-chicken samosa as passed appetizers, a green-mango and papaya salad, Indonesian grilled cilantro shrimp, Thai snapper, Singapore black-pepper filet and caramelized banana custard cake.— [email protected]