Meet three API chefs championing their communities in Los Angeles

Credit: OpenTable
A photo collage of the Los Angeles chefs Katianna Hong, Sujan Sarkar, and Nico de Leon

With Asian Pacific Islander (API) Heritage Month just around the corner, it’s a great time to look at some of the most exciting API chefs working around the country right now. In November, OpenTable partnered with Gold House—an organization dedicated to amplifying API voices—to spotlight these chefs with the first-ever Gold Chef Prize.

Nine semifinalists made the cut from New York, LA, and SF, before that list was whittled down to a finalist from each city and a winner—Katianna Hong of LA’s acclaimed Yangban—who will now cook for the coveted A100 gathering of API leaders in May.

But before we get to the dinner, let’s spend some time with Hong and the semifinalists from LA, Sujan Sarkar of the playful modern Indian restaurant Baar Baar and Nico de Leon of the buzzy Filipino rotisserie and natural wine spot Lasita.

Read on to learn about their favorite dishes, who inspires them, their dream dinner party line-up, and more.

Winner: Katianna Hong, co-chef and co-owner, Yangban (Downtown)

A headshot of the Los Angeles chef Katianna Hong
Katianna Hong proudly celebrates her Korean and Jewish roots at Yangban. | Credit: John Troxell

At Yangban, Hong and her husband and co-chef/owner John Hong deftly weave influences from their Jewish and Korean backgrounds into dishes that advance the conversation around Korean American cooking. Their singular point of view has won raves both locally and nationally, including a nod from the New York Times as one of the best places to eat in LA. Plus, a recent remodel is all the more reason for you to visit—or head back—to this bonafide sensation.

What dish on your menu do you have a soft spot for?

Katianna Hong: The matzoh ball mandu. It’s my grandmother Cindy’s recipe. It perfectly nails the style of food we do, which is autobiographical. It incorporates Korean mandu and a simple chicken broth seasoned with shirodashi and white soy. Some dishes on our menu feel more Korean or more Jewish, but when it comes together and represents both cultures like this dish does, it’s really special.

What do you want your legacy to be?

John and I put a lot of thought into Yangban. It’s more than ego-driven cooking. We consider Yangban to be a culinary conversation about identity, about being Asian American, and how different that looks for everyone. I would like my legacy to be about opening doors and working on self-discovery and identity. 

What are your three favorite Asian Pacific restaurants in your city right now?

Kato is always doing really cool things and Jon Yao was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef the same year we were. I love Jitlada. I used to joke that I wanted a Thai auntie and then I met Jazz Singsanong. I love her cooking. And the third would be Park’s BBQ. I live in Koreatown, and it’s such a staple for solid Korean barbecue.

Sujan Sarkar, chef and owner, Baar Baar (Downtown)

Sujan Sarkar has made a name for himself with his playful takes on traditional Indian food. | Credit: Baar Baar

Modern Indian cuisine is the name of the game at Baar Baar, which opened a second outpost of its New York City restaurant in Downtown LA in 2023. Since then, Angenelos have flocked to the restaurant for its Bollywood brunches and Sarkar’s playful takes on traditional Indian flavors (think pork belly with pomegranate barbecue sauce and stone fruits). The gorgeous, sweeping restaurant has led the charge of a new wave of of-the-moment Indian restaurants in LA. Eater LA says “every night is a carefully crafted performance” at Baar Baar.

What dish on your menu do you have a soft spot for?

Sujan Sarkar: Our Kashmiri duck birria taco. It represents my version of Indian cuisine, which is a perfect blend of Indian flavors and local favorites. 

Who in the industry inspires you and why?

Chintan [Pandya] and Roni [Mazumdar] from Unapologetic Foods. They are redefining Indian restaurant culture in NYC, which is so inspirational. 

What are your three favorite Asian Pacific restaurants in your city right now?

Anajak Thai, Pijja Palace, and Majordomo.

Nico de Leon, chef and co-owner, Lasita (Chinatown)

Lasita is a full-on celebration of chef Nico de Leon’s Filipino heritage. | Credit: Lasita

Ever since it opened in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, Lasita has been a go-to spot for lively, casual dinners spent over Filipino rotisserie chicken and excellent natural wine. De Leon puts a personal stamp on the menu in both flavor and technique, and LA Times critic Bill Addision says  “the casual, communal, still-evolving aura of Lasita feels exactly right to the moment.”

What dish on your menu do you have a soft spot for? 

Nico de Leon: I have a soft spot for a few things. First, our chicken inasal. This humble chicken dish comes from Bacolod, the city my wife’s ancestors are from in the Philippines. It’s usually grilled from start to finish, but I cook it rotisserie-style. 

The crab fat omelet, which is so simple, yet it’s the perfect representation of my heritage and my career thus far. The crab fat we use is from my parents’ province, Pampanga; it comes from a fresh-water rice paddy crab.

Lastly, Tito Rudy’s halo halo. My wife and I created this kiosk during quarantine as a way to showcase our culture, but also a way to share the nostalgic feeling we have with halo halo, the beloved Filipino shaved ice concoction.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Beyond my food, I want my legacy to be known as someone who leads differently. I spent the first few years of my career in toxic environments and felt like it wasn’t conducive to me learning or even performing my best. I constantly doubted myself, my food, and if I was even in the right industry.  

I feel like performing under stress and fear comes out in the food. You can taste it. Being the reason someone hates going to work, hates trying to ask questions to become better, or hates themselves is something I’m not at all interested in doing. We don’t yell, we don’t slam plates or doors, and we aren’t condescending to anyone. I try to lead by example and would rather show empathy.

Who is in your dream dinner party lineup?

Myself, my friends, my family, my staff, my mom (RIP), Anthony Bourdain, Andre 3000, and Bjork.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.Karen Palmer is a pizza- and pasta-obsessed food writer based in Los Angeles. She is the former editorial director of Tasting Table, and her work has appeared in Eater, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram at @karenlpalmer.

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