Graffiti art and good food have more in common than you think.
Steven Wan, Executive Sous Chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, wields a can of spray paint just as well as a paring knife. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he grew up surrounded by graffiti that seemingly appeared overnight—dotting the urban landscape with unexpected splashes of bold color. Drawn to the hypnotic designs, he honed his skills as a teenager and ultimately adopted a pseudonym inspired by one of his favorite types of sushi: Ekura One. “I spell ikura differently than they do in Japan because it allows me to be more creative with the letters,” he says.
In addition to overseeing the hotel’s restaurants (which include RAYA, enoSTEAK, 180blũ, and The Marketplace), banquets, and in-room dining, Wan regularly contributes to the property’s vibrant art collection that features works by world-renowned masters such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well as local artists like Derek McDonald, Casey Parlette, and Paul Bond. When he’s not creating culinary masterpieces or painting live for hotel guests, Wan moonlights as a commissioned graffiti muralist and his creations can be spotted all around L.A.
Here, the chef reveals the go-to meal he makes morning or midnight, the secret to a gourmet grilled cheese, and why you should add ranch seasoning to your grocery list.
What is your first food memory?
“My first fond food memory would be sitting around the kitchen table with my grandmother, my mom, my dad, and my aunt making Jamaican beef patties. My dad is Chinese, but he’s from Jamaica, so fusing different cuisines was part of my childhood. For example, we’d have fried rice and jerk chicken. As a kid, I just thought it was all the same. My mom is Irish and Scandinavian, but she was born and raised in California. She also lived in Japan and spoke fluent Japanese, so she actually introduced me to Japanese food and sushi. I was very fortunate to be able to try so many things as a child. It definitely helped build my palette.”
How old were you when you started working in the kitchen?
“Old enough to stand at the stove! My mom first taught me how to make breakfast. Once I learned how to scramble eggs I moved on to bacon and sausage. She also did some baking on the weekends and I would help her, but my mom wasn’t actually the cook in the family. My father cooked for all of the family dinners. I grew up with a lot of family potlucks and gatherings, so I saw how food brought people together.”
What do you cook when you don’t feel like cooking?
“Whether it’s breakfast or late at night, I make steamed garlic white rice and over-easy or sunny-side-up eggs with a little furikake and soy sauce…Or, I’d make grilled cheese. I like to brush the outside of the bread with mayonnaise or butter and grate parmesan over top to create a crust. Then, I add a slice of processed American cheese on top or bottom because it melts so nicely and layer the good quality cheeses, like muenster or Swiss, on next. That’s how you take grilled cheese to the next level!”
What is your favorite local ingredient to cook with?
“Since we are so close to the ocean, I think seafood. I love raw fish, especially Bluefin tuna or yellowtail.”
If I think of a dish or create new art, it might be inspired by how I’m feeling or a memory, but I always find a way to put my own spin on it.”
Where do you find inspiration for your cooking and your art?
“I’m definitely inspired by travel. Eating street food or going to the night markets in places like Cuba, Thailand, and Mexico are experiences I will never forget. If I think of a dish or create new art, it might be inspired by how I’m feeling or a memory, but I always find a way to put my own spin on it. I also get a lot of inspiration from social media, magazines, and books. I don’t necessarily have a favorite chef or a favorite artist, but I follow a lot of different people and genres.”
Are there any similarities between your cooking and your art?
“I think about choosing the colors for a piece [of art] and ingredients [for a dish] in the same way. I consider the flavors of the ingredients, but I also ask myself how they are going to look on the plate with everything else. Sometimes I go for a monochromatic dish and other times I create something that is bright and colorful.”
Who are your dream dinner companions?
“My ideal dining experience would be with close friends or family.”
Would you prefer to cook or let someone else take the reins and just dine?
“Both! I like cooking and I like what food does for people. I cooked for my wedding, which was about 150 people. On the day of our wedding, I had a sous chef and another cook to help her out, but everything was prepped and all they had to do was execute. Even when we have parties at our house, everyone is always in the kitchen. We have a 13-foot island in the kitchen and there are always people around it.”
Does your wife ever make special requests?
“Her only request at our wedding was to have a big cheese display. Once, however, she did ask me to make roasted duck with a beurre blanc sauce for dinner. I asked her if she read a recipe in a magazine, but she said she had just thought of it. It was the most random thing to come out of her mouth! I had to go to four different stores to find duck and when she got home from work I don’t think she actually expected me to have pulled it off. On an average day, however, being married to a chef isn’t what most people imagine. My wife isn’t having duck for dinner every night because I’m usually working. She still orders Blue Apron or we’ll have a cheat night at In-N-Out.”
What is the most underrated spice or condiment?
“It's kind of low-brow, but ranch seasoning works with a lot of things. There are so many uses for it because of the onion and garlic in it. If you want to make a marinade, you can mix garlic shallots, olive oil, and ranch seasoning together. You can dust it in on potato chips or blend it with mayonnaise to create an aioli. If you’re making potatoes au gratin or dauphinois, you can mix it with the cream sauce. It’s not meant for fine dining and it’s definitely not something we use at [The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel], but if you feel like a sauce or soup is missing something, you can throw it in there. Another thing I like is kimchi base, which is great for adding spice. The umami-ness makes it really versatile. It can be used in everything from an aioli to salads and slaws.”
What is your idea of the perfect day off?
“A slow morning that involves having a cup of coffee with my wife and our dogs on the couch. Our dogs are like our kids right now, they play a huge role in our life. We’d probably go hiking or take the dogs to the beach and finish the day with a home-cooked meal or a grilled dinner in the backyard with friends and family.”
Have your dogs ever sampled your cuisine?
“I have two huskies, so I always have helpers on both sides of me in the kitchen. Sometimes I’ll sear liver or gizzards without salt and pepper for them. They’re very spoiled. My dream is to open a dog park/restaurant/bar. It would be a place where adults can hang out with their animals and enjoy beer, wine, and cocktails. It could either be a standalone establishment or a quick-service franchise with multiple businesses in pods. There could be pods that serve coffee early in the day and others that offer wine and beer in the evening. My wife is a huge animal lover and we have all of these ideas!”
If you could be a chef anywhere in the world, where would you go?
“I've been at [The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel] for nearly 18 years. It’s special. I was on The Ritz-Carlton task force and stayed at our properties in St. Thomas and Naples, Florida for months at a time. They are very beautiful to visit, but I don’t know if I could live there. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than Laguna.”