Ever since Shokai Sushi moved to a larger location on the northwest corner of the Fairfield square over a year ago, diners have flocked to fill up the extra tables. On weekends, the place bustles with happy conversations and oozes a cool urban vibe, with a clientele that ranges from couples on dates and young families to groups of friends from all generations. Owner and chef Nikhom Sisomphane kindly took time from his busy schedule to answer our questions about his thriving Asian-fusion sushi restaurant.
Please give us a little background on your training and career highlights.
Nikhom Sisomphane: I have not had any official training in cooking or any culinary education, but it has always been a passion of mine to cook.
I love cooking for friends and family. When I was 16 years old, I started cooking for my younger brothers and my dad since my mom left for work early in the morning and did not get home until dinnertime. She worked really hard all day, and the last thing I wanted her to do was cook the family meal, so I stepped in.
I would have to say my career highlight is Shokai Fairfield, being able to open a restaurant in a small town where there are many other restaurants and making it successful. This is a really tough business to be in, and with the support of my family and friends, I am able to offer this unique experience to Fairfield. When I see that smile or receive a thank you and see the satisfaction on a customer’s face, it makes my day.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I think my parents are what inspired me to become a chef. My parents came to America in 1979 from Laos with the ambition of a better life for me and my younger brothers. We left everything behind with only the clothes on our backs. I came to Fairfield when I was only five years old, and I’m the oldest of three boys.
We had the typical upbringing growing up here in Fairfield. As I got older I never thought about being a chef or making that a career. I tried college and knew it was not for me, but whatever I tried I have always had the support of my parents. I worked at many different places, and being a chef or a restaurant owner had never crossed my mind. It was not until later in life when I met my wife Stacey and had two boys of my own that I knew I had to do something.
At the time both of my younger brothers worked at a sushi restaurant, I had just been laid off at my job, and my wife was a full-time student. I took a part-time job as a bartender where my brothers worked. From there I transitioned to being a chef, and I loved it. With the support of my parents, my brothers and I decided to venture off on our own. We decided to open our own restaurant, and it bombed miserably! Now I was without a job and had no money.
I had to keep trying. People saw that my brothers and I were really good at what we did, so again we had an opportunity to do this restaurant thing. This time, it was on our terms and with our creations—and it paid off. In 2007 the original Shokai opened and it was a hit. We had all kinds of people from different backgrounds coming in and enjoying the creations we made.
Without the continued support of our parents, it would not have been possible. My parents are hard workers and they never gave up in order to make sure we had the life they imagined. I wanted to become like my parents and never give up. They inspired me to become a chef, a father, a husband, and a person that can provide for his family.
What’s your favorite part about developing new recipes?
Developing new recipes can be very tricky. You have so many different ingredients to work with. What might taste good to you might not be the same for the next person. So it takes many tries from different chefs to create something appealing to the public.
My favorite part is when we create a recipe that works and see our customers’ satisfaction—that makes all your hard work pay off.
If you could create a dream menu, what would it include?
I love seafood. My dream menu would have to be seafood and having access to live ingredients that would include a variety of fish, shellfish, squid, and octopus. I want you to be able to taste the ocean on that first bite.
What food trends do you find particularly inspiring?
I love hot pot. It’s group eating, with everyone sitting around a pot of boiling broth. It’s a hands-on experience and everyone can be their own chef.
What food trends do you deplore?
I dislike the constant change of ideas on what not to eat because someone says it’s bad for you. It’s frustrating as a chef to stop serving something that has been working for a long time. I understand there are certain health issues that go along with it, but for people to stop trying something just because it’s the new thing really bothers me as a chef.
What neglected food should more people eat, and why?
Foods from other countries. If you do not open your mind and palate, you are missing out. Whenever I travel, I will try any food that is local to that area. Expanding my food knowledge gives me ideas to share with other people.
What do you end up cooking at home?
I cook a lot of Laotian—foods that my mom cooks. It’s very unique, my whole family enjoys it. My son’s favorite thing to do after school is to run over to Grandma’s house to see what’s there to eat.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you do?
I would still be in the service industry, probably owning a bar and working in it. I enjoy meeting and talking to new people. I like to know what makes people happy and if I can offer that in a food or drink setting, then I’ve done my job.
Tell us the best and worst things about being a chef in Iowa.
The bad part of being a chef in Iowa is that it costs more to have access to fresh and unique ingredients.
I love Iowa—I’ve been here most of my life. All my family is here. To be a chef and share the accomplishments here with my family is very rewarding. Also, to be able to bring new food ideas from all over the world and to serve them in a small town in Iowa is pretty amazing.
Thank you for all your support and making Shokai what it is today.
Shokai Sushi is located at 101 W. Broadway Ave., Fairfield. (641) 469-3277.