Odd squeaks emanate from a large bowl of choy sum (an Asian vegetable related to bok choy) as Chef Sunhui Chang massages the chopped green leaves with vinegar. It’s Monday and FuseBOX, the hot new dining spot tucked away on an industrial street in West Oakland is closed, but Chang and his crew are in the kitchen preparing pickles, kimchi, marinades and sauces that will be used throughout the week.
“Monday is flavor day,” says Chang as he shakes up jars of kale, rice wine vinegar, garlic and bright yellow mustard. After three days, the pickled kale will be ready to eat and can theoretically last for weeks, but probably won’t — thanks to a steady stream of fans — West Oaklanders who just walk over and devotees who drive in from points north and south to sample Chang’s unique blend of traditional and innovative Korean-inspired cooking.
FuseBOX, whose name aptly conjures up the electric energy generated by its chef and his evolving explorations, opened in May 2012, serving lunches a few days a week (and recently added Saturday dinner). Yet, despite its limited hours and off-the-beaten-track location, The Bay Guardian has already named FuseBOX one of its Top 10 New Restaurants and Diablo Magazine honored Chang with a Top Chef Award.
Chef Chang enters his walk-in refrigerator and sets the bottle of not-yet-pickled green kale on a shelf with 15 other colorful combinations, including red kale, bok choy, carrots with yuzu, watermelon radish and shiitake mushrooms. His menu features perennial crowd-pleasers like KFC (his spicy chicken wings), pork belly torta, house-made tofu and bacon-wrapped mochi. But seasonality dictates his selection of banchan (small side dishes) that always include several pickled items and kimchi veggies.
Chang’s right hand turns bright vermillion as he scoops out the spicy red sauce that will turn his cabbage into kimchi. “The hand is important in Korean culture,” he says. “Nothing is worse than getting a cut on my finger and having to wear gloves. Then I can’t feel the food.”
Born in Korea, Chang’s earliest memory is a house filled with guests enjoying his mother’s cooking. While his mother, who hailed from a small coastal town in South Korea, was preparing her spicy fish stew, Chang sat in the kitchen watching. But when Chang was seven, the family moved to Guam, where his father found construction work.
“I fell in love when I tasted green mango pickles”
Guamanian cuisine featured fish, coconut, citrus and ignited Chang’s passionate relationship with pickles. “Kids would bring jars of pickles to school for lunch and everyone would fall all over them. The moment I tasted green mango pickles, I fell in love.”
While his mother ran her own Korean restaurant in steamy Guam, Chang watched cooking shows on TV, like Julia Child, and Great Chefs, Great Cities. He admits to feeling that the European cuisine featured on these programs was “real cooking,” while Korean food was just “home cooking.”
When Chang turned 17, he left his parents in Guam and moved to Berkeley, staying with family friends while attending two years of Berkeley High and continuing on to Cal. After his strict Catholic secondary school in Guam, Berkeley High induced a case of culture shock. What took getting used to, Chang explains, was going to a school with over 2,000 kids, the open campus at lunchtime, and seeing kids brazenly smoking cigarettes on the lawn. Cheese was another novelty. Chang explains, “On Guam we only had American and Cheddar. So Brie was new to me, as well as guacamole and sour cream. But I missed my mom’s cooking. That was the hardest thing, feeling homesick for my mom’s kimchi and pickles.”
At UC Berkeley, Chang majored in sociology but always worked in food businesses, including a bagel shop, a deli, and a liquor store, where he sold wine. After graduating in 1994, he ran the grill in an Oakland Korean restaurant and became its head chef after only a year and a half. “That really happened too early,” he muses, “I still had a lot more to learn.”
Two years later, when that restaurant closed down, Chang started a catering business “making everything, but Korean food. Back then there wasn’t much interest in Korean cuisine.” So he offered European dishes: Spanish tapas and French country classics (à la Julia Child). But “after 14 years of taking my show on the road,” Chang says, “I wanted a kitchen to call home and a space to host guests. I always had it in mind to open a place in the neighborhood where I lived and I love the rough beauty of West Oakland.”
“I bleed kimchi”
As to deciding on a Korean restaurant, Chang admits that he was “a bit hesitant, as there were not many requests to cater events with Korean cuisine. But my daughter SunIm and wife Ellen [who works alongside her husband as FuseBOX’s general manager] pointed out the deep roots and passion I have with Korean food. They told me I needed to express this and that the public is now ready to embrace Korean cuisine.”
Instead of chef’s whites, Chang wears a black T-shirt whose back screams, “I bleed kimchi.” Chang speaks of the iconic Korean staple with reverence. “Kimchi has its own journey. After four days fermenting in the refrigerator, it’s ready to start eating. But the taste will change every day. My father likes it way over-fermented – to me it’s sour and the crunch is gone. That stage is best for making kimchi stew. But actually, ours never gets to that point, because we tend to run out. Kimchi is a part of my life. I feel weird if I don’t have it for a day or two; I start missing it.”
Chang’s signature kimchi and pickles take advantage of every part of the vegetable, including the stems, roots and leaves that others often throw out, what he calls “the offal of vegetables.”
“From my days as a butcher and fishmonger, we always took the meat scraps home. I noticed that people also threw away lots of vegetable parts they didn’t like either, such as beet and radish greens, bok choy crowns, spinach stems and roots [the pink parts]. I would save them and use them for pickles or kimchi. That’s how I found that each part has its own flavor and nutrients.” Chang’s respect for his ingredients is all embracing. “After squeezing out the cabbage,” he explains, “we even save that salted water to make into ‘clear water kimchi’ with napa, daikon and ginger. It’s a palate cleanser.”
Chang takes a pan from the stove and scrapes off the mahogany mixture that has been simmering for hours: chicken bones, deglazed with sake, mirin and soy. The resulting sauce will be brushed on his chicken skewers. “If I reflect on my nine months at FuseBOX,” Chang says, “I’m most proud of the amount of flavors we’re able to produce in a small space. And I hope that the recent recognition of Korean food has legs – that it’s not just a trend, but becomes part of the fabric of America.”
FuseBOX, 2311A Magnolia St., Oakland, 510-444-3100, open Wednesday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m. (closed some Saturday lunchtimes because of Chang’s daughter’s soccer tournaments. Call to check) and 5:30-9 p.m.
A version of this piece was first posted on Berkeleyside NOSH Feb. 28, 2013