Story by MATILYN MORTENSEN • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — Tony Chen grew up cooking with his mother where her desire to experiment and try new foods inspired him to do the same.
In 2004, after dreaming and planning for 15 years, Chen opened the restaurant Tona with his wife Tina Yu. Although Chen and Yu are Chinese, their restaurant on Ogden’s Historic 25th Street serves Japanese cuisine.
"It’s been successful for over the last 13 years," Chen said. "(In 2014) I know we were in a rough time, the economy wasn’t that great in ‘04, and this street wasn’t that great. Ogden wasn’t great... It took us about three, four, five years to get it going. Sushi here in Ogden is still brand new."
The name of their restaurant is a combination of the couple’s first names. Many items on Tona’s menu are also combinations, taking a traditional Japanese dish and adding elements of food from another culture.
From a sushi roll inspired by an Italian caprese salad to eggplant fries served with Chen’s take on fry sauce— sriracha, mayo, and caviar— the items on this menu showcase Chen’s desire for food to be new and exciting.
The Standard-Examiner sat down with Chen to learn more about his experience owning a restaurant and the inspiration for his food.
Answers have been edited for length, clarity and category.
Standard-Examiner: What inspired you to become a chef?
Tony Chen: Mother. She always cooks. She loves to invent, think of different ingredients, think of food to make.
S-E: What are some of your earliest memories of your mother cooking or cooking with your mother?
TC: The earliest I can think of is probably 11. Just cooking basic (food). We’re in an Asian culture, we cook rice a lot, it is every meal. It’s almost like a condiment if you think of it, like eating a hot dog. You have to have ketchup and mustard and relish and onion. Rice would be like part of the meal along with other side dishes too.
S-E: How long have you been in the restaurant and the food business and working to become a chef?
TC: I was working a restaurant since I was 15 and then I guess it took me 15 years to put this project together, after lots of daydreaming. I started this when I was 30, you can probably figure out my age already.
S-E: How is the restaurant doing 13 years later?
TC: It’s great. As far as the satisfaction (...) it’s rewarding. At the beginning, it’s really hard, of course you know location. Location, location, location. That makes a difference, where you are at. But of course you’ve got to put the hard work into it to make it successful. So it’s not just owning the location.
S-E: What was the most difficult thing when you started this restaurant 13 years ago?
TC: Not knowing what I’m getting into. Getting into the restaurant business, or getting into business in general, or being an entrepreneur, it’s risky. Even though I have that 15 years of dreaming and putting the project together, there is going to be some hidden unknowns that you don’t know what you are getting into.
There is no manual to follow. Every restaurant is unique. Even though you have same burger place, or same sushi place, every restaurant is unique. The space size is unique. The number of staff is unique. The menu is always unique to the restaurant.
S-E: What has been the biggest thing you have learned in the past 13 years of having this business?
TC: Patience is one. Consistency. Stick to it. Don’t give up. Learn how to adapt and accept. That is very important in this business that I learn from it. From the opening until now how much I have absorbed.
Whether it’s the concept of the food or the customers that walk in the door, what they want, or what they like and dislike, and what the individuals from the customers to the in house staff, what their patterns. You have to accept what they are, and learn from each other, and take that and build that together, whether it’s a foundation or stronger item, or stronger business.
S-E: What is your signature dish here at Tona?
TC: Green Globe. I did mention earlier I was in architecture, so I applied the architectural foundation to my food. The Green Globe consists of thin slices of avocado wrapped. Inside there it is spicy tuna, snow crab, citrus soy on the bottom, tobiko caviar on top.
With my architectural background, I like to draw a little bit to see if the presentation of the way how it holds, or how it lays out. I will make and see if the profile works or not, the texture, structurally, see if it really falls off, or if it collapses.
There is a little story behind (the Green Globe.) There was a husband and wife, John and Holly. They sat at the sushi bar. The husband likes spicy, and the wife loves avocados.
We used to have avocados just lined up all across the sushi case. So she looks at all those avocados and they look really good. She goes, “Tony, make me something with avocado.”
I’m always looking for new things, so I keep looking at this avocado for I don’t know how long, about five minutes, as we’re just kind of talking about what her husband likes, what she loves. So I just take the avocado and cut it in half, and then start looking and looking at it. And I go, “I’m not going to make a sushi roll, I’m going to make something else different.” So that’s how the Green Globe came about. I put the spicy tuna in it because the husband likes spicy. She loves avocado and there is a half of avocado on it, so there is quite a bit of avocado on it.
S-E: What do you think the most misunderstood thing about sushi is?
TC: When sushi comes to mind, automatically, the popular misconception is raw fish. So, we often we ask the food tour participants, “What does Sushi mean to you, don’t be afraid. Just give me an answer and we will educate you.” And the majority will say “raw fish.” Raw in general. And then we go, “I’d like to correct you on that. Sushi literally mean vinegar rice.” So you can have whatever your favorite veggies, or your favorite meat together, including fish. Sashimi would equal raw fish. Naguri means hand formed, just the rice ball with the fish on top.
S-E: What is your most popular sushi dishes?
TC: The Green Globe is one of them. Probably a unique (roll) for us is the Grinch. That one has yellow tail, albacore, basil, cucumber, sriracha mayo, green tempura bites with spinach. That's kind of how I get people to eat spinach, because it has tempura crumbs on the outside, the tempera bites, made out of spinach.
And then tomato and basil. This (roll) is kind of like the Caprese salad, the mozzarella and then the basil and tomato. Also, it has a balsamic sweet soy. So I was thinking of that thought process and then kind of incorporating it into the Japanese cuisine. So that is a little bit more unique.
S-E: Who is your role model as a chef?
TC: Anthony Bourdain, I love watching him. Emeril. These are probably a little old school. And of course, the Iron Chef, Morimoto. They have great talents and creativity. They have a lot of energy. They are always out there exploring different things to do, different things to do, things to make.
S-E: Anything else?
TC: Japanese cuisine in general is meant to be shared. The chef will suggest you to share different items together. Whether it’s from husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend, or just a friend or a big party, share together.
Sharing brings us together, it bonds us. It just changes the dining experience than if you’re having your pasta and I’m having my burger. Or, you’re having your California roll, I’m having my sashimi. So if you put those together, share it, you interact, it changes the dining experience.
Especially nowadays with iPhones, instead of you looking at your iPhone, I’m looking at mine. It’s like, what is going on here? Are you guys texting each other? I know you guys are sharing information, but not interacting. I know you guys are having your dish and I’m having mine, just kind of looking at each other, but you’re not bonding.
Matilyn Mortensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MatilynKay.