Q&A With The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge’s Chef Engin Onural
Written By: Sara Hyland Venue Sushi Bar
Engin Onural is not a just sushi chef. He is a master of all trades. To limit his description to one title would be doing him a disservice. His rise to sushi stardom has been unbelievably quick—accomplishing more before the age of 30 than most can say. Becoming the Chef/Owner of the incomparable The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge was the perfect garnish to an already stellar sushi roll. The country of Turkey and the art of sushi don’t often go hand-in-hand, but for Chef Engin they have made a happy marriage resulting in award-winning results and satisfied customers. Like this chef, the dishes are extraordinary.
Q: When did you start cooking and how has it influenced the way you interact with food today?
Chef Engin Onural: I was always fascinated by chefs, kitchens, restaurants and hotels—and I still am. I was always in the kitchen helping my mom for as long as I can remember. I announced to my family that I was going to be a chef and be in the hospitality business when I was 10. I can’t believe it has been 22 years already.
Q: What types of cuisines do you have a background in and how have they made their way into your menu today?
EO: I am Turkish, so of course Turkish cuisine does play a big role, as well as Mediterranean cuisine. What you will experience here at The Venue is Mediterranean influenced creative sushi.
Q: How have your experiences in past kitchens molded you into the chef you are?
EO: I can’t imagine where I would be today without all of the chefs and kitchens who I had privilege to work with years ago. It goes back to when I was so young that they only allowed me to carve melons. Even now I enjoy getting together with my chef friends at their kitchens and mine, enjoying each other’s experiences and purely having fun. I think you must always continue to mold—if you tell me that you are completely “molded, ” I would tell you that you are at a very dangerous place in your mind. It might be over for you.
Q: What makes you the chef that you are?
EO: It’s going to sound cliché, but it is simply discipline, creative vision and an unconditional dedication to my restaurant.
Q: What sort of awards have you won for your talents as a chef?
EO: The Venue itself has been named “Best Sushi” by Palm Springs Life in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, and they named me one of their “Top 40 Under 40 Movers and Shakers” in 2014. That same year, I was honored by the All American Japanese Association with a sushi proficiency certificate. I walked into the classroom with ten years of experience, the only English speaker there, and walked out the only Turkish man alive to hold the certificate. I will officially earn the title of Master Sushi Chef by the Japanese government when I finish two more tests in the three-step training. Then, in 2015 I became the first and only Best Chef to be added to Best Chefs America Index for the year of 2015.
Q: You have described your food as your art. What is the creative process of forming one of your paintings?
EO: I believe I see colors and textures differently. Seeing some desert sand could pop an idea in my head for a dish. My test kitchen truly runs 24 hours a day because I am constantly tasting things and painting in my head. Most of the time I know how ingredients will taste together, but even in unplanned moments something unexpected is discovered and will lead to a different dish. I am known for using big white plates—that is my canvas, and food is my paint.
Q: In addition to your talents as a chef, you also are a sake sommelier. Could you tell us about that process and what it means to you?
EO: Yes, I am. It means a lot to me. I enjoy pairing sake for my guests to enhance their experience. I always tell my guests how sake should be enjoyed like wine. There are certain types that pair well with a specific type of dish. At the end I enjoy hearing how they would not have thought about having that particular sake with that dish. That puts a smile on my face.
Q: When creating your concept for The Venue, what was the most important element you wanted in the environment?
EO: I wanted to create and serve great food with a casual atmosphere and clean, modern and sophisticated interior design. I think we have made that happen and it is still going strong—period. I always want my guests to feel right at home, we thrive on getting to know [them]. Our regulars will vouch for us—most of them don’t even have to look at our menus. We know what they like and we know which new dish, sake or wine they will enjoy. Sit back, relax and enjoy your evening. Myself and my team will take care of you.
Q: How do you want your patrons to feel when they leave The Venue?
EO: We do not just serve sushi. We are providing an experience, hoping to be remembered as the umami not just for the tummy, but for the mind. I want all of my guests to walk out of the restaurant saying, “What an amazing experience!” I get lots of hugs and I love it. It is one of the greatest feelings when my guests peek into the sushi bar and give me a hug before they go out the doors.
Q: Tell us about the sushi making workshop! What do your students get out of that experience?
EO: It’s a lot of fun each time I do a workshop. Everybody leaves understanding the basics of sushi, with the ability to make their own rolls and enjoy them at the end. I like to keep my workshops very casual, with lots of interaction. That way, will be a lot of questions thrown at me, which makes it more interesting.
The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge
73-111 El Paseo Ste 103
Palm Desert CA 92260