When it came time to open his first restaurant, San Francisco Chef Sung Anh decided there was only one way to get it done: go all in.
Behind a wood door on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street, Chef Sung Anh quietly set to work on his restaurant. In Chef Anh’s view, despite jobs at some of the top kitchens in California, he remained a relative unknown in the city’s fervent food scene. While name value often equates to start-up leverage, especially with chefs, this case of anonymity cleared the blueprint for something else: without any expectation or predisposition, Chef Anh could build a restaurant entirely true to himself.
In February, Mosu, which Eater tabbed one of the most anticipated openings in the country at the time, debuted some 100 feet from James Beard Award-winning State Bird Provisions. Everything about the project was a mirror into Chef Anh’s personality. In this case, not just as a chef, but as a handyman, front-of-house manager, logistics expert, and more. “I would come in and grab a hammer,” he says. And not just to save money, either. “It was more natural than that,” Chef Anh explains. “I just said, ‘I’m going to do it and not just be part of the kitchen but all aspects of opening a restaurant.’”
“I don’t want to be the luxurious chef who just stands around and looks cool.”
Complacency isn't a concern at the 18 seat, kaiseki-style tasting menu spot, which runs $195 for 15 courses, per person. As far as the food is concerned, the plan—from pricing to prix fixe—was developed after much deliberation.
“A lot of chefs are really stubborn, myself, too,” he says. “But for business I was trying to be a little more flexible. I did the research and decided that tasting menu only—it could work. Of course, the execution has to follow. But when I first opened, I thought it would work because there’s so much demand for good food.”
Chef Anh, who worked at The French Laundry, Benu, Aziza, and Urasawa, crafts American contemporary food that runs a spectrum of Asian flavors, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. He was born in Seoul and grew up working in his parents’ Chinese restaurant. His extensive training, cored in French techniques, results in alluring and artfully plated food, like Sea moss and foie gras soup. He understood, considering all the competition in the Bay Area, that restricting a diner’s options was a definite risk. “I just wanted to open something that I truly believe in,” he says of the tasting menu. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to do it. And I have to be careful.’”
Getting open was a personal experience as well. Chef Anh footed most of the expenses and had to be mindful of his budget. San Francisco is not exactly a wallet-friendly market for perspective restaurateurs. Starting with the build itself, Chef Anh, who has a background as a car mechanic, would work on the construction site at times. Family members and friends pitched in. For the minimalist design, he delved into current trends and put those ideas into motion himself.
The space, which was formerly a restaurant, is a little over 2,000 square feet, but feels smaller thanks to a large cave-like area in the back Chef Anh uses for storage.
“I think I designed this place,” he says. “I didn’t have a blueprint. I just tried out stuff, figured out where the lights should be and things like that. I did that by researching.”
“I’m not a professional contractor,” he adds. “Some friends of mine were. If somebody asks me where I can find an ingredient, I’ll probably have the best idea as a chef. Instead of searching online, I asked people who are actually in the industry, in construction, and buying stuff. I just kind of asked if I could pick their brains. … I would ask people and they would give me information and I would follow their directions.”
Then came labor. Out of the gate, Chef Anh hired every position because he wasn’t sure what to expect. But as things progressed he realized “it was necessary for me to do more and for people here to work a little bit harder and understand the aspect of actually operating a restaurant.” That meant Chef Anh started printing menus and confirming reservations. He receives deliveries and places all ingredient orders on a daily basis. He also maintains inventory for food, sake, and wine, and curates the schedules for his staff. Chef Anh is constantly perfecting dishes as well, making sure the components and details align with his precise vision.
These moves, he notes, weren’t based solely on the bottom line. “I have no intention of cutting a cost for service. If it’s directed to the guest—the connection with the guest—I’m all in,” Chef Anh says. “It’s not about the money anymore. It’s my restaurant. I built the restaurant so people can come and enjoy their time here, and I enjoy that, too. I didn’t cut the costs, but what I can do is I can wake up a little bit earlier and stay a little bit later. If I do that, I can do much more than just stay in the kitchen. I can do the work, too. And if I do it, I save more. For me, it was kind of basic instinct. Why would I hire somebody if I can do it?”
Chef Anh says his staff enjoys a well-rounded experience working at Mosu. There are four employees in the kitchen, and most will serve and talk to guests.
“I don’t segregate between the cooks and back of the house and front of the house,” he says. “Chefs don’t really know, but when they learn how to communicate with the guests, they actually enjoy it, too. They’re really proud to serve the food. That emotion, that connection with the guest, that’s really interesting and hopefully provides a better experience for the guest.”
Chef Anh believes Mosu is still developing its identity. Although he admits it sounds cliché, he’s tried to improve each day, whether that’s refining a dish or finding a new way to improve service. The restaurant is uniquely devoted to its food. So much so that it provides a quiet backdrop, devoid of music, during meals.
“I try to look for opportunities to make this restaurant better, to make our staff better,” he says. “Sometimes, if it’s necessary, hire better, more experienced staff. Or find better plateware. I’m always searching for it. I’m always seeking it out.”
“I’m traveling to Korea for personal reasons,” he continues. “But half the time I will be looking for what can I do to make this restaurant better. Unless I do that, constantly, especially in the beginning stages, it’s going to be a challenge. I think once people think that we’re very solid and we have a consistent amount of people who come in and enjoy their time there, I’ll feel a little more complete. And maybe I can change a little bit at a time. But until then I’m not really stopping to improve in any way, every way, for the restaurant.”