By Judith Salkin
Last summer Gordon Ramsey, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliott went looking for the best of the kid chefs for the junior version of “MasterChef.” Too bad the show wasn’t around 20 years ago. If it had been, Engin Onural probably would have been one of the kids chosen to compete.
Today Onural is the owner and executive chef at The Venue Sushi Bar and Sake Lounge on El Paseo in Palm Desert. And like the kids on “MasterChef Junior,” he uses his venue as a place to push his art to the limit and to change the way sushi lovers look at the way fish, rice, veggies and sheets of dried seaweed come together.
At 29, he is so good at what he does, Onural was recently recognized by the Japanese with a certificate as a sushi chef. The testing for the certificate was done under strict supervision and entirely in Japanese. He is the only Turkish sushi chef in the Coachella Valley and Riverside County to have received such an honor. “My sensei was the one who insisted that I take the examination,” he says. “And now in two years, I’ll take the next exam and then I can teach, and by the time I’m 35, hopefully I will be a master and then I can retire (from the exam process)!”
It’s the customers at The Venue who are real winners of Onural’s imaginative cuisine.
With the exception of a Philly roll, stuffed with lox and cream cheese, most sushi lovers prefer their rolls to be on a more traditional side.
“I love sushi,” Onural says. “But the world is global and I want to show that sushi can be global, too.”
So what is global sushi? In Onural’s hands, it means taking the flavors of the found in the countries of the Mediterranean and blending them with the traditional elements of sushi.
A Mediterranean roll is a true surprise with spicy albacore, tempura asparagus and avocado topped with Mediterranean salsa, feta cheese and micro greens. There is a hint of heat in the albacore that’s tempered by the asparagus and avocado, all held together by the sticky rice and seaweed.
Or go for the Crispy Wontons, crackling wonton wrappers topped with ahi and duo of drizzles – one spicy, the other salty-sweet. While you can feel worldly as you down most sushi, there is no way to eat this one without it crumbling in your hands and having a laugh as you do.
The Venue is pretty much Onural envisioned when at the age of 10, “I knew I wanted to do this,” he says, looking around the small, hip space tucked away on El Paseo. “I didn’t know I wanted this exactly, but I wanted to be in the hospitality business.”
Technically Onural is American. He was born in Buffalo, N.Y. while his father was teaching and pursuing his Ph.D. at State University of New York. Over the years, the family lived in Canada, their native Turkey and Europe because of his father’s career.
By the time he was a teen, Onural had focused on a career as a chef after spending time in the kitchen with his mother. More than that he wanted fell in love with Asian food, especially sushi.
“I don’t know why,” he says. “I must have been Asian in a previous life.”
He by 21, he’d earned his B.S. in computer science and business management at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and when he had satisfied his parents’ educational requirements, and a six month backpacking tour to readjust his head, “I headed out to California for my sushi training,” he says.
He studied in an intensive four month course at a sushi school in Orange County rather than going the traditional route in Japan.
“I’d just finished university and I couldn’t see taking five years to make perfect rice and another five years to learn to cut fish and then five years to learn to make rolls,” he said of his fast route to being a chef. “For me, I needed to get my hands into it FAST!”
He learned speed and strengthened his presentation skills in an apprenticeship arranged by his sensei at one of Orange County’s busiest sushi restaurants. After a year slicing and rolling, he was hired by J.W. Marriott Desert Springs in Palm Desert to open its sushi bar. He followed that with three years at the Renaissance Esmeralda until he found the backing to open The Venue.
“This was it, it was my one chance to own my own place and make it what I wanted it to be,” he said.
While he had an expansion plan in mind, after three years it’s beginning to come together. “I’m looking for a second location!” he says. “I’m praying it will be Palm Springs; if not, maybe Beverly Hills!”
And he’s looking forward to teaching, too.
“We had our first workshop and it was so much fun,” he says. “I loved working with everyone; I want to do more, to show them they can make sushi at home and have fun with it.”
At this weekend’s Food and Wine Festival Palm Desert, Onural is one of the local chefs who demonstrate his skills on stage in the Grand Tasting Tent on Sunday.
“I’m going to be red! I always get red when I have to talk in front of people,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s going to be fun!”
The Venue Sushi Bar and Sake Lounge
73111 El Paseo, Suite 103
Social hour: 5-6:30 p.m. nightly; Sushi, 5-9 p.m. nightly.
Phone: (760) 346-1500