It’s 9 a.m. at 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar, and the classy downtown Bend restaurant is quiet except for muffled sounds from the open kitchen in back. The lights aren’t yet on in the front of the house, but sunlight streams through transom windows, illuminating the restaurant’s modern interior. Joe Kim Jr. steps behind the white quartz bar and pokes around for glassware and ice. If he doesn’t seem quite at home behind the bar of the restaurant he co-owns, that’s not surprising; as executive chef at this popular sushi and seafood destination, Kim’s domain is the kitchen.
Taking the helm as head chef at an Asian restaurant in the high desert wasn’t always what Kim had in mind for his life, but in more ways than one, it was like coming home. He grew up with his mom in La Pine, 30 miles south of Bend. But during summer months, he would work in his father’s Japanese restaurants in San Francisco. “I would go to visit my dad, but it turned out I was going to work with my dad. I’d peel carrots, cut onions,” he recalls. “I was always in the restaurants, because that’s where he was.”
As a teenager, the restaurant lifestyle — up at 6 a.m. to visit the vegetable market, to the restaurant by 9 a.m., not home until 11 at night — seemed “awful,” says Kim. To avoid that fate, he earned a business degree and entered the world of finance. But he found the “closet full of suits, tie-of-the-month club” life unfitting. “I felt dishonest,” he admits. “I wasn’t selling anything tangible.” One day he returned to the office and quit on the spot.
The call of the kitchen immediately filled the void. “I started taking jobs in restaurants, anything I could do to learn.” After a while, he bought his own San Francisco restaurant, but he sold it three years later to travel to Japan, China and Korea to study food, flavor and cooking. His time there was one of discovery and focus. “Those travels influenced me a lot,” he says. “Once you learn the foundation of certain dishes, you can build on that to experiment with your own ideas.”
While Kim was in Asia, his mother became ill, summoning him home to La Pine. He took a job at 5 Fusion to fill time. Owner Lilian Chu quickly discerned Kim’s talent as well as his modest, hard-working demeanor, and she set forth to keep him around, promoting him and eventually offering him partial ownership. She knew what she was up against — Chu had some serious competition in her bid for Kim’s culinary acumen. “I turned down job offers at the French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Alinea in Chicago to stay here,” says Kim.
But the decision to stay in Central Oregon wasn’t difficult, he says. “Living in Bend is great. There’s a small-town feel that you don’t find in a lot of places. It’s a homey place, with community around me that reminds me of family.” 5 Fusion evoked family for Kim too. “The restaurant was called 5 Fusion before I came here, but I feel it represents me and my cooking. My mother is Irish and my father is Korean, born in Japan. It has been said that I’m fusion.”
Kim’s cooking fuses texture to flavor to origin. For his menus, he blends the fundamental skills he learned from his father’s restaurants and his Asian travels with his own modern sensibility and imagination. “When you have a solid background, maybe it’s been done this way for hundreds of years, but I’m going to do it this way,” he explains. Overseeing his own kitchen in a smaller town in Oregon has given Kim a freedom that has become elemental to his personal satisfaction and, ultimately, his success. “Here I get to be as creative as I want, to do what I want with food and ideas,” he says. That creativity has been professionally acknowledged. The first Central Oregon chef ever to be so honored, Kim was a semifinalist in 2014 and 2015 for a James Beard award for Best Chef: Northwest.
Tonight Kim expects 5 Fusion to be very busy — it’s a Friday. Some guests will be strangers from far away, some will be familiar friends who will call Kim by name and maybe even thank him with a hug on the way out. He and his crew will serve about 300 guests after the restaurant opens at 5 p.m., but before that comes hours of prep. The fish truck is about to arrive in the alley out back, which overlooks Mirror Pond on the Deschutes River and has a view of South Sister. “I walk out the back door to one the best parks in the state of Oregon,” says Kim. Dressed in a black chef coat, pants and chef’s clogs, Kim rises to get on with his day, with tonight’s special already in his head. “Oregon albacore is in season. We’re going to grill that to medium rare and serve it with green papaya kimchi and just a little warm kale salad.” As he passes through his restaurant, he muses, “There’s a certain honesty about the restaurant business. That’s your satisfaction for the day.”
Video still photo by Christian Heeb
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