Executive chef at Doi Moi is passionate about Asian culinary technique, food sourcing, attention to detail
Chefs in the Washington, D.C. area are seeing the fruit of their labor as the city gets recognized as one of the top food destinations in the country. It wasn’t easy—the town was known for political power lunches and an abundance of steakhouses not too long ago. Chefs and restaurateurs knew this moment would come, however, as they attracted new chefs and culinary talent to this city, and the growing private sector spurred an interest in the global flavors that had already been imported by immigrants and foreign embassy teams. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the RAMMY Awards are part of this transformation for long-recognizing time-honored, as well as up-and-coming talent in D.C., through its awards and the July 30, 2017 gala, providing a stage and encouraging the culinary talent that the city and surrounding suburbs have to offer.
One such young chef is Sasha Felikson, a contender for the 2017 Rising Culinary Star of the Year Award at the RAMMYS. As the executive chef of Doi Moi, his energy and passion for serving great food and tapping into global inspiration is well known and unrelenting. Taking the culinary helm at Doi Moi, where the food is highly influenced by the late restaurateur Mark Kuller, and the founder’s’ journey to Southeast Asia, his days are still long and exciting, he notes. At Doi Moi, you see deep Thai and Vietnamese influences, and it is perhaps the perfect place for Felikson, who has immersed himself in fine-dining, with early-career training in Asian fusion, to come into his own.
The journey of Felikson, rising culinary star finalist
Originally born in the Ukraine Republic, before the fall of the U.S.S.R, Felikson’s journey to Doi Moi was rather scenic and uncertain. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. through Italy and found themselves landing when he was three in Boston, which has a large Russian and Ukrainian population. They took up roots in the D.C. area, moving to Rockville, Md, but he, himself, detoured to Colorado for a while.
Felikson wanted to study the culinary arts but, early on, was persuaded instead to learn it through practical application and working with top chefs. After attending Salisbury College and studying Psychology, he spent about two years in Colorado, for a time, working at Bim Bam Boo, an Asian fusion & Thai cuisine restaurant in Boulder. A typical day there could exceed 18 hours, not too much longer than Felikson’s current shifts at Doi Moi.
Fine-dining restaurants can be the jewel of a collection, a hobby, a pursuit of ambition or recognition in the culinary scene for their owners. There can be hints of an aggressive crash and burn style, putting the pursuit of culinary excellence over business imperatives. There has been some of that in Felikson’s culinary career, but also the fortune of working with top restaurateurs who have survived the scene or who are more financially-disciplined. His career includes stints at Graffiato and Kapnos, by Mike Isabella, for example.
Since 2011, Felikson has dived deeply into the fine-dining scene and upscale-casual restaurants—his interests mostly in the former. He read “The Fat Duck Cookbook” by Heston Blumenthal (2008). Before he could do the deep dive into fine dining, he was keen on learning the basic fundamentals of cooking and that happened during his time at a steakhouse in Boulder, before moving back to the East Coast. After those basics, it was time to elevate his craft and develop his own style. Citizen at the Mandarin Hotel, Rogue 24, the former Table in the Shaw all served to sharpen the acumen.
In speaking with Felikson, one gains an appreciation for how driven he is to improve his game and that the hard knocks and a few humiliations in kitchens of the past were for a larger purpose. “All about bringing to the best that you can, with good ingredients,” he says. “Focus on today, and today is what matters. What matters is what you do on that day, and what you put your heart and your soul in.” He looks outside the U.S. to appreciate progressive policies regarding food and agriculture. “The country (U.S.) needs to invest in good food and agriculture.” He’s very interested in the sourcing of local foods and in supporting smaller restaurant and restaurant groups that adopt this thinking.
“There are many countries that are super-progressive. And they focus on culinary and independent eateries, they focus on the small businesses.” You won’t see the young chef patronizing or supporting chains that are sourcing from large, distant suppliers, even the well-known chains started here in the D.C. area.
Felikson helped open Menu MBK in Penn Quarter and then went on to Mini Bar, where fine-dining was like a religion. His time there was made more enjoyable by his friendship with Johnny Spero who was a chef there. Spero appears to be close to opening Reverie in Georgetown, one of the anticipated openings of 2017, by all lifestyle-magazine accounts. Reverie will open at the Grace Street Collective.
‘Turning point’ at Doi Moi
Additional techniques were picked up at Yona in Arlington, Va. with Jonah Kim, who left that partnership with Mike Isabella for opportunities in Miami. When it was time for a turning point and better financial focus at Doi Moi, Jason and Max Kuller, the current owners turned to Felikson. Through better portion control and an attentiveness to quality and not quantity, the financial performance of the kitchen has improved. This work is synergistic to the new-found zeal for quality.
The menu sees a few tweaks here and there, but the core of it, which has won accolades, is stable and true to the original concept. Doi Moi won’t take away the menu favorites patrons have fallen in love with. With a philosophy in local sourcing, the meats and produce at the restaurant have changed to being sourced from local and regional farms.There’s a deep interest in supporting local agriculture and moving away from “commodity food.”
For Felikson, these changes are also improving the taste of food. Felikson is known to challenge the kitchen staff to put out the best food they can. Rather than go into tirades like the one from a past mentor, he’ll tell staff when he’s disappointed and not get upset. “When you see the dish come to your table,” says Felikson. “It shows a level of care. The cooks at Doi Moi have a level of care that transcends (their job).” After all, he’s appreciative of Japanese techniques, and how Japanase chefs put so much attention into putting together ingredients—such discipline there. “That is the most responsible thing you can do,” he says.
In the rising star’s mind, he is a approaching the culinary style at Doi Moi with a bit of danger, but in a fun and positive way. You may see hints of Eastern European, of Korean cuisine. For him, they are interconnected and are similarly-rooted. And it can be cross-Asian, too. He aims to combine traditional culinary techniques with adaptations of Southeast Asian cuisine. He fortifies curries with miso and beurre blanc, for example.
With the changes Felikson has made at Doi Moi, the restaurant is on a positive trajectory. Food costs have improved and sales targets have been met—all exceeding last year’s metrics. In October, Doi Moi was added to Bib Gourmand list in the prestigious Michelin Guide, an award that was very satisfying to Felikson and the entire staff of the restaurant.
Felikson sees comparisons between playing tennis and delivering on the culinary promise of a restaurant. Tennis is an individual sport and there has to be that commitment to performing at one’s best and winning. In his spare time, he enjoys music, the arts and museums. He has a passion for improving his tennis game and for “running around D.C.” and enjoying food at restaurants and critiquing them. He’s not shy of his ambitions. Felikson is looking for the local restaurant industry to be profitable and for local owners to draw economically from their accomplishments. At his current pace, he’ll also take be able to take part in that reward in short order.