Flavor Fusion

Flavor Fusion

How one coastal Georgia chef is merging Southern flavors with Japanese traditions

Words by Nicole Letts
Photos courtesy of Sea Island


By birth, Grant Steiner is South Korean, but he was adopted and grew up in Michigan. As a novice chef, he received classical French training to craft meticulously edited recipes and design visually beautiful plates before ultimately landing in an Asian fusion restaurant. His appearance, he says, is how he landed the job that ultimately began his future as a sushi chef. “Because I was Korean, I looked the part to the other Japanese chefs in the restaurant. They needed someone who spoke perfect English and had knife and kitchen skills too. I had never worked behind a sushi bar,” he recalls. Soon enough, sushi was Steiner’s specialty, and more than a decade later, he was tapped to helm the new sushi lounge at the Georgian Rooms at The Cloister at Sea Island. Below, Steiner shares more about the Japanese cuisine that has become his unexpected life’s passion. 

I am most curious about what it looks like to train to become a sushi chef. How is it similar or different from training for other cuisines?

It's challenging. When you're working in New American cuisine as a cook, you're taught how to grill, and using a grill in one restaurant and then using a grill in another to grill steaks, is an almost identical process. But that’s not the case with sushi. Training is somewhat of a lengthy process because first and foremost, you’re using ingredients that you've potentially never heard of, and those are a different language from what you’re accustomed to. Not only are you trying to understand new cooking concepts, but you’re learning a new language at the same time. In Japan, the rumor is they only let you cook rice for a long period. Rice is a very important part of sushi. People think it's simple, but it's not. It’s the amount of rice, the type of rice, and the amount of water. Some sushi chefs even get into the type of water that they're using. There are all these different processes just for the rice! 

What is it like to have diners watch you work at the sushi bar? It reminds me of professional golf. It's you and a million spectators! 

That’s part of the training process, too. Even in an open kitchen in a regular restaurant, people can't come up and talk to you. They can't come up and see what you're doing. But literally, for a sushi chef, you are the centerpiece of this restaurant, and people are watching every single thing you do. Plus, they can communicate with you as you work. They can ask you questions, and they can see what you're doing. Sometimes they can tell if you're working on their food. 

Why do you think sushi is booming in 2024?

Sushi became popular in the early 2000s, but it was also extremely Americanized. That’s how the California roll came to be. I recently heard this interview with Masaharu Morimoto​​. The interviewer asks, “What do you think of the sushi burrito?” And Morimoto said, “I have no problem with the sushi burrito, but just don't call it sushi.” I think what's happening now is, thanks to social media and information access, people can know what it's really like in Japan. It gives Americans an opportunity to see what it's like to have Mexican-style street food or Japanese-style street food. You're almost turning the clock back and opening their eyes, which is good for us as chefs because we have this opportunity now to do what we were trained to do. 

If someone is new to sushi, what would you recommend that they start with? 

Fortunately or unfortunately, we've been given the California roll, which is the very perfect stepping stone. It's giving you this opportunity to try imitation fish, and a mixture of familiar ingredients like cucumber, avocado, and rice. A major misconception is that everything is raw, and that's not true. You can start with something cooked, or you can start with salmon and tuna because people are familiar with it. They've seen it cooked, and now it's an opportunity to try it raw. 

I step people into the sashimi and nori by starting with something that's torched, and cooked medium-rare to rare. And once they get over the hump, you can start getting into different types of fish and different types of experiences.

I think that's what makes sushi chefs unique. It's our job to mold that experience, guide people along, and see what they do and don't like. It's up to us to eliminate items, make suggestions, and determine what they should try next. 

How are you crafting that experience at Sea Island? How are you merging Japanese cuisine and Georgia flavors?

One of our most popular dishes is the hamachi tataki, and we have a pressed sushi roll called the oi berry.  I've created a truffle ponzu sauce for those rolls. It’s a traditional Japanese ponzu mixed with truffle oil that creates an intense flavor. For the California roll that we conceptualized here, we use jumbo lump crab, Old Bay Seasoning, and cayenne pepper; it’s a riff on a traditional crab cake. That's Asian fusion at its finest. You're taking a Southern-influenced ingredient and putting it into a sushi roll. 

What would you say about the future of where things are headed for sushi?

I think I want this nice mixture of what Americanized sushi is and what the Japanese culture thinks sushi is. I think eventually, at some point, those two things are going to merge. You're going to have this combination of traditionally trained sushi chefs with this combination of all these different types of fusion.