Behind the Counter with Chef Dakota Weiss of Sweetfin Poké
Poké is the Hawaiian verb for “to cut crosswise into pieces.” It is also a raw fish dish traditionally served as an appetizer in Hawaiian cuisine. This dish originated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean… literally. While on the job, fishermen would add different seasonings to small cuts of whatever they would be pulling in, primarily reef fish. These fresh, flavorful bites would fuel them during their rigorous day’s work. Traditionally, the seasonings would include combinations of sea salt, candlenut, and limu (seaweed). As the dish began to popularize on the island, Hawaiians gravitated toward using Ahi as the central protein and added an expanded selection of seasonings to the list,including sesame oil and sweet Maui onions.
Poké was officially introduced to the mainland in the 1970’s, but has had a resurgence of popularity since 2014 — especially on the West Coast. Poké is now so much more than just a snack. Spooned over warm sushi rice or greens and surrounded by everything from avocado to smelt egg, the traditional Hawaiian snack has evolved into the poké bowl and become a full meal — packed with flavor bombs of salty, sweet, spicy, and umami. Diners from Los Angeles to New York have fallen in love with the fresh, healthful dish, which has led to poké shops popping up across the nation. Poké spots continue to claim real estate across the city, captained by both newcomers and renowned chefs. In Los Angeles, fan favorite Sweetfin Poké recently opened its 5th location on West Third, walking distance from The Grove.
Chef Dakota Weiss is the chef behind Sweetfin Poké. You’ll recognize her from her time on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas and as the chef of West Hollywood’s Estrella, a seasonal restaurant inspired by the artistic community of the famed Laurel Canyon. Chef Weiss is a California native with a positive energy that you can feel as soon as she walks in the room. She is overflowing with creativity, visually apparent in her vibrant hair colors and detailed tattoos. She is meticulous in her craft, from the taste to the presentation. Her expertly designed plates at Estrella will make you want to snap a pic and Instagram it immediately… even if you’re not into that sort of thing. The flavors that she has created at both Estrella and Sweetfin are so thoughtfully developed that they are simultaneously approachable and refined. When developing the recipes for Sweetfin, Weiss adhered to the traditional Hawaiian foundations while applying elevated flavors like yuzu kosho, pickled shiitake mushrooms, and wasabi-toasted coconut flakes that the Los Angeles community immediately fell in love with.
We sat down with Chef Weiss talk about her love of cooking, poké recipes, learnings from Top Chef, and the one thing to never do in her kitchen.
Interview with Chef Dakota Weiss of Sweetfin Poké
When did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
I was in college and was working at this mom & pop coffee shop. They made everything from scratch. I really was loving getting there early. I would get there at 5am, before class, and start baking off the muffins and scones and everything. I really loved it. I found myself skipping classes just to pick up extra shifts. When I was there, it felt so natural. From there, I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school. I went [to culinary school] and just loved it. I fell right into place.
What your favorite dish to cook, as a chef?
I really am a big fan of making soups. Don’t know why, I love making soups. We have a goat cheese apple bisque [at Estrella] that’s really yummy.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?
I think it’s always changing. All dishes need to have that sweet, salty, spicy, acidic… all four of those notes to it. I probably put lemon in almost everything. Citrus, just a teeny little squeeze of it, will really brighten up an entire dish.
Any kitchen pet peeves?
Whistling. I will chop somebody’s hand off if they start whistling. (laughs) There’s already so many noises going on in a kitchen, it’s very loud. And then you add that high pitched whistling to it… it just drives me insane. You can sing, sing out loud all day long, just don’t whistle.
Tell me about your time on Top Chef, any pits or peaks?
When we were filming Top Chef, I had just started at the W Hotel. Eric Ripert was the one who said to me, “You need to be careful about how you act on the show. It is reality TV, so you need to be on your game.” I was so nervous about misrepresenting the W as a brand. I cried for the good stuff, I cried for the bad stuff.
I also feel like it was a good kick in the pants, like, get your shit together. So it was good, it was a great learning experience. I met really great people doing it and I feel like what I took mostly from that is I am still close with a lot of people from the production side of it. So the producers, the assistant producers, the casting directors, I’m also very good friends with.
How did you develop the recipes at Sweetfin?
First I came up with the menu, with lots of direction from [partners] Seth, Bret, and Alan. They had a very clear idea of the vision and how the bowls would be customizable. Taking that direction, I came up with a few of the signature bowls. We started with the sauces, what fish are we going to use, and then how are we going to put them together. Then we came up with the rest of the toppings as we went through all these tastings. It was literally about a year and a half process. It could be six tastings, just on the sauces.
What is your favorite sauce?
The creamy togarashi. I like the mouthfeel, the creaminess of it, the spice of it. I like it because it’s not the classic spicy mayo. We don’t use sriracha, we use togarashi, which has more of an earthiness to it. Plus it’s salty, it’s just my favorite. I want to keep squeeze bottles of it [at Estrella] because I crave it so much.
How do you feel about the poké trend happening right now?
I feel like, with all these different poké places, people want to pit us against each other. Like “The Poké Wars” or something. But, if you look at the poké places that are run by chefs, they are all totally different.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you want to do?
Someone just asked me this the other day. I think I’d be a florist. They smell amazing. Everytime I go to the flower mart Downtown I’m just like ahhh. My tattoo artist, her studio used to be above the flower mart. So I’d go there and it just smelled so amazing. And I love arranging them. Every time we do an event for LA Food & Wine, or whatever it happens to be, I go to the flower mart first thing in the morning, pick up flowers, then I come here, make them all really fun and beautiful and high. It’s a lot like designing a plate. You have to have textures and colors and layers and levels.
Visit one of Sweetfin’s five Los Angeles locations for a taste of their signature and customizable poké bowls, as well as their teas and fresh made taro chips. Is rice not your jam? Sweetfin can also base your poké creation a kelp noodle-cucumber slaw or a citrus-kale salad. Move over, winter. Spring has sprung and it’s brighter than ever. Learn more by visiting their website.