The son of a diplomat, Chef Ryan Ross spent his childhood in Asia before settling down in Northern Virginia for his teen years. Ross initially trained as a visual artist but fell into the hospitality industry and soon caught the culinary bug—first working as a server and manager and then moving into the kitchen after attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He cooked in Las Vegas for nearly a decade, working for legendary chef Thomas Keller at his Bouchon restaurant and then as a chef at Roy’s Pacific Rim.
A desire to be closer to family in Northern Virginia brought Ross back to the East Coast, and he now brings his artistic sensibilities and lifelong passion for pan-Asian cuisine to Ocean Blue, a new island grill in the Cascades Overlook center in Sterling, where he and owner John Kushner are pursuing a mission to bring unique fresh fish dishes to Loudoun.
Loudoun Now: What brought you to Loudoun and to Ocean Blue?
Ryan Ross: My family first moved to the Great Falls area around 32 years ago from Beijing, China. My father was stationed overseas as an assistant attaché for the China desk with the State Department. I grew up in Beijing and Taiwan. I was born in Hawaii and so ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this love and this passion for pan-Asian, seafood-centric food. So when I heard about Ocean Blue opening up out here, it was a natural draw for me. It was something that was in my heart and soul. I was previously the chef for Roy’s Hawaiian fusion in Las Vegas. The style of cuisine, the concept of this restaurant really grabbed me.
LN: Did you graduate from high school in this area?
RR: I graduated from Langley High School [in McLean]. … I did a lot of theater and visual art. I studied painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. Upon leaving VCU, I tried really hard to get into an industry that is renowned for not being well paid—and that was painting and printmaking. I wasn’t making it so I moved on to a different industry, which had even less pay and that’s hospitality. … I fell in love with this industry—first working the front of the house as a server and a manager—interacting with the guests on a daily basis. Eventually, I got out of the front of the house and moved into the kitchen to try and show off some of that artistic side that I’d grown up with. I fell in love with it—I fell in love with the stress of the kitchen. I fell in love with knives and fire and just being able to express myself through my food.
LN: Tell me more about that nexus between art and cuisine.
RR: It’s a lot more than just putting pretty things on a plate. Number one, you take care of your food. That was the first thing I really learned in the kitchen. I worked for Chef Thomas Keller when I was out in Las Vegas. His book, “The French Laundry Cookbook,” really kind of changed my state of mind. It changed the way I look at food. The passion that he had for each and every single ingredient was eye opening. … And trust me, Chef Keller made that a reality for me by making me clean out his walk-in every single day. It was a tough experience but very eye opening.
From Bouchon at the Venetian, I moved on to Roy’s, which is where I really started to learn to craft food. At the time, we were changing our menu every single day. It was really kind of eye opening as far as how to be a creative person… A lot of what we’re doing now [at Ocean Blue] relied on me to continually come up with new recipes, continually tweak the recipes and make them better and better every single day.
LN: Are there a couple of recipes or dishes that stand out?
RR: Absolutely, our Hawaiian-style poke, one of the shareables on our menu, is something I’m extremely proud of. Poke is just cubed raw fish marinated. I use a very simple recipe—I stole it from a street vendor in Kauai. We use soy sauce, spicy chili-infused sesame oil, salt that’s flown in from Hawaii and Gohan Desuyo, which is a seaweed paste which gives it the mouth-feel, the umami, the touch of sweetness that really showcases the tuna. I’m really proud of that dish. I’m also really proud of our fish selection in general. We pride ourselves on bringing in fresh fish from Hawaii, fresh fish from islands, fresh fish every day. I try to keep it exotic and unique.
LN: Who’s in the kitchen with you?
RR: We have a very small team of dedicated culinarians. While I’m proud of the professionals that I have, I’m also proud of the young guys. I’ve got some kids and they’re 18, 19 years old and they’re learning. They’re like sponges and they come into work and are driven to be better than they were yesterday.
Right now, my leaders in the kitchen are Julio Opazo—he’s a great guy who came to us from Boston. In the sushi bar, we’ve got Taka Monma who’s a former pastry chef. I love watching pastry chefs work because, unlike the hot side, pastry is a science. … And when you’re doing sushi and you’re doing rolls, when you’re dealing with raw fish, that kind of meticulous science is needed not only for excellence in food but also for food safety.
LN: What do you like to cook at home? Are you doing anything special for the holidays?
RR: For me, the best holiday meal is my mom’s cooking—a good holiday ham. … I love my mom’s macaroni and cheese. She makes the best mac and cheese in the world and the secret is macaroni and cheese—nothing else. … I do quite a bit of cooking at home. Nothing too outrageous—a simple seared piece of fish, simple grilled chicken. I save all the extravagant stuff for work.
LN: Do you have any tips for home cooks?
RR: Experiment. Make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to try something new. That’s how I learned and that’s how I teach my cooks these days. You’re going to screw up. You’re going to burn something, but you’re going to learn something at the same time. … Never be afraid to make a mistake because that’s where you learn the lessons.