Roberto Romero was a student at Santa Monica College when he got a job as a runner at a Michelin-starred restaurant there. Although he did not enjoy working in the front of house, he was interested in what was happening in the kitchen, and that curiosity led to his career as a chef.
The Mexico City native, who moved to Los Angeles at 16, relocated to New York a year and a half ago and was asked to take on the role of executive chef at Omakaseed, a plant-based sushi bar housed inside NoMad’s vegan bistro Plant Bar.
We spoke to Romero the day before the 8-seat sushi counter opened on May 6. Guests there will be served a 15-course meal, which features items like spaghetti squash nigiri, pulled oyster mushroom salad and potato veloute. “Everything’s very thought out and there’s a lot of details that go into each dish, even if it’s such a little piece of nigiri, there’s a lot of steps,” he explained.
How did your involvement in Omakaseed come about?
The team from SimpleVenue [hospitality group], they have a bunch of sushi shops around the city and other cities as well, they partnered up with the Vegan Warrior Project [plant-based food, technology and marketing organization] and they had already thought about Omakaseed. They found me and it was kind of like the perfect match because that’s really what I was looking for. I moved to New York about a year and a half ago and I was trying to find something that I was really interested in doing and this was it. Then I started working on the menu. We did a bunch of different trials and finally we came down to this menu and now we’re about to open tomorrow.
What is vegan sushi?
I’m very grateful because they gave me the freedom to really make the concept my own with my vision. I’m not trying to really invent anything here; I’m just trying to take how beautiful regular sushi and the Omakaseed sushi experience is and make it plant based by trying to elevate the vegetables to the same level or as close to the level as the regular experience is. That’s the challenging and tricky part, but it’s also the fun part.
So it’s 15 courses?
Yes, there’s four or five courses that are plated dishes that are a mix of Western cooking with Japanese flavors. The rest are all nigiri pieces, that are intended to be more like a vegetable, but full-on Japanese flavor.
What are the best and worst things about your profession?
I would say the best things are you get to interact with customers in a very personal way, even if you’re working in the back-of-the-house kitchen, you’re giving something directly to them. It’s kind of like a sport, every day you go, it’s like a team, you’re going to a game every single day. That’s very rewarding for me. I love food as well. I love eating and trying different cuisines. As a chef, you get to experience it on a different level. The worst would probably be sometimes you have to miss a lot of things, like Mother’s Day or someone’s birthday.
How did you get your start as a chef?
I was going to Santa Monica College and got a job at a restaurant. I was a food runner and I didn’t like it, but I was very curious about the kitchen and that’s when I started looking into how to get myself into the kitchen. It was a little challenging, but I was lucky to find ... well, I didn’t get a job, I had to work for free for a little while at Joe’s Restaurant, which was a one-Michelin star restaurant. And eventually, that evolved into a position and that’s how my career started.
What do you want the experience to be like for customers?
I want everybody who comes in to have an amazing time, a fun time and a memorable time, whether they’re talking to me or to somebody else if I’m not there. And to feel like they’re in a good environment.
Since Mayor Adams is vegan, do you think he’ll be coming to the restaurant?
I had no idea he was vegan, but sure, I like the guy. I didn’t know he was vegan, but now I like him more.