Inside Legacy Hall, no two food stalls are alike. Only the best local chefs have a place there, representing the best cuisine DFW has to offer. There’s one place for burgers; one for pizza and just one place offers customizable sushi in a bowl: FreshFin Poke Co. by Chef Joon Choe.
At 25 years old, Joon is the youngest chef featured at Legacy Hall. His neighbors include celebrities John Tesar and Tiffany Derry, and some of the most celebrated culinary wizards in the area, such as Tida Pichakron and Gianni Santin at Haute Sweets Patisserie and Andrew Chen at Monkey King Noodle. As we talk, some of these other resident chefs stop by to say hello. They’re clearly a tight-knit group, bonded as participants in the grandest foodie experiment Randy DeWitt and Jack Gibbons of FrontBurner Restaurant Group have ever pulled off.
“I had always liked cooking, but I never knew it would become my career,” he says over spicy tuna bowl gilded with roe. “But you come to a point [in your life] where you have to make a decision. I wanted to be uncomfortable. To be successful you have to get out of your comfort zone and take a leap.”
Hungry for a craft-driven career after graduating from Plano Senior High School, he attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
“I didn’t know what cooking really was, or how to work a knife. I’d never left Texas before. It’s seriously at the tip of Upstate New York,” he laughs. Over the next two and a half years at CIA, he “learned everything [he] possibly could” and earned an internship at Jean Georges, a famous French eatery in New York City that overlooks Central Park.
“I lived, studied and ate in Columbus Circle,” Joon recalls. “I crafted everything I needed to learn there.”
There’s certainly no better place than New York City to learn how to eat and how to cook. To put it in perspective, Dallas has no Michelin starred restaurants. As of October 2017, New York City has 56. Joon returned to Dallas a different man.
“People in high school don’t really remember me because I’ve changed so much,” he says. He credits all of it to getting out of his comfort zone. “I’ve changed more in seven years than I could have in a lifetime here just because I left,” he says. “[At CIA] I found myself along with my career.”
Following CIA, he didn’t know what cuisine he wanted to specialize in, but he knew he wanted a restaurant in Dallas, to be near his family in Plano. Joon didn’t want to compete with “the big boys” in burgers or pizza. He liked the swift pace fast-casual restaurants and in particular, loved Chipotle’s build-your-own style and fresh preparation because as he sees it, “People want to choose their own destiny and also their food.”
Joon spent two months in Japan after he graduated culinary school. Right off the bat, he was fascinated with one particular aspect of Japanese food: the fish.
“As soon as I landed, I went to Tsukiji Fish Market and went back every single day. We had an agenda, but I kept going back to the market. It was crazy,” he recalls.
Famously, Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest fish market in the world with street after street of vendors stocking, selling and slicing fresh-caught fish still dripping with saltwater.
“It was the expert level of craftsmanship that I couldn’t get over. Chefs in Japan have a different [way of] thinking toward seafood,” he says. He describes watching fishmongers slice their product into different cuts—“Did you know there are five parts of a tuna?” he says.
While in Dallas California rolls and Philadelphia rolls abound, they are, of course, very Americanized. In fact, the westernization of sushi can be explained in one delicious topping: spicy mayo.
In Japan, Joon didn’t find rice rolled around fish and “slathered in spicy mayo.” There, he discovered the art of pure rice and fish.
“There I learned that the rice is the most important thing,” Joon says. “People are always concerned about fish, but never about rice. Often it’s overcooked or undercooked. So it’s our most important thing. We’ll remake the rice 10 times if it isn’t right.”
It’s no surprise that for his own restaurant, Joon chose to specialize in poke, raw fish salad, served over vegetables and rice. Though today’s modern iteration has evolved over the years, the tradition of poke can be traced centuries back to Hawaiian fishermen who cut raw fish into bite-sized pieces and seasoned it with whatever they had on hand.
“Going to Japan allowed me to bring something different to Dallas,” Joon says. It’s not so different that lovers of spicy mayo will be put off; that’s on the menu along with mango and macadamia nuts. But everything Joon learned about fish and rice in Japan also ends up in the bowl at FreshFin Poke Co.
Once he settled on serving poke, Joon built his menu in a week. In 2016, he subsidized a catering business he’d started and opened FreshFin Poke Co. in Lower Greenville, Dallas.
“I did it in four months,” he says. “We opened with $5,000 in the bank and I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, I hope this works.’” He was just in time. FreshFin Poke Co. opened just as the poke craze rocked the city like a hurricane. Joon’s restaurant turned a profit on its very first day.
Recently, Joon closed the Lower Greenville location, a move he called bittersweet, and has redoubled his focus on Legacy Hall. Every morning, Joon recieves a fresh shipment of fish.
“What comes in the morning is gone by 4 or 5 p.m. and we have a whole new shipment the next day,” he explains. “These days it’s easy to get authentic, fresh ingredients fast. You can order fish from Japan and it’s there for you in the morning. You can get amazing sushi that’s almost identical to what you’d get in Japan but you can serve it and find it here [in Texas].” It’s all a matter of paying attention to the details and making sure everyone on his team knows how to treat their delicate product right.
Even five years ago, FreshFin Poke Co. wouldn’t have been the smash it is today. Joon hit the trend at just the right moment. It was partly luck and partly the wisdom to anticipate that a sushi-loving city would love a similarly healthy, fast-casual concept.
About six months after Joon opened the first FreshFin Poke Co. Frontburner Restaurants called Joon with a proposition. They’d been doing tastings at poke restaurants all over the metroplex and wondered what he’d heard about their upcoming project in Plano, Legacy Hall.
“They had a lot of people on the list for poke because it’s growing so fast,” Joon says. “I wasn’t sure if it was even real at first. But we met and we clicked.”
At FreshFin Poke Co.’s stall, a colorful array of chopped seafood and vegetables preen on display, all of it delivered in the morning and gone by the afternoon. Joon has pared down the menu, offering only its greatest hits like the spicy tuna bowl, the most popular item he sells, and the OG Hawaiian. He’s a common sight behind the counter, overseeing his team as they mix super rice, Yellowfin Tuna, Scottish salmon, seaweed salad, radish and cucumber in bowls, finished with drizzles of creamy black sesame, sesame oil or wasabi mayo.
A lot of the chefs at Legacy Hall are working to expand their brands, already designing other concepts. Though that’s certainly a possibility for FreshFin Poke Co., Joon’s in no rush.
While he loves cooking, he considers himself more than a chef; he’s a “serial entrepreneur.”
“Cooking is not the only thing I do. I just like business. I don’t care if it’s cleaning, distillery, tailoring—it’s all the same process. I love the process,” he says, though he admits that he’ll probably always have a restaurant in his portfolio. Future plans include diving back into catering now that FreshFin Poke Co. is standing strong at Legacy Hall. He is also building a wedding venue, which he and his fiancée will be using this March. As far as business ventures go, he’s keeping his options open.
“I want to make people happy and build with good people. That’s what my mentors do; they curate good people,” he says.
Being in Legacy Hall is a dream come true and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “This is the most prime real estate [in the area] for restaurant owners,” he says when we meet at Legacy Hall. “Nothing better than this. Nothing better in Texas, even. Legacy Hall has given me this connection I never thought I’d have and provided all these resources. It takes years to get here.” He gestures to the hall and his own little piece of it. “I got here in six months.”
Originally published in Plano Profile’s March 2018 issue