by Cheryl Baehr
Hiro Asian Kitchen (1405 Washington Avenue; 314-241-4476) owner Bernie Lee had been dreaming of opening a restaurant on Washington Avenue for years. The cosmopolitan feel of the street, the bustling energy and the neighborhood vibe all made the spot on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Washington Avenue seem like the perfect fit for his vision of a southeast-Asian eatery.
Still, Lee -- a Malaysian ex-patriate -- wondered if he would have to Americanize his food to make Hiro successful. After struggling with what to do with his concept, he sought advice from his biggest culinary influence: his mom.
"I told her that I didn't know what to do, that I wanted to serve authentic cuisine, but that I didn't know if people would appreciate it," Lee recalls. His mom listened, and then asked a pointed question.
"Are you ashamed of your food?" she probed. "Of course not," Lee answered. "Then show them what we do."
Lee was inspired. "I went into Hiro and told my cooks, 'I want you to show me what reminds you of home. Cook what your mom cooks. Cook what your grandma cooks.' If people don't like it, we can always change it, but I was confident that people would respond to our food."
Lee took a break from serving his authentic Malaysian cuisine to share his thoughts on the St. Louis dining scene, his rituals and what's never allowed in his kitchen.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? [That my goal at Hiro Asian Kitchen is] to introduce people to modern, healthy, attractive Asian cuisine.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Walking my dogs in the morning.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Reading people's minds.
What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? Comfort elements.
Who is your St. Louis food crush? La Patisserie Chouquette for sweets.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Togarashi.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? Progressive and innovative.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. MSG.
What is your after work hangout? In the Central West End or wherever my buddies are.
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? Pork belly.
What would be your last meal on earth? Durian.