German Sega Roka Akor 7299 North Scottsdale Road www.rokaakor.com
This is part one of our interview with German Sega, the newly appointed executive chef of Roka Akor in Scottsdale. Today, he dishes about the long road from culinary school to the restaurant's charcoal robata grill, with pit stops along the way at Old Town's Kazbar and Nobuo Fukuda's kitchen at Sea Saw. Don't forget to come back tomorrow when Sega explains the methodology behind extravagant, multi-course omakase dinners and how he makes fresh Japanese food happen in the middle of the desert.
If you've been dining out in the Valley during the past decade or so, you've probably eaten someplace where chef German Sega has worked. Since graduating from Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1993, he's bounced around some of Phoenix and Scottsdale's top restaurants, working with notable names including chef Nobuo Fukuda and Gio Osso.
Immediately after graduating from culinary school, Sega says, he just didn't want to cook -- blame it perhaps on the rigor of the 18-month program. So instead he went to work at a wine shop, to pursue his dream of becoming a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine. He was well on his way when he hit a bump in the form of the Certified Wine Educator exam (there was a misunderstanding about the date of a test) and the mishap caused him to re-evaluate the plan altogether. He ended up setting down a different path.
That path began with his employment at Kazimierz World Wine Bar. He helped open the Old Town Scottsdale bar and worked as a sort of do-it-all employee, getting practice at everything from bartending to serving over the years. As time went by, he became increasingly involved with the wine program, gaining trust with his employer, Peter Kasperski.
"It was a beautiful relationship we had," he says of his time working with Kasperski.
So, naturally, when Kasperski wanted to expand his empire to include a Japanese eatery, he sent Sega next door to help. Sega spent his nights bartending at Kazbar and days prepping and helping get the new restaurant, Sea Saw, under James Beard Award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda, going. The restaurant became well known for its small plates and impressive, wine-paired omakase menus and it was during this time that Sega learned the basic knowledge he uses to create similar dining experiences at Roka today.
And when Kasperski headed up north to open Star Spangled Tavern and Baroque lux lounge, Sega went too, taking the role of conceptual chef for the Champagne-centric, upscale Baroque. Eventually, Kasperski would pull out of both ventures to focus his attentions on the Scottsdale Waterfront (a large-scale project that ended up falling through) leaving Sega "marooned" at the notoriously hard-to-pull-off DC Ranch location. From there he landed at Luc's, another ill-fated fine-dining restaurant, this time at the El Pedregal shopping center. Within the first four weeks, the 29-year-old Sega found himself promoted from line cook to executive chef. Looking back, Sega says he probably was still a bit green for the position -- though that's not what he says did the restaurant in.
"Luc's sucks," Sega recites easily from memory, quoting a harsh restaurant review he credits for "tanking" the "ahead of its time" Luc's. Before long, he was looking for another job.
Things wouldn't be entirely smooth from there on out, it was after Luc's that Sega began his career with Roka Akor. He worked for four years under chef Bjoern Weissgerber, but Sega says the two didn't really click -- so he left.
He went first to Scramble, as a consultant for the breakfast spot in North Phoenix. But he wasn't a fan of waking up at midnight to sling eggs at 5 a.m. (though he still says he's known for his breakfast-making skills) and moved eventually to the Estate House, where he worked with Gio Osso, now behind the wheel at Virtu in Old Town.
It was while he was working (happily, he might add) at Estate House, that Roka Akor corporate chef Ce Bian called asking him to interview for a position. In 2000, he returned to Roka Akor, this time under executive chef Jason Alford as a line cook. For the next three years, the two friends worked closely and Sega steadily climbed the kitchen ranks until finally, when Alford left to help open a new Roka Akor location, Sega stepped back into an executive chef position.
And this time, he says he truly was ready.
"You're either a lifer, or your not," Sega says of his long journey.
Five words to describe you: Passionate, devoted, obsessive, meticulous, ambitious
One thing most people don't know about you: I love the opera and classical music.
The last thing you read, watched, and/or listened to: Can't really say -- I don't get a lot of free time -- but I think it was The Hobbit.
One food you can't live without: Cheese, cheese, cheese, and more cheese.
Most overrated ingredient: There are so many out there nowadays, but I would have to say pork belly. We even offer one at Roka Akor and it's great.
Favorite drink and where you get it: Just a cold beer and my living room.
Favorite meal to cook and why: Chicken and rice soup. I am fanatical about a great chicken stock, and this soup just makes my "life" smile while making it and the next day when I have it.
What's a "foodie"?: Foodie is just a nice word for fatty (just kidding), I really wouldn't even know where to start with that one. Is there a certification needed for this title?
Name a trend or restaurant practice you hate: At the risk of offending a lot folks out there, I'll keep that to myself -- you know who you are.
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Describe Phoenix as a restaurant town: Sophomoric, at best, but it's getting better and better. Like a really good friend of mine says, "We'll change the world one cocktail at a time." (Say this to yourself in a Scottish accent. It's actually quite inspiring.) Thank you, Ross.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: