It’s impossible not to be drawn toward Sapporo in Scottsdale. The fire outside beckons you in, and the tasty sushi inside keeps you coming back. Executive chef Stephen Stromberg is at the helm in the kitchen, shaking up menus twice a year with innovative bites such as the Scottsdale roll, with crab, avocado, spicy scallops, and kaiware; and the Diamondback, with salmon, crab mix and sauteed onions, topped with shrimp.
While diners can expect classic favorites such as tempura, Stromberg’s a health-conscious chef who strives to integrate as much fresh produce as possible into his offerings. The 39-year-old Phoenix resident is a vegan and a triathlete, and worked as an executive chef in Boulder before working at the Valley’s Roy’s, Latitude 30, Pure, and Radio Milano. He’s now been at Sapporo for more than three years, with the restaurant going strong and open for more than 12 years. Check out his special holiday menu the weekend before New Year’s Eve, and read on for Stromberg’s plans in the Valley’s dining scene. Keep scrolling to watch him say his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and my immediate family moved to Colorado when I was 11. I’ve been in the Valley for almost 15 years. My dad had moved out here, and I had come a couple times to visit and liked it. When I came in 1998, I was young and wanted to try it for a year or two – now here I am almost 15 years later.
What’s your first memory of being interested in being a chef?
Working with my mother in the kitchen, helping make pork chop dinner. I was maybe 11 or 12. That was the first real meal I tried making on my own. The first time, I overcooked them dry, and probably over-seasoned them, but I learned quickly.
What got you interested in wanting to be a chef?
The creative factor and experimenting with food. I became involved in the industry when I was in high school – I was everything from a dishwasher, to a prep guy, to a line cook. When I was going to college, I met an executive chef in Boulder I befriended, and he took me on as his apprentice. I decided to leave school and pursue being a chef.
What got you interested in Asian cuisine?
When I was doing my apprenticeship, I was experimenting with a lot of Asian cuisine, from Chinese, to Japanese, to Thai, to Vietnamese. When I moved to Phoenix and started at Roy’s, a Hawaiian fusion restaurant, the menu changed every day. About halfway during my time there, we implemented a sushi program, and I was able to learn a ton from our sushi chef.
As a triathlete, what kind of diet would you recommend to other people involved with the sport?
Eating as healthy as you can is important. The vegetarian and vegan diet has been great for me because I feel the cleanest and healthiest and best able to perform – not just in triathlons, but day-to-day working.
Being a chef takes a lot of work. You’re on your feet, you’re moving around a lot in a hot kitchen, and feeling energized is important. For me, a lot of fruits and vegetables is the key. You can have lean meats, but a focus on produce is the best.
What’s your favorite current item on the menu?
My favorite item is the crispy duck and kale salad. I eat it without the duck, and it’s an awesome dish, with baby kale, fresh fennel, red peppers, aged parmesan cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds, and a mango vinaigrette, which is super-light and refreshing.
What are your favorite and least favorite ingredients?
It’s tough to say I have a least favorite ingredient. I try to stay away from a lot of fat, butter and stuff that’s heavy. In moderation, everything has its place, but for me, the most fun is trying to incorporate the most produce as I can and make it appealing to our guests.
I love making vegetables fun and taste good. My favorite vegetable of the moment depends on what’s fresh in the season.
What’s the best ingredient to buy at an Arizona farmers market?
Tomatoes are always a good choice, as well as peppers. Those are vegetables you can probably get year-round and are ingredients that can be used in diverse ways.
What are your goals?
My goal is to make every guest who comes into Sapporo happy. I want my menus to be well-received and for people to really enjoy them. We have so many menus here, from teppanyaki to sushi, there’s something for everybody.
I love working with Asian food because there’s so much versatility. I love being here. Being an executive chef is a lot of hard work, but so is owning a restaurant. It’s a really hard thing to run your own restaurant, and when I get older I’ll dive in, but for now, I’m having fun here.
How would you characterize yourself in the kitchen?
If you would have asked me that a few years ago, I was definitely on the Gordon Ramsay side of things. When I was in my mid- to late ‘20s, I was a screamer. The older you get, the more you realize it doesn’t get you anywhere. Your staff gets frustrated, you get frustrated, and life is too short.
I’m pretty calm and collected. Stuff happens, and the kitchen is crazy, but if you deal with mistakes and issues calmly and respectfully, you get a lot better outcome.
Do you regret not going to culinary school?
I really don’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with really great chefs. I know some places won’t even consider you if you don’t have that degree, but I have been in kitchens for more than 20 years.
The route I went is the minority, but I’ve seen a lot of people come out of culinary school who don’t have what it takes, and I’ve seen a lot of people who didn’t go to culinary school who are amazing. There’s no right or wrong answer – I think getting that training and degree is probably the best way to go, though.
For someone who has never tried sushi, what’s a good starter roll you’d recommend?
I usually offer the rolls that contain only cooked ingredients, especially for those who are intimidated by raw fish. The Tootsie roll is a great choice, and it has a sweet flavor profile to it. Or the Las Vegas roll — tempura fried always appeals to first-timers.
How would you characterize the Arizona dining scene?
There’s a heavy influence on Spanish and Asian cuisines, with a balanced mix of chains and independent restaurants. It’s great to see so many local chefs and unique concepts flourish the last several years in the Valley. Although we do have our fair share of chain concepts, I feel we still have so many great mom-and-pop choices. There are so many other choices out there, if you’re willing to look and go out of your comfort zone.