Mark Dinh likes to say he was literally born into the restaurant industry.
His mother, Dana Shin, was waitressing at Yuan Palace, a Mongolian barbecue restaurant in Centennial, right up until her water broke. In fact, she dropped off an order to a customer and then left to have her baby. “It was meant to be,” Dinh said.
Now 32, Dinh grew up working for his mom at Samurai, an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant in Greenwood Village, which she opened and ran for nearly 10 years. Then he took off for school in 2008 at the Culinary Institute of America in New York before embarking on a career in kitchens in New York and Colorado, most recently at Matsuhisa in Denver.
But a few years ago, Dinh decided he was ready to start drawing up his own menus with Fish On Rice, a private, high-end omakase service, specializing in home dining. It was a choice he made partially because of a desire to be his own boss and partially because of the pandemic’s effect on the restaurant industry.
And it has paid off.
“Sometimes you have to take a chance on yourself,” he said.
Changing course, and courses
After graduating from culinary school in 2011, Dinh stayed in New York to work at well-known restaurants like Le Bernardin and Morimoto.. But he ran out of money in the expensive city and moved back to Colorado, where at age 21, he took a job as a prep chef at Matsuhisa, an acclaimed Japanese restaurant by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, in Vail.
Less than a year later, he became the restaurant’s sous chef and stayed for 2½ years before moving back to Denver to help the restaurant team open its Cherry Creek location in 2016.
“I not only learned how to acquire knife and cooking skills, but I also learned about the respect for the product, determining quality, and doing quantity in a high-quality establishment,” Dinh said. “Matsuhisa also taught me about how to create an experience for someone … . We’re there to make friends. We’re there to make sure people come back not only because of the great food, but also because they know you by name, how you eat, things like that.
“And that’s what I brought to my own business. It’s all about that personal connection, especially when you go to someone’s house,” he added.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, shutting down restaurants around the world, Dinh and the other Matsuhisa employees were furloughed, and he went from working 65 hours a week to zero. To keep himself from going stir crazy, he said, he started making sushi and Japanese fusion dinners for his friends in their homes.
At the same time, Dinh began talking with friends who had moved on to the private or personal chef industry, and it inspired him. So, even after he was able to return to Matsuhisa, he began working on a business plan and menu for Fish on Rice, which he envisioned as a private omakase dining experience in people’s homes. “Omakase” is a Japanese term that translates to “I’ll entrust my meal to you.”
He launched Fish On Rice in January 2021, and by December of that same year, he was busy enough to quit his job at Matsuhisa.
At home in the kitchen
At Fish On Rice, Dinh provides an experience that includes multiple courses of sashimi, tempura, cooked fish, wagyu, sushi and dessert. And unless you like a bit of a surprise, the meal can be designed to accommodate your palate.
Dinh secured his first customers, Jue and Kari Cao, through a friend who was gifting the Caos a sushi dinner.
“The first dinner he cooked for us, it was really a world-class experience,” said Kari Cao. “I would have never done something like this or spent that money on myself, but when you look at the quality of the experience and how it’s a progressive dinner and whole-night event, it really is worth it.
“Every time he’s come, he’s had a different menu,” she added. “He once created a birds’ nest with hash brown-style potatoes turned into a nest, a quail egg on top and scallops underneath.”
“We’ve probably booked him every two months since then,” added Jue, who said they had to reserve a spot four months in advance for a dinner in February.
Last year, Dinh said he cooked around 200 dinners and is now doing three to four each week on average.
Typical dinners consist of a two-hour, 10-course meal costing an average of $185 per person (or $225 per person with drink pairings). But sometimes clients have a special request for a pricier menu item. For Jue’s birthday, for instance, Dinh served a rare cut of Olive Wagyu, a top-quality steak from Japanese cows that are fed toasted olive peels. (A 16-ounce ribeye of Olive Wagyu can cost $350.)
“Initially, people are hesitant about spending $200 on a meal per person, and then afterward they’re already ready for the next dinner,” Kari said.
Dinh’s menus change seasonally, but usually focus on quality fish and seafood that he sources directly from Maine. He likes to say he has three acts throughout his dinners. The first act is often four sashimi dishes; the second is nigiri sushi with up to 10 pieces; and the third act is hot dishes, which are plays on American classics using Japanese ingredients.
Once he figures out a client’s taste, he adds some more personalized items throughout the meal. Jue’s favorite is Toro, the underbelly cut of tuna.
“When you do private cheffing, you actually omit the most expensive thing about a restaurant, and that’s the rent, so I’m able to offer more quality items and a larger quantity of it, too,” Dinh said.
One of his most popular dishes is a chicken and waffle karaage, a chicken thigh marinated in soy, chilies and garlic overnight, breaded inside of a Belgian waffle and topped with chili oil, maple syrup and crème fraiche. How did he come up with that dish? “Some doctors, after drinking a bunch of sake, asked me to make them chicken and waffles,” Dinh said. “I like when people give me a challenge.”
He also likes to play around with recipes from his mom, a South Korean native who moved here when she was 16. Dinh took his mom’s kimchi recipe and made a kimchi tomato soup with grilled cheese for a play on an American classic.
A family meal
A part of sharing himself with his clients is bringing homemade desserts from his mom. Like her son, Shin decided to pursue her passion during the pandemic and take up baking. She’s self-taught, but her creations are intricate and have influences from around the world. She makes Langues de Chat, or French cookies called cat tongues, green tea tiramisu, cake pops, a crème brulee donut, mochi ice cream and flavorful layered cheesecakes.
“I spent most of my life working in restaurants, and didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Mark growing up, which I always felt guilty about, but working with him finally gives me the time to talk and laugh with him like I always wanted,” Shin said.
Although Dinh loves the blank canvas, confidence and human connection that private cheffing provides, he does have a dream to return to his restaurant birthright in the future, but on his own terms. His goal is to open a bakery for his mom with a speakeasy omakase restaurant in the back, so they both can pursue their passions side by side.
“My mom will be taking reservations, so you have to be nice to her,” Dinh joked.