Bun Lai '84 has risen to celebrity chef status with an endlessly inventive sushi restaurant and a message about a better way to nourish humans and the planet.
As the chef/ owner of Miya’s in New Haven, the world’s first sustainable sushi restaurant, Bun has been disrupting the culinary world since before “disruption” was a thing.
He has famously added any number of sustainable ingredients and invasive species to his menu—from Asian shore crabs, lion fish and Kentucky Asian carp to crickets and Japanese knotweed—modeling a more sustainable way for humans and the Earth to co-exist. And Bun harvests invasive critters himself, diving deep into Long Island Sound and foraging the woods near his Woodbridge farm.
Miya’s noninvasive menu features an almost epic array of creative dishes, such as the one Bun was serving on the February day we visited: a special soup in honor of Black History Month featuring 12 spices from the story of the Queen of Sheba, and topped with collard greens.
Bun’s trailblazing has earned him worldwide acclaim (Miya’s has been written about in two dozen languages) and major awards, notably the 2016 White House Champions of Change for Sustainable Seafood. He was also a James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef in 2013, and a film about Miya’s was a finalist for a 2018 James Beard award.
Now after a wild few years that included writing a pilot for television (about hunting for invasive species in the Everglades) and a restaurant-deal offer from a major hotel chain (which did not pan out), Bun is back in the kitchen at Miya’s with a renewed emphasis on the basics: food and family. His longtime chef recently departed, and Bun has taken the opportunity to reconnect with his roots by hopping behind the sushi bar at the restaurant, which he runs alongside his sister, Mie Lai ’91.
“We were on a rocket ship and I just put the brakes on,” Bun explains. “Now that our parents are getting older, I didn’t want to be on that rocket ship and miss out on everything. Just getting back to the fundamentals is reminding me of what’s truly important in life.”