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Blue Sky All the Way

Chris Thelen

 When Blue Sky Kitchen opened in downtown Augusta in June 2000, it was among the first wave of restaurants, along with Nacho Mama’s and Pizza Joint, to establish itself within a revitalized downtown. With its brightly painted “sky” ceiling and its mix of eclectic Cuban, Asian and American-style offerings, it quickly set itself apart and attracted a loyal following for those interested in comfort food with a twist.

Now 12 years later, the restaurant is still going strong, albeit under new ownership. Downtown restaurateur Sae Shin, who also owns 1102 Bar and Grill and Soy Noodle House, bought Blue Sky Kitchen last summer from original owner Barry Blackston, who wanted to focus more time on family. But while the ownership may have changed, not much else has. For Shin, it was important to keep the same staff and the same feel that has always set Blue Sky apart. “The staff here, the servers, they’re the ones that make Blue Sky,” says Shin. “And I always thought it was a great concept—global cuisine. It had Korean, a little bit of Cuban, everything.”

As an owner, he’s very much hands on. After all, working hard is just part of his mindset. Shin started working in restaurants when he was just 14, cutting and prepping chicken and washing dishes at family friend Madison Woo’s Chinese restaurant in the summer. “When everyone else was partying, I was working,” says Shin, who also helped out at his family’s gas station and convenience store on Fury’s Ferry Road.

The restaurant bug bit when, as a dishwasher at the Radisson on Washington Road, he was first taught how to properly cook a steak on a grill by one of the chefs. “I was always awed about how they seemed so prestigious. That’s what sparked the interest in me,” he says.

Over the next several years, Shin made a point of learning everything he could about the restaurant business, from the ground up. He learned how to serve and bartend and he befriended chefs who could show him their techniques, read books, watched TV and practiced as much as he could at home. When he felt ready, he knew that downtown Augusta, with its unique architecture and diverse groups of people, was where he wanted to be. With a partner, he opened 1102 Bar and Grill in 2004, then six years later, inspired by the noodle houses he saw in Asheville, N.C., he and his wife decided to open Soy Noodle House.

When the opportunity came last summer to purchase Blue Sky, he jumped at it. What makes Blue Sky unique, says Shin, is the eclectic menu, the simple recipes and the great service. Many staff members have been at the restaurant for several years. “When you walk in, you feel comfortable that you have people here who know what they’re doing,” he says.

When Shin reopened Blue Sky, he also brought back dinner service, added a full bar and, together with the staff and customers, came up with new additions to the menu, including a variety of small, tapas-style plates perfect for sharing—such as calamari, pan-seared scallops, Thai-style mussels and portabella mushrooms. New entrees include a dinner filet mignon and the chicken makhani, an Indian-inspired dish served with jasmine rice or naan bread. There’s even talk of bringing back the restaurant’s original “sky” ceiling, which was painted over a few years after Blue Sky opened.

And many popular favorites like Blue Sky’s collection of sandwiches (available at lunch), mashed potatoes and gravy, Korean bulgogi and, of course, the redneck stir-fry remain on the menu. According to Shin, the stir-fry is so popular that one couple comes in and orders it every day—and they even have their own special button at the cashier station for checkout.

Hard work and dedication are also hallmarks of the staff. For example, the weekend before launching the updated menu, Shin and a couple of the managers stayed up until 4:30 a.m. cooking and tasting every single new small plate to make sure it was just right. “I don’t like people to say, ‘Oh, there’s the owner.’ If you ask any of the staff members, I’m not one to sit around and say, ‘Do this, do that.’ I’m on the schedule. I work side by side with the staff.”

A decade ago, Shin remembers feeling a twinge of jealousy when he first saw Blue Sky. “I always wanted a restaurant like that and I thought it was an awesome idea,” he says. “So I was like, someone already took my idea and ran with it. It’s funny, now I own it. And I love it here.”

Redneck Stir-Fry

1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon thyme
2 teaspoon cayenne
¼ stick butter
2 cups lima beans
2 cups black-eyed peas
2 cups corn
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tomato, diced
1/2 onion, diced

If using dry lima beans and black-eyed peas, pre-cook the beans. Frozen vegetables may also be used.

In a pot, sauté the chopped onion with butter, thyme and cayenne until translucent. Fold in vegetables. Fill pot with water to a level that is two inches above the vegetables. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Season to taste. Your choice of protein—such as beef, chicken, fish or shrimp—can be added to the dish if desired.

For the garnish, lightly sauté diced tomato with onion.

Serve over jasmine rice with a side of cornbread.

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