words and images: Marla Cantrell
Yu “David” Sun radiates happiness, his face glowing in the light that streams through the windows of Smile Bull, the Asian cuisine and sushi restaurant he owns with his wife Virginia, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It’s Saturday, late-morning, and those in the mood for an early lunch are trickling in. David greets his customers—he’s been here since before daybreak—and heads back to the kitchen.
Not long after, David returns, his arms loaded with white platters, and he sets them down on a long table in the middle of the dining room. The food smells wonderful but more than that the plates look like small works of art. On each dish, David has created small sculptures from fruits and vegetables: white geese with their wings aloft, a purple lotus flower, two green crabs, a pair of orange butterflies landing, a couple of rosy bunnies, a dozen roses in varying colors.
He watches as those gathered around ooh and aah over the edible sculptures, peering across their plates in delight. This is what he lives for, that moment when what he does surprises those he feeds. David sees food as the greatest offering, and he feels a rush each time someone new tries his cooking.
As far as David knows, there’s no other restaurateur in the area who carves radishes to look like roses or onions to look like lotus flowers, or tiny tomatoes to resemble bunnies. His orange sculpture uses an entire orange, cut in two; the top half spiraled to look like the fanciest rose you’ve ever seen. At the center is a maraschino cherry, as red as Rudolph’s famous nose. While the orange-turned-rose is extraordinary to look at, it takes him only a minute to create.
The secret to such a quick turnaround? David says he’s had years of practice.
His love for all-things-food came early, when he lived in South China and worked in the family restaurant. At nineteen, David made the decision to come to America, ending up in California, where he landed a job as a cook.
“I was looking for a better life,” David says, a statement heard over and over from those who find the USA a whirlwind of possibility. In the San Diego area, he says he blossomed, but something was still missing. He wanted to experience the year’s four seasons. To wake up on a cold morning to find snow on the ground, to see autumn turn mountains scarlet and gold and magenta. To see the flowers of spring pirouette across a country field.
In Arkansas, he found it all.
When he opened Smile Bull several months ago, he wanted to offer something Fort Smith hadn’t yet seen. It took commitment; David is the only cook at the moment, and his days are long, often sixteen hours. Out back, he has an herb garden and tending it is one of his favorite stress relievers. In the kitchen, he orchestrates a cacophony of sounds as skillets sizzle and knives clank and voices rise just above the clatter.
As much as he loves his time at the stove, it’s his trips to the dining room that make him the happiest. Customers almost always stop to take a photo of their plate before they dig in. Kids clap their hands at the sight of the cucumber crabs or snow-white geese made from daikon. If kids could cook, David thinks, they would always add a portion of whimsy to their plates.
“Customers tell me the food is too pretty to eat or that they’re in awe of it or that it’s beautiful,” David says.
But David’s success runs deeper than his ability to create beauty. His food is delicious. He makes everything from scratch, including the noodles he can fashion into woven baskets to hold many of the entrees. As for the table he set earlier, the guests are still working their way through the array of dishes. The BBQ Spare Ribs have disappeared. The Jalapeno Steak, served in a bowl fashioned out of rice and potatoes is nearly half gone, as is the Rainbow Sushi Roll. The General Tso’s Chicken has been obliterated, as have the Sweet and Sour Shrimp and Grilled Lime Pepper Steak. Those around the table push their plates away and then reconsider, forgetting diets, taking another portion from the food that’s left.
David crosses his arms across his chest and watches. He looks benevolent, as if he’s just given away something dear to his heart. As the compliments continue, he smiles wide. There is a gap between two of his teeth, a tattoo that shows, just barely, in the open neck of his shirt. His wife Virginia stands beside him, a full head shorter than David, and he wraps his arm around her slender shoulder.
The Suns are the proud parents of a baby girl, born just a few months ago. At birth, she weighed more than eleven pounds, a fact that still amazes him. When he talks about his daughter, he considers what her life will be like when she grows up. While the idea of her as an adult seems far away, he does speculate on what she’ll do. “She could be a lawyer,” he says. “Or a doctor.”
Or maybe a cook? Only if that’s what she loves.
Asked what he’d do if he didn’t cook, David stalls, the answer an impossibility for him. His life began in South China, surrounded by a family who cooked for a living. At forty-five, he can’t imagine another path, a different outcome. He returns to the idea that serving food to others is an extraordinary gift. He is happy that he gets to do it. The customers who return again and again have become friends. For a man who spends so much time at work, this is another gift. Friendship in the workplace.
David watches as another group of people walks through the door. He waves and says hello. “We’ve wanted to stop by for a long time,” one of the women says, and David answers, “You’re going to love it!”
All the way to the kitchen, you can hear David humming, the tune unfamiliar but beautiful just the same. Soon, sounds from the kitchen sing into the dining room. Customers pick up forks and chopsticks. Outside, traffic rushes down Rogers Avenue, drivers anxious to be somewhere else. But here, inside Smile Bull, there is laughter and small conversations, and so much good food no one seems to be in a hurry to leave.
(Pier 91 Shopping Center)
9009 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas
Hours: 7 days a week, 10:30am – 9pm | Open Christmas Day