Chef Peter Serpico’s “Learning Korean” Is a Cooking Book, Not a Cookbook

Chef Peter Serpico was born in Seoul and grew up in Maryland. In his first book, “Learning Korean,” Serpico embraces his Korean identity with recipes for family meals achievable by any home cook

Learning Korean Cookbook and Peter Serpico

Simply Recipes / Neal Santos

Though he’s a chef, Peter Serpico’s first cookbook is not a chef cookbook. At least not in the sense that it includes elaborate recipes with five sub-recipes and long lists of ingredients. “Learning Korean” is a book made to get spattered and dog-eared, filled with foundational recipes that today’s home cooks–whatever their backgrounds–can reach for on a harried weeknight or lazy weekend. 

Every page is an embodiment of Serpico’s belief that “the best Korean food is Korean home cooking.” You’ll find recipes for Instant Kimchi, traditional banchan dishes as well as his own takes (Pickled Iceberg Lettuce), and classic Black Bean Noodles. His Broccoli Kimchi is already a must-have in my house, something I can make on a whim and keep around to add to fried rice. 

Korean home cooking is not what Serpico grew up with. Born in Seoul, he was adopted around the age of two, and  his parents raised him and his three siblings in suburban Maryland. As a teen, Serpico worked in a pizzeria; he continued with kitchen jobs, enrolled in Baltimore International College’s culinary program, and grew into his career. It was only once he was established as a chef that Serpico immersed himself in Korean food.  

Anyone who’s reconciled with their identity through embracing foods that felt like home will find a bit of themselves in “Learning Korean,” even though Serpico’s own process of discovery is highly personal. It’s a reminder that food can bridge what might seem to be disparate aspects of our stories: What does it mean to be Korean? What does it mean to be American? What does a family look like? 

The pandemic led to the closure of his restaurant, Serpico, in Philadelphia; now in the same city, the recently opened KPOD serves his take on contemporary Korean American food.

Serpico spoke with me on the phone on a spring morning; he was looking forward to taking his daughter Charlie, 7, to the aquarium later in the day.

Your book has such a family feel, very much about life at home. 
I’ve always pushed for things to not be edited so much—the writing, the recipes, the photos. I wanted everything to be as real as they can be. We didn’t rent a studio space. The studio was my living room and my kitchen. My daughter was involved every day, because she was doing school via Zoom. 

I’m really trying to involve her in Korean food. I wanted to make sure the cookbook was home cooking, and not what a chef would call home cooking. I wanted to make a cooking book, not a cookbook. Something you could reference, use recipes, mark it up—”We like a little more garlic in this recipe, we like a little more spice in this recipe.” I want people to use the recipes for a long time and have them eventually become family recipes. 

I’ve already made five of the recipes and I don’t have access to very many Korean ingredients.Your recipes don’t have a ton of steps, either.
Yeah—I wanted to keep the number of steps down, I wanted to keep the number of ingredients down. The idea was you can go to H Mart or you can go on the internet and get your staple pantry ingredients. A lot of those ingredients are non-perishable. You can stash those in your cabinets or your refrigerator and fill in the blanks with whatever you can get at your local grocery store. 

In the book, you mention how your wife Julie’s family was a big part of your gateway to Korean home cooking.
My wife’s family have taken me in and we have a great relationship. We’re very close. They come by with a minivan full of food or we go to Queens and visit them.

From a spiritual level, most of the book is for my daughter. I’m an adopted Korean. She’s the biggest part of my life. When I was younger, my mom was like, “Don’t you want to meet your birth mom one day?” And I never really wanted to talk about it. I’ve gotten to the point now in my life where I’m 40 and the answer is no, I don’t want to. That’s not what I want to spend my time doing anymore. I want to watch my daughter grow. 

I don’t know how other adopted people feel, but I feel like my daughter is my child. Me and my wife created my daughter together. She’s my blood, you know? I’ve never had that feeling. That’s a huge part of who I am now, and I don’t expect anyone else to understand it. 

For someone who’s curious but largely unfamiliar with Korean cooking, what recipes would you recommend they start with?
The banchan—the small side dishes, just because they can integrate them in their regular meals. I don’t know if you need to sit down at the table and say “This is Korean food.” It can be something as simple as the marinated spinach in a bowl of rice.       

If you had a free day to cook with your daughter, what would you make?
We’d probably go to H Mart and go shopping. Have lunch there. And for dinner? I’d probably make ssam. That’s our go-to, where we just buy lettuce, ssamjang, meats, and whatever vegetables look the nicest. 

It’s all really simple, and that’s what I wanted the cookbook to be. I make this stuff, I have made this stuff for my family. And I don’t have that much time. I don’t think about things ahead of time. A lot of times I’m opening my fridge or opening my freezer and being like, “What am I making right now?”