This is a story of how love taught me to be a better chef.
There are times I think much of the world would like to box me in and believe that I’m a chef only capable of making Asian cuisine, purely based on how I look. It’s the first question I’m usually asked whenever anyone knows of my profession, and I try not to get irritated by it each time. But there’s always a few unknown truths to consider for any chef’s background, and there are a few of my own that just might make folks laugh.
For a long time, I was a Korean American girl who denounced Korean food. I’m still not sure why, but for a good 11 years of my life, my preferences were elsewhere. If we were at a family gathering or a church picnic, the most I ever put on my plate was rice, pork belly, and seaweed.
Also, contrary to popular stories of how people learned to cook in their families, my mother wasn’t the one who taught me a love of cooking. In fact, I came to realize later in my life that she really didn’t like cooking at all! Cooking for her was mainly out of necessity, because my dad worked long hours as a doctor and thus there was a rotation of simple Asian and American dishes throughout the week: pork chops, oven baked chicken, pan-grilled ribeye slices with sesame oil, Kraft mac & cheese, or whatever else was on sale at the supermarket that week which was quick to get ready and serve with rice. This was the normal lineup until my two siblings and I learned how to cook for ourselves, much to my mom’s relief.
The concept of family recipes, particularly grandma’s cooking, was also a mysterious concept to me. Growing up, my grandmother lived across the world in Korea—and though I’m told she was apparently a wonderful cook for my father and his siblings, I never had the experience.
Growing up in New York, you're exposed to many different cultures—this influence expands the boundaries of the food you love. Thus, I really give full credit to helping me find my heart in cooking to "my village.” Truly, my life’s best cooking memories are ones from a great mix of people: my dad, aunt, sister, and our family friends. I really grew up learning and watching from everyone around me. Anyone can learn how to make a dish, but learning how to put love into all of it is how it ultimately becomes yours, and there was much to be observed.
While I didn’t have my own grandparents to learn from, I did have the experience of other people’s grandparents cooking their love into dishes for my friends. This love became familiar and helped me learn, and even taste, what it was to a dish.
"Anyone can learn how to make a dish, but learning how to put love into all of it is how it ultimately becomes yours."
Our family friends’ nana, Mrs. Fata, was the Italian-American grandmother we were blessed to know in our lives. My sister, Kathy’s, version of love for a time was the pasta dishes that we learned to make from her. Not only did she teach her how to make a quick and proper red sauce, she also taught her how oiling and rubbing a clove of garlic into the insides of a bowl was the secret to her famous salad. These loving dishes eventually continued into my sister teaching my brother how to make an omelet, or when she learned how to make a traditional vinaigrette, a pot roast, or chocolate crinkle cookies. Eventually as I got older, when I found myself craving any of these comfort dishes, she just told me: “Make it yourself!” and thus, the lifeline of home cooking was tossed over to me.
Whether it was my best friend’s mother teaching how to make kugel, cabbage rolls, and my first apple pie; or my aunt having all of us kids in the family help dredge piles of kogijeon (meat pancakes) assembly-line style for large family gatherings, it all played a part in building this part of my life.
"There are flavors of food that you just can’t find in a restaurant despite having the same dishes on the menu."
My Dad’s cooking was eventually the reason I found myself connecting to Korean food. After being surrounded by folks in college who equally longed for food from back home, I looked for Korean food around Pittsburgh but nothing tasted like it did at my house. There are many in my family that agree with me that my Dad’s kalbi and bulgogi is their absolute favorite. There is a distinct taste to how my Dad puts together a broth with anchovies or clams and a hint of dashi. His kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) and Japanese-style soy sauce pickles are unlike any other that I’ve had. I’ve tried many times to emulate the same flavors in my own cooking, and I’m still hoping to crack his cooking secrets. I’ll always be grateful for how this helped lay the groundwork for establishing my relationship with not just the food of my culture and family, but the kind of cooking I hoped to teach and produce in my life.
There are flavors of food that you just can’t find in a restaurant despite having the same dishes on the menu. What helps make food special is that it is only served up in the one and only spot of wherever this love and experience exists for someone.
This is truly the part of cooking that just can’t be taught, and one that I implore others to know. It’s why food continues to be one of the greatest teachers. It will always give you the best perspective of what anyone’s version of love looks like in their life, and it’s the powerful, lasting contribution one will always be able to bring to the table.