Chef and owner at Mokbar
Why did you become a chef?
At first it was not intentional. I grew up cooking with my grandmother, and food was a big part of my life and connection with Korean culture. But I went to culinary school because I knew I wanted to work in food, but not necessarily become a chef. The love affair came when I worked in my first kitchen; it was like love at first sight. I felt deeply connected with restaurant kitchens and decided that it was my destiny. It makes sense because I have been working in restaurants since I was 14, but mostly in the front of house. I have been in love with food and restaurants my whole life and it just took me a while to realize it.
Who’s your culinary hero and why?
My culinary hero would be my grandmother. It may sound cliche but where I grew up in South Jersey, we were deprived of Korean culture so my grandmother did all the cooking. My family emigrated from Korea so my parents were very busy working all the time to support us. My grandparents watched after my siblings and me, much of which was cooking. My grandmother was such a wonderful and intense cook who would grow her own Korean vegetables because they were not available here. She was so resourceful and I could really feel the love she put into the food she made for our family. She taught me how food is connected with expressing love, her philosophy on cooking and food is really something that I embrace.
Favorite pizza place in NYC?
Definitely Bleecker Street pizza. It's that quintessential New York pizza slice that is better the later [it is in] the night. It's that cheap slice of pizza that you crave when you are away from New York. I have fond memories associated with this pizza joint, after long nights of working service (or drinking).
Do you think female chefs face different obstacles than male chefs?
For sure. I would say the first thing is because it is so physically demanding. Of course it won't be the same for a 200 pound dude vs. a 105-pound girl (me). But women have something in the kitchen that a lot of men lack. Knowing what that skill is will differentiate between someone who will stay in kitchen and become a chef, or not. Another thing is that being a chef requires a very demanding schedule and lifestyle. When many women chefs become older it is natural to have a family and when that happens it becomes difficult to meet the demands of kitchen life. I think this is something that many women chefs struggle with and eventually end up leaving the kitchen. Not because they lack skills but because of the lifestyle choice they decide to make.
Favorite restaurant to go to with friends?
I love going to Korean barbecue. It sounds obvious because I am Korean but I really can never get enough of Korean food. Usually I am playing hostess amongst friends and the best place to go with a group of people to have fun and good food is K-town. It's like my second home.
What’s your dream culinary project?
To create a Korean farm and restaurant. The idea is to have something like Blue Hill at Stone Barns Farm, but all Korean. Not only to grow whatever I want and cook with it, but I want to create something that is reminiscent of Korean history. To use techniques from thousands of years ago, and educate people about Korean culture and history here in New York would be like a dream.
Favorite music to cook to?
I really love any music, but if I had to pick one it would be jazz. Jazz reminds me of what my brain is like when I'm cooking. I like to be adventurous and in the moment, creating whatever comes to mind.
What most inspires you as a chef?
The desire to inspire others. Because food really is about people. Being a chef is not just about cooking, it's how you deliver your cooking to others. My desire to inspire others will never change and it will always excite my spirit.