How was the Korean Food Competition at the CIA?
You know, it really was fun and inspiring. I would say that non-Korean cooks typically utilize Korean flavors and ingredients and they didn't just utilize it, they embraced it, to enhance the food that they liked cooking. So it wasn't like they got a bunch of Korean ingredients and they created a dish. What they did was they made a dish that they're very proud of and part of who they are, then they cooked their dish by adding Korean ingredients. So I thought in that regard these students, took to heart what this contest was about because the contest wasn't about cooking Korean food or trying to highlight Korean ingredients. The contest was really to see how Korean ingredients can be used by non-Koreans cooking whatever food that they like to cook whether it be Southern cuisine, or Irish pub cuisine -- which ended up winning. But you know, these kids come from all different cultures. The United States is full of so many different cultures and so many ethnic cuisines that it was enlightening to see, to feel, to experience these Korean ingredients that we only know as Korean food ingredients but for them to use it in their own cuisine.
When you fuse two cuisines together that does not make fusion cuisine. It has to become better than the traditional authentic cuisine and that's the only way that the cuisines benefit. I really did expect the cooking to be a mix between Korean food and American food or Korean food and whatever their culture is, their ethnicity. But it really wasn't that sort of 50-50 fusion. They were cooking the food that they felt comfortable cooking and they picked one or two or even three Korean ingredients that really enhanced that dish. So I thought that was very secure. These aren't professional Chefs, these aren't even cooks. They're students and to be secure enough with their cooking skills to not really be overcome by these Korean ingredients but actually be comfortable to cook their cuisine and choosing the right creative ingredients to make that dish better -- I thought that was very smart, very intelligent and very thoughtful of all the contestants.
Could you provide any tips on using Korean ingredients?
I think that is just so very personal and there's no real way to go about it except trial and error. Even for such a popular ingredient as Gochujang. There are -- even amongst Koreans there's a degree of how much people like to use in even the traditional Korean dishes. The only thing that I can say is buy Korean ingredients and taste then. Taste an ingredient on its own, then try cooking with it. And you know, it really is just trial and error. If we can make these ingredients popular enough to where it's easily accessible to home cooks, I think that's the only thing that we can do to promote Korean cuisine. It really is up to the individual to buy it, taste it, and see how much they would like to put in their cooking.
What ingredients do you like to use?
I love Gochujang. I also love doenjang, ganjang, sesame oil, and gochugaru:. I think these ingredients are the foundation of Korean cuisine. I think Gochujang, doenjang and ganjang are the mother sauces of Korea because most of Korean dishes have one or more than one of these ingredients in it. I also love Sesame oil, it has a nutty flavor that really does balance and neutralize the saltiness when it comes to fermentation. I could go on and on.
Your restaurants are very well known for using sustainable, local, organic ingredients. Why is that important to you and then ultimately why is it important to your customers?
It's my personal philosophy. I do feel like as Chefs we learn how to cook delicious food and that's a given but ultimately to get to the next level I think we need to push ourselves. I know I can cook delicious food and people expect that. I feel like I get more pride and joy cooking food that's not only delicious, but healthy for my customers, as well as being socially responsible. You know, because we are citizens of this Earth we should do any little thing that we can do to make life healthier. As a chef I can make revisions to my ingredients to be more responsible in protecting the environment and also more responsible for my customers. I would say on any given evening more than 33 percent of my customers are regulars. So not only are they just paying customers but they are part of my little community, my neighborhood. They're my neighbors that I see quite often and it makes me feel good knowing that I do care about their health just as I care about my health, my family's health because I eat the food that I cook and so does my family.
Overall being a chef is such a rewarding profession. You do put smiles on people's faces but I think we can do more. I think not only can we please people, I think we can help people to become healthier and you can really help this Earth to become better by being responsible in what we buy and how we buy it.
Recently, you were quoted as saying you’ve given up on expecting that "all line cooks will be able to season correctly," how has professional cooking has changed since you started cooking?
I have given up expecting all of my line cooks, to be able to season correctly. Ten years ago when I was cooking on the line, every single line cook was extremely competent and we had to be. We had to know how to cook. But these days I would say when I have five line cooks on the line I feel lucky if I have two of them who are very good cooks. Now I have three who are very good cooks and I feel so lucky. That's where the restaurant industry is at. We don't have very good line cooks anymore because this industry has always been underpaying and the work is hard and demanding. When I was a line cook, I was underpaid too, but I did it, because for me, it was education. Being a line cook was learning how to cook. Line cooks aren’t Chefs, that happens later. When you are learning you are gaining experience, as a Chef you are paid for your experience, there is a big difference. A lot of different things have changed in the last 10 years. I think the tuition at Culinary schools is too expensive. I also think we're attracting the wrong students, because of a lot of these TV shows about being a Chef, they don't depict how hard being a line cook is. TV shows the Hollywood side, where chefs are cooking in button down shirts with their sleeves rolled up wearing nice $500 shoes. That really isn't what this industry is and to get there, people don't realize it takes 10-20 years. We see Bobby Flay on TV, but he was a line cook for a very, very long time, he was a real chef at a restaurant for a very long time. So he worked 15-20 years to get to the point where he is. But people don't get told that.
How do we change the industry and the perception of the industry in order to retain cooks to get them to the point where they can be chefs?
I think paying better is the first step. For me the reason I wanted to cook, why I changed professions and did what I did was because I was inspired. Cooking for people and making people happy, made me happy. I love cooking for other people and I love making people happy with my food. When you're a line cook and you have to have that state of mind, that it really isn't about the money. Ultimately yes, money is important but that's something that you have to start earning after you learn how to cook, after you are a line cook. Once you learn how to cook, you can set up your own business become a Chef of a restaurant or a hotel or maybe you end up working on a TV show or at a hotel. I feel that the inspiration, the reason why you decide to be a cook is so important and the foundation of becoming a professional cook has to be stressed a little bit more.
With having two restaurants, a family, and increasing responsibilities, how do you find the inspiration to be creative?
I don't think I've ever tried to be creative. I think I've been fortunate because I am a Korean Chef who decided to cook Korean food, I really feel like I'm a messenger. Every time I go to Korea I do get inspired. I taste dishes for the first time that I want to share with New Yorkers. There are dishes that technically give me inspiration to make me create another dish. Whenever a chef gets inspired by something the creativity just happens automatically. All you need is just one flavor or one garnish and a dish. Just one thing that it's your first time tasting it and you love the flavor and you want to highlight it, make it glow, create dishes that highlight this one flavor. When I cook a foreign cuisine, it's easy to be inspired. I don't live in Korea, but every time I go to Korea I always learn something new. I always taste new dishes so I feel fortunate, very lucky that I'm cooking this cuisine. Cooking is a learning process, it's still new.
What is your favorite food to eat?
I really like Hamheung Naengmyun. It is a North Korean style spicy cold sweet potato noodle dish that contains raw marinated skate. I can never have enough of this dish and try to have it at least once a week in New York/New Jersey. Whenever I visit Korea my first lunch is usually this dish.
What is your favorite meal or dish that you've created in your restaurants for customers?
One of the dishes that I am most proud of is Danji’s Crispy Tofu with Ginger and Scallion Dressing. Tofu doesn't have a lot of flavor, it's both delicious and an acquired taste and it takes a while to be able to have somebody enjoy tofu. What I did was play off the textures of tofu. So we sort of have this tofu dish that's crispy on the outside. We use a very soft tofu that makes it creamy in the middle and in between there's sort of like a mochi texture that happens because of the starch on the outside that makes it crispy and moisture of the tofu that sort of comes together and becomes like a rice cake or mochi texture. So you have this tofu that has three distinct textures which is crispy, sort of mozzarella cheese like and very creamy in the middle and we dress it with a traditional Korean dressing which is soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar and a little bit of ginger. This is a very dynamic tofu dish with very Korean flavors and my servers always recommend it. And what they say is even if you don't like tofu order it because if you don't like it you don't have to pay for it. And we have made so many people tofu lovers with it. So that's one of the dishes that I am proud of because I actually don't like tofu that much so I needed to create this incredible dish that showcased tofu to win me over and for me to have the confidence to win my diners over because if they don't like that dish they're not going to have any faith in anything else that I cook because that tofu dish is also one of the first dishes that come out. But, you know, it is something where I believe it would be very difficult not to like because you have the texture, you have the traditional Korean flavors and we've been very successful with that dish.
What do you think about your role as a Chef, and also being known as a celebrity chef?
I feel like I've grown. When I was a line cook I never expected to be able to open my own restaurant and cook my own cuisine. That was always the goal but I could not picture it. When that was happening -- when I opened Danji, I was in the restaurant every day the restaurant opened. The restaurant could not open without me being there and I couldn't imagine me allowing somebody else to be the chef of my restaurant. But then I had this urge to open another restaurant with a bigger kitchen so I could cook dishes that I couldn't cook in my small kitchen at Danji. So I had to hire a chef who could cook my food when I wasn't there and that was a big step giving up my control. And while I did that I actually had to hire a chef to help at Hanjan as well because you can never be a chef unless you're there 95 percent of the time and since I was splitting my time half and half I had to have two independent chefs. And all of this I never thought that I would do, but I ended up having to do because you mature, you grow into certain things, certain conditions.
I never expected to be a celebrity Chef, I never expected to be on TV. I am overweight, I am short, I don't dress well. I don't take care of my skin. I don't think I am very attractive on TV. I'm not Bobby Flay, I'm not these TV chefs but the opportunity arose where I could go to Korea and teach amateurs how to cook on TV while myself learning Korean ingredients, Korean dishes in Korea. So I took advantage of that opportunity and I became the Chef judge at Master Chef Korea and it was a great opportunity. I learned so much. And so I ended up becoming a celebrity chef suddenly. None of it was planned. None of it I expected.
When you work hard and you're happy at what you do I think you can create opportunities. I am actually just finishing up writing a book I never thought I could be an author. When you work hard and you are passionate about what you do, people see you as somebody who has a story to tell, so you share your experiences that might inspire other people. I am very fortunate to be in a position like this, but I did not think, expect or even aspire to be in a position like this. It just happened very organically.
What would you advise for the people aspiring to become chefs?
My advice is very simple; to be a sponge to knowledge because. When you are cooking in a kitchen, there is just so much information. There is all of these ingredients, worldwide ingredients. Twenty years ago you couldn't get Japanese ingredients, Korean ingredients, Middle Eastern ingredients -- because the transportation wasn't as good as it is today. Now, especially in New York, we get ingredients from all over the world so the knowledge that we must have of not just our local ingredients but spices, sauces, fruits and vegetables from all over the world, is immense. There is so much to learn, that you could be a sponge from when you decide you want to cook until the end. I am still so open to learning new ingredients and new techniques from my line cooks because all my line cooks have different backgrounds. I cooked at French kitchen and a Japanese kitchen but I never cooked at an Italian kitchen and I've never cooked at a Mexican kitchen, but I have line cooks who have and so I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I learn from my dishwashers who have been in the New York restaurant scene for 40 years. So if I can learn from people every day as a Chef, as a student you need to be just a sponge to all the information that is flying around you in a kitchen.
When you do become a chef you don't have as much time to learn, to absorb all that information because you are leading, because you are teaching, because you're in the office, because you're promoting, because you’re speaking to the customers. So the amount of information that you can absorb as a Chef becomes very limited time-wise, but as a line cook it's the only chance, the only time that you can absorb all the information, because that's what's going to make you a chef. If you end up becoming a chef a little too early without learning as much as possible, that's a big loss because your opportunity to absorb all that information actually does decrease as you become a Chef.
What are your new projects for 2016?
I am going to Korea again in January to judge Master Chef Korea season four, My book will be released in the fall and I am working on another restaurant that hopefully can open before the end of next year.
The restaurant is still in a very early stage but I'm actually very excited.
There are many Korean restaurants in Korea Town in New York, especially the popular BBQ style, and they are all similar in a lot of ways and I feel it is time to open up -- or to upgrade Korea Town. Where it's not about these restaurants that are loud, the service is bad, the harsh lights -- nobody goes to a Korea Town restaurant in New York and talks about a great experience outside of the food itself. I do feel like Korea Town in New York has to get better to progress, to take the next step where there should be one or more restaurants that you can take your parents to, where we do use artisanal product, where we can tell you that the barbecue pork that you're grilling, which farm that it came from and that it has never had antibiotics or growth hormones injected into it. And to be really proud of these ingredients that we serve in Korean cuisine and that's the project that I'm working on. That's how it is in Korea. If you go to Korea the higher end restaurants, it's all about the ingredients. It really isn't about the decor or the service, it really -- people go to these great Korean restaurants because the ingredients shine and I want that same experience in Korea Town.