Famous chef and wife talks the struggles of Korean food in U.S., new TV series

By Jocelyn Noveck
The Associated Press

Banchan and rice from a restaurant in Seoul. (Photo by Taylor and Ayumi on Flickr)

WACCABUC, N.Y. (AP) — “Try it. Go ahead, stick your finger in!”

The dollop of spicy hot pepper paste is hard to turn down, coming as it does from the blender of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the best-known chefs in the world, not to mention the owner of 31 restaurants and the man known for basically revolutionizing fine dining in New York.

And we’re in his own home kitchen. So the pinky-finger slurp is gratefully accepted. “Full flavor, no?” he asks. That’s an understatement.

Vongerichten is famous for the variety of his dishes and the magic he creates by mixing unusual and exotic flavors. But today, in an airy, open kitchen that looks out over a pond in suburban Waccabuc, N.Y., what’s being served is outside his comfort zone and experience: Korean food, prepared not by him, but by his wife, Marja.

In July, “Kimchi Chronicles,” hosted by the Korean-born Marja, debuts nationwide on public television (Marja’s husband will be her celebrity sidekick). The show is part travelogue, part cooking show, and aims to introduce viewers to a cuisine that, while on the rise, has yet to make strong inroads in the United States.

Even Vongerichten himself, whose empire includes 10 restaurants in New York alone, among them his flagship Jean Georges and the Asian-themed Spice Market, spent five formative years in Asia, but was still unfamiliar with Korean cuisine until recently.

“I didn’t know anything about it until I met Marja,” he says. His wife of six years has been cooking Korean food more and more since the show got under way, vying for kitchen space with her husband.
There are a number of reasons why Korean food has not become nearly as prominent in the United States as some other Asian cuisines. Most Korean restaurants are small places in Koreatowns geared toward native Koreans, says Wendy Chan, a food consultant who has worked to introduce the cuisine to Americans. There’s little explanation of the menu and often perfunctory service, she says.

But it’s also the nature of the food itself that’s difficult for Americans to understand, even if they may have encountered kimchi, or barbecue or bibimbap, a bowl of rice with stir-fried vegetables, and often meat and an egg  on top.

“People are confused,” says Chan. “They go into a restaurant and before they even order, they’re presented with a dozen different little dishes. These little side dishes — maybe vegetables of the day or pickles of the day — are very important in Korean cuisine. But they confuse people — often there isn’t even a name for them.”

Also, many people mistakenly assume all Korean food is spicy and red — like the gochujang, or hot pepper paste, that Marja Vongerichten has prepared today, a Korean staple used to give zest to countless dishes, almost like ketchup. But that’s inaccurate, says Chan.

A big hope for Korean cuisine in America, she notes, is the rise of several Korean-born chefs introducing their talents to the restaurant world: David Chang, for example, at Momofuku Ko in Manhattan, Akira Back at Yellowtail in Las Vegas, and Roy Choi, known for his Korean taco truck in Los Angeles.

There’s also a well-orchestrated effort by the South Korean government to aggressively promote Korean cuisine in the United States. At this summer’s Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., the Korean section will be the largest of any Asian cuisine, says Chan, and will include a pop-up Korean restaurant.

Indeed, the South Korean government is among the sponsors of “Kimchi Chronicles,” says executive producer Charlie Pinsky, a longtime producer of TV food shows. He explains that the idea for the show came one evening at dinner at Jean Georges, with some Korean businessmen.

“We suddenly realized Marja was the ideal person to host, and with her husband, they made a great team,” he says. “And her personal story was perfect.”

For 13 episodes, Marja Vongerichten and the crew made two long visits to South Korea (her husband came on one of them). Each episode focuses on one key element of Korean cuisine — such as rice — and involves trips to markets, restaurants, or homes. An accompanying cookbook, “The Kimchi Chronicles,” provides recipes adapted for the American palette.

But back to that personal story, Marja was born to a U.S. soldier and a Korean mother. She was adopted at age 3 by a northern Virginia couple.

At 20, then a student, she tracked down her birth mother, who had settled in Brooklyn with an American husband. When Marja (then named Marja Allen) got the phone number, she stared at it for hours. Then she called, and her mother fainted on the phone.

Marja flew up to New York and reunited with her mother, who, as mothers do, immediately fed her — Korean food, of course. “All these flavors came back to me,” she says.

In her Westchester kitchen, Marja Vongerichten takes out some sushi rice and rinses it. It will accompany the chicken dish she is serving, dak bokkeum, basically chicken in a big pot with carrots, onion, potatoes, and lots of gochujang. Her husband picks up the lid of a pot steaming on the stove and beckons: “You have to smell this,” he says.

He’s also making sure no one is hungry or thirsty as they wait. “The chicken will take an hour — how about some strawberries and cream?” he asks those standing around the kitchen, starting to whip the cream already. That snack will be accompanied by espresso, and then later a little sake.

Finally, Marja’s chicken is served, in two firepots, one version a bit spicier than the other. “Hot pepper is good for losing weight,” notes Diana Kang, co-executive producer and a food expert on Korea.

The stew is accompanied by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s perfectly prepared asparagus. A friend tries to dump several stalks, willy-nilly, onto the chef’s plate. “No,” his wife says of her famously exacting husband. “He won’t accept it that way.” She lines up a few stalks, just so.

Over in another room, the couple’s young daughter is eating Chinese takeout with a friend — “this is a little too spicy for her,” acknowledges her mother, although she does frequently cook Korean for her daughter.

Marja Vongerichten hopes viewers will learn from her show that Korean food is much more diverse and interesting — “a whole culture,” she says — than they thought.

“I hope people get more adventurous,” she says. “I hope they learn that Korean food is more than just barbecue and bibimbap.” ♦

One Response to “Famous chef and wife talks the struggles of Korean food in U.S., new TV series”

  1. Hana says:

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