“No One Knows Korean Food Like I Do,” Assures Chef Esther Choi
In this very first episode of Listen, Ladies, host Maryalice Aymong and former host Julia Moser talk to Esther Choi, head chef and owner of Mokbar, a Korean restaurant with locations in New York City and Brooklyn. Zagat named her a “30 Under 30” in restaurants, and she’s been noted as a “chef to watch” by numerous publications.
Below is an excerpt from her interview. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes.
Listen, Ladies (LL): Can you tell us a little about your journey?
Esther Choi (EC): I grew up in South New Jersey, in a very, very small town with no Koreans at all. My parents had immigrated over from Korea because the casinos were there in Atlantic City. My grandparents immigrated over as well, and they watched us while our parents worked. Being raised by Korean grandparents was amazing. I followed my grandmother everywhere, and where she loved to be was in the kitchen. Naturally, I was in the kitchen with her a lot. I wasn’t intentionally learning it, I just grew up with it. She was an amazing cook. She grew all of her own vegetables in her garden because you couldn’t get Korean vegetables where we were living. We had to take weekly trips to Philadelphia because there was one Korean supermarket to bulk up on all of our Korean ingredients and then she would make everything from scratch.
LL: At what point did you realize this was mostly a male career? How did you think about it?
EC: I knew. I had worked in restaurants, and the kitchen was always male-dominated, and they were trying to yell at girls. It’s crazy. My intention was to work in a test kitchen or work at the Food Network or Food and Wine. That was my goal. But then I went to culinary school, and the moment that I put on that jacket, I was like, this feels very weird. I felt like something was different about my attitude, and fear just went away. And the first moment I felt like this is something I want to do is when someone came into class one day and said, “Does anyone need a part-time job or an internship? The kitchen I am working at is hiring. You should come by.” I was the only person in the class who decided to stop by, and I just fell crazy, deeply in love. It was the moment and working on the line amongst real professional chefs—even though everyone was male, and I am a tiny, Asian girl—it was perfect. It was amazing, and I felt like it was my hope.
LL: How did you arrive at Korean food? Did you always think the restaurant you would open would be Korean?
EC: Yeah, of course. If I was going to cook this food myself of be the chef of a restaurant, it was going to need to be Korean. I knew this was super unique, and it is embedded in my blood, and no one knows it better than I do. I was waiting for the moment to cook Korean food, but I was not going to go work at a Korean restaurant. That was no way. I couldn’t learn it from someone. No one knows Korean food like I do.
LL: You’re a chef but you also run a business. Are there challenges with that? How do you balance the two?
EC: It is very difficult. Sometimes it is still a struggle every day. And that is the number one struggle that I have. On a personal level, I obviously really love being a chef, and that got me here, but I also really love the business side of things. I am actually very good at it, too. I’ve made the right moves so far in terms of running a business. It is difficult though because what I really want to do is be behind the scenes and just be cooking every day. But I can’t. The more creative I want to be, I still have to balance it: Is that going to really sell? Is that going to make us money? I always have to be thinking about money. The more experienced people that I’ve talked to say pick a side and stick to it because you’re just going to drive yourself crazy. I do take that advice and think about it a lot, but I still haven’t been able to choose a side, and right now I think I am just going to do both.
*Photo by Eater Video