Kristine M. Kierzek
Esther Choi fell in love with food and cooking and started working in the kitchen as a teenager.
Her parents hoped she would become a doctor or pharmacist. Instead, Choi visited the Institute for culinary education in NYC.
Much of her inspiration and love for food comes from her Korean grandmother. When traditional ingredients were hard to find in New Jersey, Jungok Yoo, now 95, grew her own and made almost everything from scratch, including kimchi, chili pastes and powders.
Choi learned to appreciate each ingredient and where it came from, an approach that helped her when she landed a job sourcing groceries for competitors at Iron Chef. Rubbing elbows with the best of the best inspired her to want to compete at that level too.
Today, Choi has appeared on Iron Chef and Food Network. Her cuisine combines traditional and modern influences, as can be seen below mookbarwhich she opened at the age of 28. This fall she is opening her fifth location at the Gateway Center in Newark, NJ. She also runs a Korean-American cocktail bar Mrs. Jonamed with a nod to her grandmother.
Your first visit to Wisconsin will be at Kohler Food & Wine Experience, that’s October 20-23 in Kohler. Choi’s Korean Fried Chicken and Korean Barbecue shows sell out. You can find more events and tickets at KohlerFoodandWine.com.
Question: Tell us about your culinary roots and your journey from growing up in New Jersey to a culinary career. You learned Korean cooking from your grandmother?
Answers: My grandmother was so resourceful. That’s one of the things I learned from her.
I learned to cook from my grandmother, yes, but it was more her style and idea and philosophy of cooking, sourcing ingredients and the need to be rough. She cooked a lot of Korean food at home, but the ingredients she used were locally sourced. We would adapt to our environment.
She would do all of her fermentation herself, many of the Korean staples. She couldn’t get her hands on them, so she would make her own. She brought the chilli seeds from Korea and various vegetable seeds and planted her own things. Everything was from scratch because it was necessary.
My grandmother had a big influence on my food. She taught me to love food in a way unlike any other. I don’t take shortcuts when cooking either. That was her. She said if you take a shortcut, people will taste it. That effort and love you put into each dish makes all the difference.
Q: How did she react when you named one of your companies after her?
A: Actually she was crying. She’s 95, she’s amazing. She knows how much effort and work it is to run and cook a restaurant. She thinks I work way too hard.
Q: Did you actually start out in medicine or pharmacy?
A: Those were my parents. They wanted me to be a doctor, a typical immigrant story. They didn’t want me to do a manual job. They wanted me to graduate from every possible degree. Look how that turned out.
At 28 I opened my first restaurant, my first location. Now we have four locations with mokbar. My fifth opens next month. Ms Yoo is a cocktail bar. …
I love cooking and obviously it’s my passion, but being a business and an entrepreneur has always been my dream. When I was 9 I sold candy. My parents bought large quantities of candy. I would take individual ones and sell them on the bus. I would read all those entrepreneurial books. I always knew I wanted to start my own business. Then I fell in love with food.
Q: Earlier in your career, you were a food buyer for shows, sourcing ingredients for chefs who participated in competitions and programs. What did you learn from this process?
A: As a buyer, this was probably one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had to learn. It teaches you the basics, the basics, your ingredients. That’s the foundation of any food, knowing where you get it from, how it’s sourced and managed, and how it ends up on your plate.
I worked on four to five seasons of Iron Chef. Here the best chefs in the world compete against each other. They are so special about their ingredients. They come into battle, they entrust me with the procurement of ingredients. Working together with the best chefs and these ingredients I had never heard of, shopping from all over the world and timing matters to get it so fresh but available that day. All of these things made for such a great learning experience, and then working with these crazy minds inspired me to do it myself too.
That was my souvenir. After watching these chefs compete, it came full circle. I applied.
Q: In terms of ingredients, availability and awareness, what have you seen today compared to when you started?
A: I think with social media, especially TikTok and all these platforms, availability is not an issue. If you want to find the weirdest, wackiest ingredient, now you can. It has to do with consciousness.
Now that you have everything at hand, you need to find the quality and know where to shop. There are a million kimchis out there but you can’t really buy the quality I’m looking for. you have to do it yourself … Nothing is hard to find anymore, but it’s really important to know and trust your sources.
Q: You also had an online show testing kitchen appliances. What is worth the effort and what is not?
A: As a chef, even a home cook who loves food, you’re drawn to any gadget because it’s cool. I loved every kitchen utensil. I’ve seen every piece of equipment at this show, even an egg peeler. As someone who is obsessed with food, I like everyone’s idea, but after you try them, you realize that nobody needs this in their life.
I have all sorts of gadgets. I won’t be kidding you. I’m obsessed, but in the end I’m a purist and I use very simple things. A spoon is my favorite kitchen utensil. All the other crazy types of cool kitsch gadgets are not necessary.
Q: What do you do when you are at Kohler Food & Wine Experience?
A: I wanted to showcase classic, popular Korean dishes but in a fun way, by teaching them a technique or two that they might not know but are familiar enough to make at home. I’m making Korean fried chicken, a cult dish. Fried chicken is iconic in America. So why not present Korean fried chicken that may be different than what many people are familiar with?
I wanted to make a really complicated stuffed chicken wing, but when you do a demo for 100+ people, you send in a recipe and they execute it. I went for the classic Korean fried chicken.
I also prepare Korean barbecue, butchered the classic Korean way, a technique found nowhere else but by Koreans. Both are classic Korean dishes and crowd favorites.
Q: What is the most misunderstood by beginners when it comes to Korean cuisine?
A: People are intimidated because they are not used to the ingredients. This is a common misconception. As long as you know these common pantry ingredients, it’s all pretty easy.
Try it out. That’s the thing about cooking in general. For someone who isn’t a great chef or doesn’t cook in general, how do you start? Just do it. You’ll mess it up a few times, but that’s okay. It’s only food. Don’t be intimidated. Everything is in the recipes. Always read the recipe.
Q: When it comes to stocking up your pantry, what ingredients are always in your kitchen?
A: Kimchi, you know it. This will always be in my fridge and if it’s not I’ll have a panic attack. I must have emergency kimchi. Even when I travel, I always have ramen and kimchi with me. This is so important to me. Gochujang, a chilli paste and then sesame oil. The sesame oil makes or breaks a dish.
Q: How to choose a good gochujang?
A: What’s available in the US as gochujang is pretty good, not many people make it from scratch and sell it. I would trust a Korean brand like one made in Korea. I would not trust a US brand. There are so many nuances. Few factories produce it even in Korea. Just make sure it’s made in Korea.
Q: Do you have any plans for your own products one day?
A: Yes, I am currently working on a series of basic Korean products. Gochujang is one of them, which is why I know how difficult it is to make and source a product.
Q: What would you like people to know about what you are doing and why?
A: When I started mokbar, I had a very specific goal, to make Korean food more accessible and popular. Accessibility is very important to me. I want people to know what it is because I want people to enjoy it. … It’s almost amazing how far Korean food has come, but there’s still so much work to be done. This is just the beginning.
Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local figures (inside and outside the food community) have with food. To suggest future personalities for a profile, email [email protected]