Esther Choi on What it Takes to Make Truly Authentic Korean Food
My dream is to have a farm where I grow my own Korean ingredients. Right now I don’t have that luxury because my restaurants do so much volume it’s just too hard to do artisanal stuff.
I get ingredients imported from Korea, and I source as locally as possible. I work with a Korean farm upstate, and most of my vendors are Korean. That is very important to me—working with Korean vendors—because, with any kind of dish, more than 50 percent of why it’s so wonderful is because of the ingredients.
My favorite food to prepare at mŏkbar is the ho’ cake. It’s my savory twist on a classic Korean street food: the hotteok. I ate it every day when I lived there, and it’s usually like this sweet, savory inverted doughnut filled with brown sugar and nuts. Instead of using something sweet, I fill a crispy bun with pork belly. The yeast dough took me months to perfect because it’s very finicky. Every day we have to test the dough, then stuff it with pork belly (that’s been braised for six hours) and caramelized onions, and fry it. We serve the ho’ cake with a house-made kimchi dipping sauce that we blend with fresh apples.
We also have house-made beverages and soju, which is the most important Korean drink ever. It’s similar to vodka and you drink soju from little shot glasses. Koreans will drink two to five bottles with a meal—something crazy like that.
I make a lot of cocktails with soju and with our teas, which we ferment in-house for about six months and then brew it with traditional teas. This season we are doing our ginger-apple plum tea, which we made last summer.
The challenge in the kitchen is my size: I’m 5 feet, 2 inches and 105 pounds. You see chefs who are double my size. But I use my head more than I use my body. Even in terms of stamina—like cooking for 10 hours straight—it’s definitely a mental thing. I work in a very different way than a lot of chefs—especially because I’m a woman. Women can’t physically keep up with men in the kitchen. It’s impossible. You have to find your own element in the kitchen and define how to do things. I think a lot of women chefs would agree with me.