Any professional chef will debunk the myth that they never want to cook at home. Instead, most chefs — like New York’s Esther Choi — will say that they enjoy cooking at home for their friends and loved ones, and all have the recipes they consistently love to prepare. For Choi, the latter is kimchi.
“I have had an obsession with anything kimchi for a long time,” says Choi. “I like to experiment with different types of vegetables and find recipes that no one has really heard of before. I recently learned that watermelon radish turns out really ugly in the kimchi process.”
Choi first learned how to ferment kimchi from watching her Korean grandmother, Jungok Yoo. The namesake of Choi’s third restaurant Ms. Yoo, Choi’s grandmother cultivated a small garden in the family’s New Jersey backyard, growing Korean squash, perilla leaves, and skinny cucumbers that otherwise couldn’t be found locally. Together Choi and Yoo cooked, fostering Choi’s love for sharing Korean flavors.
Choi will admit that she still has a few things to learn from her grandmother, but everything she’s been honing over the years can be found on the menus at Choi’s trio of restaurants: two locations of Korean ramen bar Mokbar and Ms. Yoo — her Korean gastropub on the Lower East Side. Last year, Choi told Eater New York she wanted to make traditional Korean cooking more mainstream, and felt a “responsibility to showcase Korean culture.”
But before even being sure she wanted to even get into cooking, Choi worked in culinary purchasing for the Food Network. “It was really fun at times but really, really stressful,” she remembers. “When I had time to source really great ingredients that was fun, that’s how I really got to know food.” The gig also exposed Choi to countless celebrity chefs, all who had different styles of cooking. “All these chefs had their wish list of sometimes weird (to me) ingredients, and I just had to go searching for them, on the fly.”
As of late, Choi has been channeling all her cooking prowess into Eater’s video series Kitchen Gadgets, where she’s testing unitaskers, infomercial products, and one-trick ponies against the familiar methods. Normally, and very much still, Choi is jumping between her three New York City restaurants, as well as consulting on the menu for Korilla — a Korean restaurant serving wraps, rice bowls, and salads with Korean and Mexican flavors — plus a slew of other appearances and events.
“I usually don’t get to eating until 4 o’ clock some days,” she says. But when she does, there’s probably kimchi involved.