Why you should care
Because these days, to be a celebrity chef, you need personality.
Video by Elie Khadra
Deuki Hong’s parents hate his food. It’s too heavy. It’s too salty. Once he cooked them a special dinner for their wedding anniversary. They tossed the food after a bite.
Hong’s parents are in the minority, however. At 26, Hong heads up his own kitchen at Baekjeong NYC, the It Scene of Manhattan’s Koreatown. By day, the casually dressed foodies swan in, plunking down thirty bucks for an entrée. At night, the big-name chefs — Anthony Bourdain, David Chang — take over and turn the place into an after-hours club that serves just the right kind of food. Hong has recently published his first cookbook, perhaps of many. His pedigree: the Culinary Institute of America, Momofuku, Jean-Georges. His future? “Wide open,” says Michael Bonadies, a former founding partner of Myriad Restaurant Group who helped Hong get his start. “He could easily become a media star and/or create great restaurants that could help change and evolve the future of American food.”
To me, Hong seems like a pure millennial — like the Justin Bieber of food, with sideswept hair and a penchant for calling me “gurl.” “We do hugs,” he says at the outset of our first meeting, simultaneously enveloping me in a bear hug. Underneath his military-style jacket is a sweatshirt stamped Believe in yourself. When he wants a Thai iced tea, he orders a small, quipping that it’s because he’s “on a diet.” I don’t buy it for a second, coming from the guy who’s the head chef at New York’s largest short rib buyer.
Those marinated short ribs are the foundation of Korean barbecue — “nothing fancy” — and they sell quickly, but Hong, a first-generation Korean-American, wants more for the food he grew up eating: He wants to launch Korean food into the canon of American cuisine. At his restaurant, there are plenty of those short ribs, as well as traditional, labor-intensive stews that take hours. But Hong’s specialty is dak dori tang, a spicy-sweet chicken stew made with ingredients familiar to Americans, like soy sauce, and more daring, like honey powder and Gochujang — a kind of sriracha with way more umami.
Right now, Korean food is at an inflection point. It’s not saddled with Chinese food’s baggage of being “cheap,” with more than a century of chop suey, General Tso’s chicken and the like. Then again, it doesn’t possess the refined lure of Japanese cuisine. In fact, and with the possible exception of kimchi, Korean food doesn’t stand for much in the American popular imagination at all. That’s where Hong’s big opportunity is: Establishing Korean food as a fixture of American cuisine will take culinary talent and charisma — but also good timing. And the demographics are on Hong’s side. Chinese people began coming to the United States as railroad laborers in the 19th century, but Koreans have come to the United States more recently. In 1980, there were 400,000 Koreans in the United States. By 2010, the number had grown to 1.4 million — including Hong’s own parents, who settled in New Jersey when he was a baby.
They were part of a huge tide of Asians who’ve come into the States over the past 50 years, since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act dismantled restrictive quotas against non-European immigrants. In total, 5.8 percent of the U.S. population in 2011 was Asian-American, according to PEW. Many of today’s Asian-American millennials are the first generation in their families to grow up in the United States, as is the case for Hong, whose parents don’t respond to him in English. His mom owned a nail salon, and his father owned a limo service company; both are semi-retired now.
It might not have been an apple-pie childhood, but Hong did play baseball in middle school. The coach and father of a teammate was Bonadies, who then was with the high-powered restaurant group that runs Nobu and Tribeca Grill. When Hong was 15, he asked Bonadies to put him in touch with Aaron Sanchez, a Food Network chef, who invited the teenager to work in his kitchen. Hong took him up on the offer, and the two developed a friendship — Hong says Sanchez bought him his first knives. By high school, Hong had dropped his catching duties in favor of Sanchez’s kitchen, slicing garlic and the like.
After high school came his elite culinary-school education, and the day after he graduated, he started as a line cook at Jean-Georges. “I was super competitive,” Hong says. “While the other guys slept, I studied different techniques.” And the Marine-like culture of the kitchen seemed to suit him. On a day off from Jean-Georges, he injured his knee so badly he needed stitches, and he sent a gory photo of his injury to the chef — who told him to come in anyway. Which he did, livid and limping. That experience has shaped his own management practices: When someone texts to say he’s sick, Hong has no sympathy. If they’re well enough to text, they’re well enough to cook.
Hong and I walk back to his restaurant, chatting by the entrance, when he runs over to hold the door for two customers who definitely have no idea who he is. This summer he’ll go back to Korea for the first time since he was an infant. His next restaurant will be a Korean one, he says, but he won’t stress about it being “authentic.” How could he? Even the water is different in Korea, he says. Soon after our meeting, when his book, Koreatown: A Cookbook, came out, he sent me a copy, inscribing it, “Your Korean bro.”