As much as she is a chef and a restaurateur, Esther Choi also considers herself an ambassador for Korean cuisine and culture in the United States.
Born to Korean parents in the suburban town of Egg Harbor, N.J., Choi was always keenly aware of her heritage. Choi’s grandmother Jungok Yoo took care of the children while their parents worked, preparing kimchi and other traditional recipes in the age-old fashion, grinding her own chile for seasoning and fermenting vegetables in pots in the backyard. Choi’s grandmother grew her own vegetables in the garden; Choi followed her everywhere, asking questions and learning.
The willing young chef’s awareness deepened when the family moved to Korea for three years, in order to fulfill her parents’ desire that their children embrace the culture. For Choi, this was a true awakening to the role that food plays in people’s lives.
“Food is the ambassador of a culture,” she says. “It expresses all the elements that define a country—its history, social customs, language, geography, and art traditions.”
It’s also passed from generation to generation, as it was from Choi’s grandmother. “She taught me everything I know about food, how to love every ingredient, how to respect the process and thoughtful preparation of every dish.”
She began working in restaurants at age 14. “I probably worked every job there is in a restaurant, front-of-the-house to back,” explains Choi. Along the way, she realized that restaurant work wasn’t just a job—food had become a love and a passion. She set her sights on one day having her own restaurant so that she could share her passion for the flavors and ingredients of her culture with others.
After graduating from Rutgers University, she attended the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City, in order to perfect her craft. She also worked in the Manhattan kitchens of ilili and La Esquina, gaining an appreciation of Mediterranean and authentic Mexican cuisine in the process. A position in culinary purchasing at the Food Network helped hone her natural entrepreneurial inclination.
In 2014, Choi opened Mokbar in Manhattan’s bustling Chelsea market, when she was just 28—beating her long-held goal of having her own restaurant at 30. Mokbar in Brooklyn opened in late 2016. The name Mokbar references mokbang, the infamous Korean hobby of watching other people eat (mok means “eat”). But it was always about paying tribute to her beloved grandmother and the food she loved.
One way she pays tribute is with kimchi. She ferments nine different kinds in crocks and jars in the labyrinthine prep area behind the restaurant, and experiments with different seasonal vegetables, in a process she calls “kimchifying.”
“Kimchi is in my soul and in every single one of my recipes,” explains Choi. One of her favorites is Kimchi Jjgae, a spicy stew that can be made with meat or seafood and tofu, redolent with garlic, fish sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, and scallions—and of course kimchi.
“To me, Korean food is not just about cooking and being a chef,” she says. “It’s about the love of family, culture, and respect of my heritage. That is who I am, both personally and professionally. I want everyone to fall in love with Korean food and culture. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Many of today’s young chefs were first exposed to cooking through their parents, especially their mothers. Harold Jurado literally slept on 50-pound bags of flour in his mother’s Filipino bakery and restaurant in suburban Chicago. At the age of five, he was baking traditional Filipino bread rolls, and he was also using a cooling rack and five-gallon bucket to play back-alley basketball.
“Food was a huge part of our family life, at an emotional level,” says Jurado, who now works for Bon Appétit Management Company in a Silicon Valley tech account. “And Filipino food is still my comfort food.”
Although he initially had no intention of going into the restaurant industry, it was perhaps inevitable that he ended up at Kendall College in Chicago, earning his degree in Culinary Arts in 2005. From there, he had stints in restaurants as diverse as Japonais in New York and Las Vegas and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.
But the bold, multicultural flavors of the Philippines were always a siren song and an inspiration. “Filipino food is so salty and spicy and fatty. It’s unrefined, in a good way,” he explains. “It’s the food I’m used to, but it also appeals to people who are looking for really flavorful food. And it was very well accepted in meat-and-potatoes Chicago.”
This background gave Jurado the palate and the confidence to open his own restaurant (the trendsetting Chizakaya, which he operated for three years) in the style of an izakaya. Izakaya are the casual rustic pubs that are so much a part of the Japanese lifestyle, with their wide-ranging menus of noodles and grilled and fried foods, meant to be enjoyed with after-work drinks.
As David Bazirgan was working his way up in culinary circles, he was also working his way west, to San Francisco.
A native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, he started out washing dishes in a restaurant in his hometown, but his interest was piqued enough to attend the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Boston, where he immersed himself in French technique.
Over the next eight years, he worked with some of Boston’s top chefs, including Stan Frankenthaler (Salamander) and Todd English (Olives). But it was his mentor, the ground-breaking Boston chef Barbara Lynch, who gave him his first job out of culinary school, at Galleria Italiana. Eventually, she asked him to be the chef de cuisine at her new No. 9 Park in Boston, where he served on the opening team and garnered attention for his meticulous seven- to nine-course tasting menus. He stayed there for five years.
Ready for a new challenge, Bazirgan moved to San Francisco in 2003, and it was there that his profile really started rising. After a brief stint at the restaurant Elizabeth Daniel, he moved to Baraka restaurant where he was named a Rising Star Chef by both the San Francisco Chronicle and StarChefs. He also fell in love with the food of Japan and Southeast Asia, which is well represented in San Francisco. “The flavors are just so exciting, the balance of heat and sweetness, and the focus on fresh ingredients and seasonal cooking,” he says.
|Mihoko Obunai||Japanese native Mihoko Obunai developed her passion for cooking while living and working in Peru after graduating from New York University. Obunai attended the French Culinary Institute and trained at several acclaimed New York restaurants, including La Caravelle, under chef Cyril Renaud; L’Absinthe, Bayard’s; and Guastavino’s, under chef Daniel Orr. She cooked at the James Beard House twice during her tenure at Guastavino’s and once while at Repast Restaurant.|
Resides: Houston, TX
Culinary Education: San Jacinto College
As the executive chef of the award-winning contemporary-Korean restaurant Dosi, in Houston, Jordan Asher puts his professional biography on every single plate. He has spent his entire career on the learning curve, seeking experiences in different restaurants at the right hand of chefs who have taught him something new at every point. That experience has all come together at Dosi, where chef Asher has been able to put his own stamp on the menu.
|Richard Sandoval||Growing up in Mexico City, Richard Sandoval would join his grandmother in the kitchen and gather around her large table with family to enjoy lively Mexican feasts prepared from scratch. From his grandmother, he learned to respect fresh, authentic, ingredients and to create the vibrant flavors that turned family dinners into celebrated events. Meanwhile, his restaurateur father – owner of Madeiras in Acapulco and Villa Fiore also in Acapulco –imparted lessons in service and restaurant management.|
|Chris Jaeckle||Asian flavors are reshaping the American menu. And as diners become increasingly familiar with Asian cuisines and ingredients, they’re not just looking for authentic Chinese, Japanese and southeast Asian dishes. They’ve developed an insatiable appetite for “Asian Cool”—foods, fusions and flavors that combine the best of Asia with the other global cuisines they’re falling in love with.|
“We use tons of Kikkoman Soy Sauce at our restaurants. I like the flavor and the quality, wherever in the world I’m going with a dish.”
The world is her oyster, and the street is her beat. Susan Feniger’s Los Angeles restaurants—Border Grill and STREET—and the popular “Too Hot Tamales” TV Series (hosted with her longtime collaborator, Mary Sue Milliken) have made her one of the nation’s leading proponents of Latin cooking. But that’s just the beginning of a culinary road that leads all the way to the Far East.
|Andrew Hunter||Chef Andrew is the Foodservice and Industrial chef for Kikkoman where he develops custom and ready-to-use sauce solutions for manufacturer partners, as well as menu concepts for a broad base of restaurant, college and university, and healthcare customers. Through Andrew, Kikkoman is an able partner in developing profitable sauce solutions for its customers.|
|Jet Tila||From Hollywood and Normandie to the Las Vegas Strip, from backyard cooking classes to battling legends on Iron Chef America, Jet Tila has quickly carved his own unique niche as a culinary storyteller. Thanks to his diverse background and education, Jet is universally comfortable in multiple roles as a nationally celebrated chef and consultant, a teacher and a student in the art of food.|
|Robert Puerto||Chef Robert Puerto started working in restaurants at the age of 19, and earned a degree in culinary arts at the Ft. Lauderdale Art Institute. Chef Robert's culinary influences are much attributed to his Cuban roots, which have played a key role in the development of two Latin fusion concepts. He cooked for several years in Miami and Puerto Rico, and along the way learned the intricacies of French and Equatorial cuisine from master chefs.|
|Daniel Olivella||Daniel Olivella is the executive chef-partner and wine buyer of B44 Catalan Bistro in San Francisco, and Barlata, a tapas bar in Oakland, CA (and opening a new location in Austin, TX). He opened B44 in 1999 and was named a Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2001 by the San Francisco Chronicle.|
|Ann Cooper||Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator, and enduring advocate for better food for all children. In a nation where children are born with shorter estimated life expectancies than their parents because of diet-related illness, Ann is a relentless voice of reform by focusing on the links between food, family, farming and children's health and wellness.|