Cooking Outside the Lines with Rachel Yang and Jess Thomson
The term cooking with soul comes to mind when I think about my meeting with chef Rachel Yang and co-author Jess Thomson. The way she spoke about cooking came from a place of true joy and eagerness to share.
Chicago News: In My Rice Bowl this is Rachel’s story. Where do you Jess come into play?
Jess Thomson: I’m the co-author so my job is to write cookbooks. I write both my own books and books in conjunction with chefs. So my job is to translate what Rachel does for the home cook and tell her story in a super compelling way that enables people to identify with her and also enables them to feel like they can make her food in a way that mimics what they’ve had in her restaurants. I’m the writer so I did the recipe testing and translating and we sort of played a game of telephone where Rachel would cook and she would show me exactly how she wanted something done and then I would do it and test it and play it back to her.
Rachel Yang: It was actually a really interesting process because when you do it in a kitchen setting versus a traditional setting you always have a lot of assumptions that they should know how to do (certain things). Especially when we started working together, the number one thing was that she didn’t have any experience cooking Korean food before, but that was actually an asset because we actually had to approach at point zero and go through the process all the way through.
CN: Rachel do you have a favorite Chicago restaurant?
RY: Last time I was here we went to Parachute and we actually visit there every time we’re in town, because her food is really awesome. And then we went to Fat Rice, which is really fun. I really appreciate it and gravitate towards people who do really fun food. It’s a food that just makes you go, ‘Oh, that’s so interesting.’ And I think I really just want to be excited when I read a menu.
CN: What would you say has been the most challenging part for you to become the successful chef that you are today?
RY: I think for me I was always under a self-imposed kind of guidance, that I have to make it. I have to just do it. And I think for a lot of people – especially female cooks – when they get into this business they always think that, ‘Ok, this is temporary. This is what I’m going to do,’ and then they have something to fall back on. And that’s the hardest thing about being a female in this industry. It’s really all about going through these ladders to break through that glass ceiling. For me the idea that I came from Korea and then I went to a good school, (I just thought) ok, I can not fail. I have to do this. This has to work. I think I had this little desperate urgency that this had to work and I think when you don’t have anywhere else to go and the attitude that you’re putting everything of yourself out there (you’ll succeed). I think the fact that I had support and had a partner who was in this boat together (made it ok). That’s the other thing about being a female in this industry is that it’s so hard to make it when you don’t have that support.
JT: Especially when you want a family.
RY: Yeah. That’s the thing, if you have a husband or a partner that works 9-5 weekdays and you’re working late nights and weekends, having a family and all of that stuff seems impossible. So being able to have someone that understands that and wants the same thing was very important. Also, you end up having to realize what makes you different, what makes people attracted to your kind of food. The fact that every time we’re cooking it’s like, ‘Oh yeah! So you’re Korean, what’s Korean about your food?’ I really understood then that that’s what makes this interesting for people to come to the restaurant, because it’s different. It’s a kind of food that people haven’t tried before. Then sort of staying true to the fact that it’s not authentic Korean, because I’m not from Korea with this giant chest of my grandma’s recipes out there. I learned to cook here in America. I learned how to cook in New York City so all of those flavors got combined and that became really authentic for me.
CN: You have two kids so how does that work raising two young boys and running a restaurant?
RY: To be honest, the fact that after we opened our first restaurant we were basically self-employed was a key part of it. We took a leap of faith opening the restaurant at 29 (years old) and had our first child two years later. We really didn’t have a fall back at that point. We just decided we were going to start a family and see what happens. My mom from Korea was like, ‘What are you guys thinking’ and decided she was going to come and stay with us for a year. She did that and then literally we had a baby in the car seat and she would bring him to me so that I could nurse while I was at the restaurant. And that’s the thing. Often times people try to do it all by themselves, but you have to understand that you do need help. You just have to ask for help. And of course none of us want to live with our mom when we’re that old, especially for a whole year, but we’re forever grateful. The fact that what she decided to do for us and the fact that we were able to have kids and juggle the restaurants and just make it happen. The best part about opening a restaurant is that you open your door to an entire neighborhood and they all become a part of your family. They’ve all seen us from being a couple from out of town to me being pregnant behind the line to having a little baby in our hands. It’s so nice to have an entire neighborhood’s support asking how our kids are doing and bringing them toys and they’re have been couples that have brought in old clothes for the kids. The restaurant becomes this little epicenter of the community and everyone pitches in and helps you.
CN: The book is called My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines. What does cooking outside the lines mean to you?
RY: So the number one thing about the title of the book is it was literally a project title when we first started and we thought maybe this wasn’t the best name and we’ll see if we can find a better name. But we actually ended up being stuck to it. Some people assume that maybe it’s a book of rice-bowl recipes, but no it is not. I don’t know if you’ve had Korean bibimbap? It really is, bibimbap, which means mixed rice. If you get a bed of rice, you can add anything to the top. That’s really how My Rice Bowl is.
It starts with my Korean heritage when I first came from Korea when I was 15 and my whole experience, meeting my husband who’s American and working at a French restaurant and then opening a restaurant in the Pacific Northwest and all of those experiences kind of become my own mix of different heritage and culinary influences. So that’s how it became My Rice Bowl and because of that that’s why it can never be authentic Korean cooking that people expect within the box. I think that’s where we wanted to convey the idea that it’s Korean cooking, but outside the line of what they’re used to. We want people to use this book as a way to see how they approach a certain kind of food, but know that there’s never an exact answer and that you have the freedom to add your own self to recipes that you’re making your own.
CN: What makes you stay away from true “authentic” Korean food?
RY: I felt like because it was my food I had the right to my own interpretation. And I think the biggest thing was that I became a chef first, not a restaurateur or someone who wants to translate recipes from Korean to American and make it exactly as is. If you ask our chefs why they’re there, the number one thing they’ll say is it’s because of their ability to be creative. It’s not just about following manuals and instructions, but it’s actually about being able to create something and make it their own. I think that was the biggest reason why I felt like it wasn’t even an option for me (to cook authentic Korean food). We talk about it all the time, like in Seattle there’s really no ‘best authentic’ Korean restaurants. People still ask, ‘Hey do you ever want to open one?’ And my answer’s always, ‘I would love to do it, but I don’t know.’ One thing that I expect from my cooks is for them to always be pushing the envelope and doing something better. I don’t know how I could tell my cooks, ‘Hey we’re opening an authentic Korean restaurant, there’s basically 20 dishes that will never change and the recipes are exactly this, but I want you to always be excited to come to work and do the same thing every single day.’ And that’s the part where I have a really hard time. How do I expect them to do the job when it doesn’t excite me?
CN: With both you and your husband being chefs do you both cook at home a lot? Is there a recipe that you enjoy making with your family together?
RY: Our kids do like cooking and they love helping. They’re favorite thing is when they can really get involved and there’s actually a really easy way for kids to get involved (with cooking). Often times families think it’s really hard for kids to get involved in the kitchen, because there’s fire, there are knives and all that stuff. But what we like to do is this tableside hotpot. We have a big pot and we put it in the center of the table and bring out whole plates of beef, noodles, mushrooms, tofu and basically we do this sort of hotpot-style dinner. So kids can actually see things being cooked and adding things they want to eat and only taking things they want to eat. When they’re 100% a participant of the cooking process they get really excited. It’s really easy and it’s really fun for kids. Cooking can be such a transformation because you’re making one thing and then it comes out totally different. When kids get to see that with their own eyes they get really excited. Then the whole process isn’t this mysterious thing that ‘only mom does.’ They see that they can do it themselves and it makes it very accessible.
CN: What’s your favorite dish to make from the cookbook?
RY: My personal favorite thing to make from the book is probably some of the hotpots. People often ask me ‘what’s the easiest dish to make?’ And I’ll just tell them to look at the recipe and then anything that they already have, if you already have the ingredients at the house those will be the easiest to make. Then you don’t have to go shop and make complicated detours and all of this stuff. For me hotpots are really the most fun and easiest to make because it’s a one-pot dish, which is awesome. They’re always crowd-pleasers and they’re really hearty. And it also allows you to modify and change things up later too. So people don’t really have to feel like they have to stick to the recipe. Just start with the base of the recipe and just find whatever you have in your fridge and add it on to it too.
JT: And one thing that’s always struck me about you too is that you like to watch people eat your food and see how they react. And with hotpot there’s always so much emotion and people are always so excited to see what’s inside it.
CN: When you hear Korean cookbook, it might sound intimidating for someone who’s never cooked Korean foods. What would you say to people who might be intimidated to try cooking Korean or Korean fusion for the first time?
RY: People often think about Korean food, like how they make kimchi or the fact that there may be a lot of unknown factors. They should start with one or two ingredients. For example, if they want to go ahead and buy a Korean chili paste and Korean bean paste just get a couple of things and start with those recipes. Meaning, just think of it as not that those Korean ingredients have to be used in a specific way, but think of them as flavors. Like Korean bean paste is spicy and a little sweet and has a thickness that can add to the texture to whatever it is you’re cooking. So just think of it as, ‘this is a kind of hot sauce, how do I use my hot sauce?’ You can literally use it in your pasta, in your soup or your stir-frys. If you start with that, using it as a flavor rather than as a specific dish that you have to make, it will just make you so much more comfortable using it. ‘Oh, I like that flavor, what else can I do?’ And then we can go ahead and find a Korean recipe that uses that specific ingredient that you love and kind of move forward from there. I think that’s the best way for people who might be intimidated. That’s the same thing when people think ‘Korean food has to be authentic, it has to be this way.’ And then there’s a whole lot of bridges they have to cross to get there and that’s where it can get really intimidating. So instead of thinking of it as an ingredient they have to master, think of it as an ingredient that they can add into their life easily and after that I think it’ll be so much easier for them to open up to the food they might want to try cooking later.
CN: Is there anything you’d want people to know about you or your book?
JT: I think it’s important for people to know that even though it’s a restaurant cookbook, there’s a huge range of recipes that are approachable and translatable to everyday cooking. There are a few recipes that I have come away with that I have as stables in my kitchen all of the time now. I am the kind of person that makes kimchi regularly now and that’s not the person I thought I was. There are a lot of dishes that offer sauces that can be translated into anything. There’s a grilled eggplant with cumin miso sauce and the cumin miso sauce is literally a multi-purpose tool. I make it in a giant batch and use it on any vegetable and use it as a sauce for rice or thin it out and toss with noodles or use it as something you rub on chicken as you’re grilling and just use it in a huge variety of ways. And what I love about the book is that there are so many flavors in the book that are addictive because of the sauces. And those are things you can just make and have on hand. There’s a super spicy sauce that Rachel uses at Revelry in Portland for fried chicken that we have been mixing with mayonnaise to make an aioli for burgers or use it as something that adds spunk to soup. So I love that it’s easy when you open the book to just sort of make it your own and figure out what parts of what recipes you want to use in your kitchen.
CN: So really just make it your own.
All photos courtesy of Charity Burggraaf.