From Korean to Japanese to Thai, Asian cuisine continues to create strong inroads into mainstream cooking, influencing many chefs whipping up a variety of fare, while also perfecting traditional dishes. Much of that is often from first-generation Asian Americans cooking the food they grew up eating and taking inspiration from food they learned to cook while watching older relatives in their home kitchens.
“As a kid, we would experiment in the kitchen,” recalls Edward Kim, chef/owner of Chicago’s Mott St. and Mini Mott. “We were always exposed to food from grandma’s cooking. My uncle in Korea was a baker. There was a lot of exposure and food was super important.”
Kim eventually studied at Le Cordon Bleu and trained under celebrated chefs before returning home to Chicago to open Ruxbin, an intimate (now closed) new American bistro heavily influenced by French technique and Asian flavors. He then opened Mott St., where he creates elevated Asian street food with a heavy focus on Korean flavors using local ingredients.
“But it’s the idea of cooking with that spirit versus trying to cook to those recipes verbatim.”
– Edward Kim, Chef/owner of Chicago’s Mott ST. & Mini Mott
“If you’re making Korean food in Chicago, you’re limited by the ingredients you have,” Kim admits. “But it’s the idea of cooking with that spirit versus trying to cook to those recipes verbatim.”
John Ng, who moved with his family from Hong Kong to Northern California as a teenager, started cooking with his mother and grandmother and would prepare meals for his family. He and his wife, Lina Goh, now live in Minneapolis and own the popular Japanese restaurant Zen Box Izakaya. The menu comprises items like tonkatsu, poke, gyoza and other Japanese favorites, but ramen is the star—and Ng connects that back to his childhood in Hong Kong.
“Ramen was originally passed on from China to Japan a long time ago,” Ng explains. “In Hong Kong, we eat a lot of noodle dishes. I started creating that connection between Chinese and Japanese cooking in that one dish.”
St. Louis doesn’t have a large Korean community, but that didn’t stop David Choi from first launching his Seoul Taco food truck, selling Mexican-styled street food with Korean ingredients, and eventually opening restaurants around St. Louis and Chicago. He grew up eating Korean food, generally prepared by his grandmother, who taught him many traditional techniques.
“There’s a level of respect there,” Choi says. “It’s taking your time, using quality ingredients and not taking any shortcuts. My grandmother would playfully smack me if I used a substitute that wasn’t up to her standards.”
It’s safe to assume no matter what you’re cooking, always listen to your grandmother. She’s usually right.