Photo credit: Jackie Donnelly
“The word ‘Korean’ has to be in the book title, Rachel,” said Susan kindly but firmly. It was our first real sit-down to talk about the title, which was something we’d danced around in the weeks since I decided to publish my first cookbook with Seattle-based Sasquatch Books. Susan is Susan Roxborough, the book’s editor. She was an amazing force behind my book, and I knew from the start that she knew more than I did about publishing.
“But it’s not really a Korean cookbook,” I pushed back. “I have worked so hard over the last 10 years to convince people that while I am Korean, my restaurants aren’t really Korean.” She waited patiently for me to finish. She knew what sorts of titles Sasquatch needed to sell a book and, ultimately, knew what readers would expect — and thus buy. I knew it was a useless fight. That day, as would happen on many days, we stalled, both still reasonably happy with using My Rice Bowl
as the title, but stuck as ever on a subtitle.
I couldn't give in because part of the reason I wanted to write a book was to shake up expectations about what defines Korean food — and what defines me as a chef who is Korean, but isn’t always necessarily a Korean chef. When most customers walk into a nice restaurant, they expect elevated service. If you see that the chef is Asian, you expect the menu to have some sort of Asian cuisine. I was afraid that if people read “Korean” on the cover of My Rice Bowl
, they would expect
to be reading about how to make bulgogi
. But as anyone who has come to our restaurants knows, we do not do traditional Korean food. It’s part of the reason our restaurants (Revel, Joule, and Trove in Seattle, and now Revelry in Portland) are so distinct. We surprise people. We shock taste buds. We break any stereotype diners have about Korean food.
It might seem funny — overblown or harsh, maybe? — to blame diners for stereotyping. Maybe I just didn’t want to create false expectations. I felt like any so-called Korean cookbook would just further the stereotype many diners have about Korean food.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m the type to perceive expectations around every corner. After all, I grew up knowing pressure. I was raised in Korea with traditional Korean parents — lovely people who expected nothing but the very best from me. They expected me to study hard, to become a doctor or a lawyer, and to marry into their ideal vision for me. I’m sure they envisioned the newspaper clipping that would make them most proud: Well-raised Korean girl attends Harvard University, marries Korean surgeon, moves home, and lives happily ever after.
We surprise people. We shock taste buds.
Instead, I went to Brown, then culinary school, stayed in the States, and married another chef. It wasn’t quite my own expectation, but it has turned out to be the most inspiring and satisfying path I could ever imagine. In our restaurants, I take daily pride in how our food challenges diners’ expectations. When something looks and tastes as expected, it often is a little too boring. We as humans want food that’s familiar but something that simultaneously takes us out of our comfort zones. Diversity is one of the best ways to make you a little uncomfortable. From the very beginning, I’ve put very heavy expectations on myself to create food that is totally unique. I’ve wanted my food to be diverse in what is often a very bland restaurant landscape.
Over the past two years, I’ve loved the Portland restaurant scene precisely because of its diversity. People often ask me about the difference I sense between the Portland and Seattle restaurant scenes. My answer usually comes quickly. “You know how when you go home, you have your favorite place that just does northern Thai curry, another place that rocks the awesome Southern fried chicken, and maybe another place that has the best Eastern European dumplings? Portland is just that,” I say. Here, the supposedly “niche” restaurants are being celebrated and appreciated in a bigger way (or even taken for granted, which can be a good thing!).
When Feast Portland
inaugurated in 2012, the intention of bringing in more diversity was very clear. It was perfect for a city where being mainstream wasn’t ever really cool. Feast was all about highlighting different chefs who bring a diverse array of cuisines to the table. When you get to build your brand around giving people more than what they expect, and watch your chefs pushing their boundaries by showcasing something unexpected every time a diner walks in, people get excited about food.
And it’s that excitement that keeps me feeling driven and challenged every day. When I’m on the line, I love eavesdropping on the guests dining at the counter. My favorite part is when people take a bite and their faces twist as they try to solve an interesting puzzle. They usually take a second bite before they speak. “I’m not sure what this is, but it reminds me of something very familiar,” goes the storyline (almost every time). “I can’t quite pinpoint it. But it’s really good. Taste it!” That, to me, is the ultimate compliment.
In the end, we called the book My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines
. It does have Korean roots, but almost every recipe veers into the unexpected. The subtitle conveyed that it wasn’t meant to be the go-to cookbook for general Korean cooking. (Similarly, my restaurants won’t be quite what you want if you are looking for traditional banchan and free kimchi.) However, if you are looking for a cookbook that will talk about the ingredients and flavors of Korean food and how they intersect with flavors from all over the world, My Rice Bowl
will probably keep you up way past your bedtime. And yes, I’ll expect you up early again tomorrow anyway.
÷ ÷ ÷
and her husband, Seif Chirchi, own and operate Joule, Revel, and Trove in Seattle, WA, and Revelry in Portland, OR. The duo holds three James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef in 2015, 2017, and 2017. My Rice Bowl
is her first book.