it was the via negativa way of figuring out i wanted to do with my life: i didn’t know what i wanted, but i knew what i didn’t want. (momofuku, 19)
benu is very much a restaurant that’s influenced by different cultures. like san francisco and its environs, which has the highest asian concentration of any area in the US, there’s distinct eastern influence. sense of place is expressed not so much in the locality of the products we use, but through the spirit and the cultural influences of our area that permeate our food. the cooking at benu often explores how asian flavors, ideas, and aesthetics can harmonize with western ones. in that way, i think it reflects a bit of my bicultural background as well. and in the process of establishing an identity for the restaurant, i came to a better understanding of my own. (benu, 23)
i imagined what it would be like if my ancestors had ended up in charleston, south carolina, a few generations before i was born. they would have eaten corn, they would have eaten grits, they would have cooked with bacon. or, if southerners were magically transplanted to korea, they’d eat jook instead of grits at breakfast. and you know a people who can handle the salty power of a country ham certainly could have gotten down with kimchi. i imagined a japanese cook making grits — you know he’d boil it in dash and season it with soy.
i guess these were all conversations i was having with myself. i didn’t want to be cooking shitting fusion food. i consoled myself by thinking about how vietnamese cuisine and cajun cooking adapted from french techniques into something that might have looked french but tasted totally different. but it was with this dish ["shrimp and grits"] that i decided — or accepted — that if we reached past “tradition” to create the truest and best version of a dish for our own palates, then what we were doing wasn’t bullshit. momofuku was going pretty strong at this point, but this is the dish that allowed us — or me, certainly — to really look outward and onward. (momofuku, 110)
how to talk about some shit? here’s some stuff in lists.
01. these days, reading is done pretty much as pure escapism, and there is no greater, more gratifying escape than to slip into the world of food. food has its own language, its own rules, and, unlike other art forms, it’s firmly grounded because the elements of food come from the earth. the best chefs, i think, are sensitive to this, to the seasons, to the shifting and changing of the environment, just as they’re sensitive to culture and technique and the globally varied approaches to food.
02. i recently read benu (phaidon, 2015) and chased that with momofuku (clarkson potter, 2009), and they’re both written by korean-american chefs (corey lee and david chang/peter meehan, respectively). they both take inspiration from korean food, but they also draw from chinese, taiwanese, japanese, vietnamese, french cooking and flavors and technique, paying respect to these sources but unafraid to toss out tradition and try new things. there’s a sort of mad scientist glee to their innovation, and i bloody love it.
03. i love seeing what korean-americans (and, in general, asian-americans) are doing. we all negotiate our relationships with our ethnic identities in different ways — some of us reject it outright; some of us acknowledge it though it doesn’t play a large, obvious part in our lives; and some of us draw significant parts of our identity from it. it’s not just ethnic identity, either, because we also negotiate our relationships with our sexual identities, gender identities, etcetera in our own ways, and there’s no “right” way to do so. there is no “right” way to be asian-american, just like there is no “right” way to be LGBTQ or to be a woman. there is only the way that is right for you, and one of the great, exciting things for me in recent years has been to see and witness how we contribute and present our individual selves to the world.
04. benu and momofuku are fun books to read back to back. lee and chang have their similarities — they’re both korean-americans of the same age who grew up (or spent significant amounts of their youth) on the east coast and have reputations for being intense in the kitchen and obsessing over details — but to dwell on or make much of these similarities would be to do both a disservice. the juxtaposition is interesting, though, because of the ways they diverge in so many ways; chang is more foul-mouthed and has a dry sense of humor while lee is more formal and restrained with his words (at least in writing). lee’s cooking is more elevated and refined, very little of which someone could attempt at home, while chang goes for the masses without muddling accessibility with low quality. none of this is meant as an inherent compliment, and none of it is meant as an insult because what benu & momofuku show us is that here is how two creative minds work. here is how they venture off on their own individual creative pathways and bring us something wonderful. here are two ways of being amongst the billions there are on this planet.
05. it must be said: the recipe writing in momofuku is top notch; it has a character of its own. and the photography/design in benu is so fucking stunning. trust phaidon to turn out an aesthetic wonder of a book.
06. the flip side of reading as pure escapism, though — at one point, the book ends. at one point, we run out of pages, and we’re ejected back into our realities, at which point, sometimes, the only option is to find the next book to chase the next high and avoid the crashing low. sometimes, though, we’re left in better shape because the reading has fortified us and given us better insulation. i suppose it’s a gamble of sorts, one we play while hoping for the latter.
07. god damn, though, i love food.
a. here’s a story photographs don’t tell: these days, it’s about simple things, simple tasks — making a grocery list, walking to my favorite pie bakery and eating a slice of pie, cooking dinner. it sounds stupid, maybe, but, these days, i feel like i’m skating on thin ice, and i’ve got to keep moving or else i’ll fall through, except i’m just moving for the sake of moving and it’s exhausting and it feels like a matter of time before the ice gives way under me. this is what suicidal depression feels like.
b. i get so scared attaching “suicidal” to “depression.” depression on its own — to the healthy mind — and, hell, maybe even to the depressed mind, though in a self-loathing, self-hating sort of way — seems relatively harmless. it sounds like something that can be overcome, although that’s really a product of how we’ve made depression fill in for basic human sadness when depression actually runs much deeper, more insidiously than that. you attach “suicidal” to it, though, and it immediately takes on a different tone. ooh, now we’re talking about dying, ooh, how dark, ooh, how melodramatic.
c. one of the worst things about suicidal depression is silence. it’s not being able to speak, whether because it’s just not physically possible (seriously, sometimes, words just don’t come out) or because there’s so much fear attached to it — a fear of being dismissed, of not being taken seriously, of being taken too seriously. there’s also a sense of exhaustion attached to it, too, because there are only so many platitudes you can take. it’s guilt, too, guilt because you’re likely making everyone else feel like shit, because people might be trying to be there for you but you’re not being receptive, because you’re not taking to any of their solutions even if they seem practical and rational.
d. here’s the thing to remember, though, the crucial detail that changes everything: the depressed mind, the suicidal mind, operates outside pragmatic rationale. it has a logic of its own, and it is a logic that sees and acknowledges dying as a viable solution.
e. the thing about books that act as records is that they often come after the struggle. they come after the creators have survived, have achieved success, and struggle is something that can be viewed in retrospect. i wonder a lot about whether or not i should write so openly about suicidal depression now, if maybe this writing is best saved for later (if there is a later), for after this has passed (if it ever does), but i wonder, too, if this is a form of self-censorship. isn’t there value in putting these words down now and making them public? i want to say yes because i think it’s important not to attach the clause of survival to every story because, sometimes, the truth is that we don’t survive, and that’s why i think it’s important to see things for what they are, as they are, when they are, even if they’re in really dark places that scare us and put us off and make us uncomfortable. and so we find ourselves here.
f. which is not to dismiss books that act as records, like benu and momofuku. we need records; we need stories that remind us that, sometimes, the only option is to fling ourselves off the precipice and take the crazy risks and work hard and trust ourselves even amidst the insecurities and the fears and the probabilities stacked against us. we need reminders of this, and, sometimes, we need them more than we do at other times, and i’m glad that they’re there. these books were a tremendous source of comfort to me over the last few days, and, in times like these, that means the world.
g. oddly (maybe), my lasting impression from benu and momofuku was the thought, huh, i guess maybe there is a space in the world for me. this is why i want to create and write and share.
i knew it from the beginning, from when quino and i did everything ourselves, but by this point i knew the difference between momofuku and mcdonald’s: caring. caring about every detail. when you start to cook on autopilot, when you buy into bullshit people write about you, when you stop paying attention to details — not to mention big things, like seasoning — no amount of press in the world will make up for it. i preached this to my crew. what is the point of cooking at all if you’re not gonna do it right? (momofuku, 223)
x. i often wonder who the market is for cookbooks, and i wonder this because i feel like i do not fit into that market. i so rarely cook from cookbooks, and i look at cookbooks as reading material — but it’s not like i’m losing sleep over this.
x. that’s one thing i loved about benu so much because lee even directly says this in his introduction (which i’ve quoted before). it’s not so much about me attempting these recipes as it is gaining a different perspective, picking up some really cool knowledge about food and food production that i wouldn’t have come across in my average daily life, and learning to see culture (even my ethnic culture that i grew up with) in new ways. it’s learning to think of language in different ways because, like i said, food has its own language, and language, often, is something we take for granted.
x. this was a thing i loved about both books, that lee and chang pay tribute to different aspects of korean culture, and this was one of my favorites from benu, and i will leave you with this:
the term haenyeo, or “sea women”, refers to the legendary female divers of jeju island, an island province off the coast of south korea. they free-dive into the deep waters for various edibles and play a major role in the seafood trade on the island.
it is generally accepted that the first known documentation of female divers in jeju dates back to the seventeenth century, during the joseon period, when the primary role of the haenyeo was to supply the royal court. their financial independence eventually helped to establish a matriarchal sub-culture that is unique to the island and in stark contrast to the rest of korea which has deep roots in male-dominated confucian thought. although it has become a dwindling tradition in modern times, with most haenyeo well into their seventies, the sight of these daring women and their floating buoys is still very much a part of the life on jeju island today.
as a chef, any encounter with the farmer, the fisherman or with anyone who has pulled up their own sleeves to get you the raw materials you cook with can be an educational experience. with these women, however, what i learned is not so much related to food or the products they supply. they are living emblems of korean cultural heritage and embody the resilience of its people and, in particular, the strength and self-sacrifice of its women. and for me, their unwavering spirit is much more beautiful and palpable than can be imagined through any folklore. (benu, 220)