Chef Hong Preaches the Virtues of Hansik

by journojames on April 27, 2012

Originally published Mar. 23, 2012

Near the gleaming mirrored wine bar in cozy Sebastian’s Bistro in Huntington Beach, California, a short 46-year-old Korean man in chef’s whites and black-rimmed glasses, sets up a cooking station on a large rectangular table for a demo. His compact stature, boyish looks and nimble movements make him appear closer to 30 than 50.

Chef Mike Hong, Photo by JournoJames

This is chef Mike Hong. He preaches about Korean food. Even in little Italian bistros absent of any hungry Koreans.

While he considers himself a professional sushi chef first, he says that introducing people to Korean cuisine, or Hansik, is his true calling.

Tonight, he drove an arduous 110 miles from his home in mountainous Running Springs to do just that.

Hong drives a lot. For more than a year he’s been driving all around Southern California — from Irvine to La Canada and Hawthorne to Diamond Bar – offering cooking lessons to anyone who was curious about Japanese and Korean cuisine.

He admits that the constant driving is a burden, but he gets to work with food, so he’s willing to put up with the extra time in his car.

Twenty of Sebastian’s most curious patrons crowd the intimate room tonight. They’re sitting at small dining tables, patiently sipping wine and waiting for Hong and his sous chef Robert Silva to start their sushi-making lesson.

“I’ll show some Korean food towards the end,” Hong says with a mischievous grin, as if that’s his true motive for the evening’s class. “I think they’ll love it. It’s what usually happens.”

Chef Hong encourages students to try new tastes, Photo by JournoJames

The soft-spoken chef is passionate about Hansik, so much so that he recently established the only Korean culinary institute in the U.S.

His mission is simple: educate and feed Americans Hansik, even if he has to do it one person at a time.

The Culinary Institute of Korea (C.I.K.), founded in October 2010, is located in Chino, California, in the McCalla Center, a large, mundane beige-colored strip mall occupied by insurance companies and fast food restaurants.

Since opening, Hong has introduced Hansik to hundreds of amateur cooks, such as Korea’s famous national dish kimchi (fermented vegetables). He has also mentored 15 students who have graduated as professional Korean cuisine chefs.

“Maybe it was a mid-life crisis,” Hong says with a laugh when asked about starting the cooking school.

Hong speaks English fluently, without a hint that he was foreign born, from Seoul, S. Korea. He, along with his older brother, sister and parents, immigrated to the U.S. when he was just 6 years old.

His family first landed in South Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, where Hong’s aunt and American uncle lived. Hong says that his parents uprooted the family from Korea — where economic development was just beginning and life was still difficult — and settled in the U.S. with hopes of making the American Dream a reality.

“We didn’t have much in Korea,” says Hong. “My parents just thought that America would be the best place for their children to get the most opportunities to succeed.”

Hong says he instantly fell in love with his new country. He grew up in a predominately white middle-class neighborhood where he had access to just about everything a kid could want, and he embraced it all.

His young life was filled with soda pops, Hershey’s chocolates, swimming lessons, little league baseball and Cub Scout camping trips. Hong loved America so much he said that he grew up ignoring his Korean identity, focusing instead on completely assimilating into the American culture.

“My mindset shifted when I was really young,” Hong says. “I really embraced the American ideology. And as I was growing up, I began to wonder why Koreans did the things they did? I couldn’t relate to them anymore.”

During high school Hong and his family moved again, out west this time to California to follow Hong’s older brother, Steve, who enrolled at U.C.L.A. They eventually settled in Anaheim where Hong’s father got into the construction business.

Hong later attended Cal Poly Pomona in the mid-1980s, majoring in hotel and restaurant management.

“At the time I didn’t want to have anything to do with restaurants. They were always so hot, messy and chaotic,” Hong says. “I wanted to go into the hotel side.”

But, after college, Hong did neither. Instead, he ended up following in older brother Steve’s footsteps and became a pastor.

“My father hated the ministry and when Steve and I went into pastorship, he did not approve,” Hong says. “We weren’t on speaking terms for a very long time.”

Hong wasn’t talking to his father, but he was speaking to large congregations. He served at three different Korean churches, including the West Presbyterian Church of America in South Bay, where he preached to over 400 devoted members.

Hong says he loved being a pastor but he found the traditional ways of the Korean church confining and intolerant of his American way of thinking. He painfully realized that pastorship wasn’t his calling. Hong found himself doing some serious soul-searching, struggling to find an answer.

“I felt really guilty about leaving the church,” Hong says. “But it was the right thing to do. And then I kept thinking about my restaurant and hotel management training days, especially the restaurant part. I must have enjoyed it more than I thought. I think that’s when I realized that food was my real passion. I love to eat.”

Hong loves to eat sushi. It’s one of his most favorite foods. So, he followed his heart — and stomach — and decided to become a sushi chef.

He felt good about his decision. But Jade, his wife, whom he met at church during his pastorship days, wasn’t completely sold on the idea at first.

“Japanese cuisine is very detailed,” Hong says. “And I’m not a very detailed person. So, Jade thought it would be difficult for me.”

Jade, an elementary school teacher, was also concerned about how such a radical career transition would affect their family; they had a son, Michael Jr., who was 8 years old at the time and daughter Joyce, who was 7. But, in the end, she wanted to support her husband.

With Jade’s blessing, Hong first enrolled at the culinary program at the Art Institute of California in San Bernardino. He then commuted over 200 miles every day to attend the Sushi Chef Institute in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo.

If that grueling schedule wasn’t enough, he also held a part-time security job in L.A. during graveyard shifts. Hong says it was the only way to ensure some kind of fixed income to help support his family.

“It was the ultimate challenge,” says Hong. “I remember going to master sushi chef Andy Matsuda, who runs the Sushi Institute, and saying, ‘This is all the money I have. If I don’t make it here, I’m not going to make it in life.’”

Hong not only made it through school, he was fortunate enough to find work immediately after graduating, working as a sushi chef at Nara Restaurant in Chino Hills. He enjoyed his experience there but he said the more he cooked and practiced making sushi, the more he was drawn to Korean food.

“I couldn’t deny my wanting of Korean tastes and flavors in my cooking. I couldn’t deny my own history,” Hong says.

Midway through the sushi lesson at Sebastian’s, Hong strolls around the dining room. He and Silva have given their demonstrations and now quietly observe their students attempting to mimic and follow their instructions.

Chef Hong during the cooking class, Photo by JournoJames

He scans the room and notices a gray-haired woman in glasses and a purple-striped blouse struggling to make a sushi roll.

Hong approaches her and offers specific instructions: “Remember, don’t overwork the rice when you create the bed for your sushi,” he says.

Hong says he enjoys offering cooking classes because he’s interested in embracing people and informing them. He says that’s why he started C.I.K.

“If we want to popularize Korean food, we must start with educating people about Korean food,” Hong says.

Korean cuisine and restaurants are starting to take root in the American food landscape.

In the last couple of years, the Los Angeles Kogi food truck vaulted kalbi, Korean short ribs, into the American culinary mainstream and inspired countless food truck spin-offs across the country.

Korean fast food restaurants, such as Sorabol, KyoChon and Bibigo have also recently began appearing in food courts in American shopping malls.

Hong’s personal crusade of teaching and spreading the virtues of Korean cuisine comes at an opportune time.

Recently, the South Korean government announced an effort to promote and foster the globalization of Korean food. The $40 million government program was launched in 2008 and their plans include promoting Korean chefs, establishing Korean cooking schools, and opening over 40,000 popular Korean restaurants worldwide by 2017.

Hong says he hadn’t heard about the Korean government’s program in 2008 when he decided to pursue his dreams of becoming a chef.

Even if he had, it’s doubtful he would’ve pursued a career in Hansik at the time. He had little interest in Korean culture.

“I usually avoided visiting Korean restaurants,” says Hong. “I didn’t like them. I usually found the service to be generally rude and the food to be overwhelming and overpriced.”

Hong’s critical attitude towards Korean restaurants is not surprising. For most of his life, he always kept his Korean identity at an arm’s length.

Cooking has changed all that.

“I found this yearning to touch base with my culture. It was always there,” Hong says.

Chef Hong makes kimbap, Photo by JournoJames

The sushi lesson ends with applause. Hong thanks Sebastian’s audience and invites anyone who is curious to learn about Hansik to approach his demo table before leaving.

“I want to show you kimbap. It’s really easy to make,” Hong says. “It’s like a California roll.”

More than half of the crowd makes its way up to the Korean chef and gathers around him.

He shows them a small notebook-sized rectangular-shaped sheet of dried laver and places it on a thin bamboo sushi rolling matt. He then spreads steamed white rice over the bottom two-thirds of the sheet of laver.

The curious foodies watch Hong lay the traditional ingredients — gently sauted spinach, sauted julienned carrots, long strips of dakuan (marinated radish) and egg, and bulgogi (marinated beef) — onto the bed of rice, lengthwise.

Imagine the rolling of a cigar or cigarette. Similarly, Hong folds the bamboo sushi matt away from him, creating a long rice roll with the sheet of laver on the outside and the rice and savory ingredients becoming the filling. He then slices the long roll into small bite-sized sections.

“Kimbap is all about the celebration of health, life, and longevity,” Hong explains.

Everyone standing around the kimbap demonstration takes a slice and eats.

“Notice how everything about the kimbap, its ingredients, is long and lengthy,” Hong says. “Longevity is a constant theme in Korean cuisine.

The gray-haired woman in glasses and the purple-striped blouse snatches a second slice before she finishes her first one.

Chef Hong offers a modest smile. He looks pleased.

It’s almost nine o’clock at night.

Sebastian’s patrons who were here for the sushi lesson have all left. Hong, however, is still busy packing and cleaning up.

“Tonight was a good example. People are really curious about Korean food,” Hong says while still working. “When they got to taste it, they loved it. They went crazy for it. That’s the general reaction I’m getting from all my demonstrations.”

Hong is currently overbooked with cooking classes and demos all spring. Many are scheduled at local libraries throughout the Los Angeles area for the next several weeks in between his teaching schedule at the C.I.K. Hong says that his father even attends his library demos these days and helps him cook.

Chef Hong is busy demonstrating all over the Southland, Photo by JournoJames

The overbooked and overworked Korean chef says he also has a new project underway. He’s about to set up a Hansik Bar that serves Korean cuisine, Tapas style, in Hesperia.

“I really want to reach out and connect with people who have never tried Korean food. Like the people here tonight,” Hong says. “It’s my calling.”

Hong wipes his brow and goes back to cleaning up. He has a long drive home ahead of him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 2 comments }

Kayla Nguyen March 16, 2015 at 10:12 AM

How can I get in contact Mike Hong

journojames March 17, 2015 at 9:48 PM

Culinary Institute of Korea
14260 Chino Hills Pkwy Chino Hills, CA 91709
(310) 387-6728

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