Korean ingredients are popping up in the most unlikely of places. A few years ago a kimchee slider would have been a curiosity, but now in cities across the country bibimbap-inspired breakfast dishes and Korean flavor in comfort foods are taking their place in the culinary scene. Chef Debbie Lee has made a name for herself creating menus at several restaurants, appearing on the Food Network and now, with her new cookbook, Seoultown Kitchen, she shares her take on Seoul's pub grub with recipes for small plates, skewers and cocktails.
Lee lives in Los Angeles, a city home to a massive Koreatown estimated to have more than 3000 restaurants, from Korean BBQ joints and noodle houses to tofu hot pot cafes, not to mention dozens of bars. For the last year she has been rolling around town in her Ahn-Joo food truck serving up her favorite Korean pub grub dishes, and has a brick-and-mortar snack bar set to open. We asked "Chef Deb" to sit down for a beer and a bite—spicy kimchee fried rice—to talk more about the cookbook, as well as the tastes of her childhood, her love of bar food and the origin of her Korean nachos.
Why is Korean food so popular in LA?
Korean food has become part of daily food culture in several cities across the U.S. People have caught on not only to the great flavors and textures of the cuisine, but also their range of uses. Whether you are eating a classic bibibap or if you are jazzing up a burger with some kimchee, what's not to love?
What led you to focus on Korean pub food?
It's my favorite way to eat. Being a chef and working restaurants all day long, Korean pubs are great to go to for a late-night meal, have a drink and unwind with your friends. It's a ritual in Korean pop culture, contrary to the notion that we eat Korean BBQ every day. Galbi is like our steak and is eaten on special occasions, not for daily dining.
How do you develop your recipes?
A lot of it comes from my childhood with my grandmother in the kitchen. Then having my own interpretation of my favorite items that I order in a Korean pub.
Where did the idea for your Korean nachos come from? Did you feel you needed to include a fusion dish or are they just ingredients that you felt were destined to be served together?
The concept of the Korean nacho was inspired from the classic take on tteokbokki. Typically the dish is wok-tossed with vegetables, sometimes pork belly and chile sauce. Nowadays the thing to do is to top it with cheddar or mozzarella cheese and broil it. So it got me thinking of taking it apart in a separate way while still keeping the concept of the original dish.
Your popular Ahn-Joo food truck has been rolling around LA for a while. Where can people taste your Ahn-Joo menu now?
On 10 November my brick and mortar Ahn-Joo will be open daily at the Americana at Brand in Glendale, California. A true Korean snack bar!