As much as she is a chef and a restaurateur, Esther Choi also considers herself an ambassador for Korean cuisine and culture in the United States.
Born to Korean parents in the suburban town of Egg Harbor, N.J., Choi was always keenly aware of her heritage. Choi’s grandmother Jungok Yoo took care of the children while their parents worked, preparing kimchi and other traditional recipes in the age-old fashion, grinding her own chile for seasoning and fermenting vegetables in pots in the backyard. Choi’s grandmother grew her own vegetables in the garden; Choi followed her everywhere, asking questions and learning.
The willing young chef’s awareness deepened when the family moved to Korea for three years, in order to fulfill her parents’ desire that their children embrace the culture. For Choi, this was a true awakening to the role that food plays in people’s lives.
“Food is the ambassador of a culture,” she says. “It expresses all the elements that define a country—its history, social customs, language, geography, and art traditions.”
It’s also passed from generation to generation, as it was from Choi’s grandmother. “She taught me everything I know about food, how to love every ingredient, how to respect the process and thoughtful preparation of every dish.”
She began working in restaurants at age 14. “I probably worked every job there is in a restaurant, front-of-the-house to back,” explains Choi. Along the way, she realized that restaurant work wasn’t just a job—food had become a love and a passion. She set her sights on one day having her own restaurant so that she could share her passion for the flavors and ingredients of her culture with others.
After graduating from Rutgers University, she attended the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City, in order to perfect her craft. She also worked in the Manhattan kitchens of ilili and La Esquina, gaining an appreciation of Mediterranean and authentic Mexican cuisine in the process. A position in culinary purchasing at the Food Network helped hone her natural entrepreneurial inclination.
In 2014, Choi opened Mokbar in Manhattan’s bustling Chelsea market, when she was just 28—beating her long-held goal of having her own restaurant at 30. Mokbar in Brooklyn opened in late 2016. The name Mokbar references mokbang, the infamous Korean hobby of watching other people eat (mok means “eat”). But it was always about paying tribute to her beloved grandmother and the food she loved.
One way she pays tribute is with kimchi. She ferments nine different kinds in crocks and jars in the labyrinthine prep area behind the restaurant, and experiments with different seasonal vegetables, in a process she calls “kimchifying.”
“Kimchi is in my soul and in every single one of my recipes,” explains Choi. One of her favorites is Kimchi Jjgae, a spicy stew that can be made with meat or seafood and tofu, redolent with garlic, fish sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, and scallions—and of course kimchi.
“To me, Korean food is not just about cooking and being a chef,” she says. “It’s about the love of family, culture, and respect of my heritage. That is who I am, both personally and professionally. I want everyone to fall in love with Korean food and culture. That’s my ultimate goal.”