The only thing we love more than delicious food is when it is prepared by a kick- ass woman. Esther Choi has smarts, style and a way with kimchi that is going to make her a culinary force to be reckoned with, and we were lucky enough to sit down with her over a cold OB at Mokbar and learn more about her. Overall take away: We we love her, everyone is going to love her, and below are the reasons why.
1. Can’t Knock the Hustle
While working at the Food Network, which is located in the same building as Chelsea Market, Esther heard that the space formerly occupied by Questlove’s fried chicken joint was available. Through pure determination and quality cooking, Esther impressed the powers that be enough to beat out other more established chefs and operators to make the space hers. Even as we spoke to Esther, she had her eye on the open kitchen at all times, watching every dish that was prepared and served.
2. She’s helping to make Korilla the Chipotle killa
Besides overseeing every aspect of Mokbar, Esther recently took the reigns at the first brick and mortar Korilla outpost, training staff, revamping recipes and creating a concept that can be rolled out to other locations. The goal at Korilla is to be a Korean “Chipolte”, a quick service restaurant that presents authentic, locally sourced Korean ingredients and flavors in an approachable way for American tastes.
3. She keeps it real
Esther’s company mission is to make Korean food more mainstream, to get it out there and have people try it. She keeps half of her food very traditional (you can not f–k with some things, like kimchi, and she makes all the kimchi at Mokbar herself) while adding items that will be more familiar to Americans, for example roasted vegetables with Korean flavors, like sesame oil. No gimmicks, no pretense, just straight forward hard work and good cooking. She wants to see what her customers are into and what tastes might be too foreign. While Esther is confident that she can roll out more Mokbars, her real dream is to have a full service restaurant, that would give her more freedom than the counter set-up at Mokbar allows. She envisions a place similar to what April Bloomfield has created with the Spotted Pig (another kick-ass woman chef), with a fabulous bar menu and creative cocktails; more fun than fancy or fussy, but full service.
4. Those Ho Cakes
The Ho cakes at Mokbar are starting to gain quite a following, and with good reason. Lightly fried, slightly crispy yet still chewy and stuffed with pork, they are Esther’s answer to the now ubiquitous pork buns that are on the menu at every ramen restaurant in town. The ho cakes are Esther’s favorite thing on the menu, an ode to her childhood and her time living in Korea. Traditional Ho cakes are a sweet street food, often stuffed with peanuts, sesame and brown sugar, and Esther’s savory rendition honors her memories while making them her own. The dough took six months to perfect, with a lot of trial and error to adjust for weather, humidity, etc on any given day.
5. She is not afraid to play with the boys
Male or female, the kitchen is the great equalizer. “Either you have it, or you don’t,” says Esther, when asked about what it takes for a woman to make it happen in a male -dominated kitchen, since she cut her teeth at La Esquina. “Women are a huge asset in any kitchen; we are patient and detail oriented, skills that are not always associated with men. Respect in the kitchen must be earned, you need to stand your ground, have a thick skin, and prove yourself like crazy. I look young and I am pretty small, but I kept my eyes and ears open and now I feel comfortable in any kitchen setting.”
6. Esther uses her noodle
Or rather, noodles… Esther had never cooked ramen before; she learned on her own and created her own menu. When it was time to test her ramen creations for her menu, she knew what kind of noodle she wanted and also where to get them – Sun Noodles. She tested 20-30 noodles to find exactly what she had in mind, making each ramen dish acutely true to her vision.
7. Not afraid of fun
Although she is some times too busy to eat, Esther loves meat, and needs Korean BBQ on the regular. After a long day all she can stomach are some fresh veggies or something simple like fruit, but she has been known to show her friends up in the shoju department, and is apparently a great guide to the true K-town. We are eagerly awaiting our tour…
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