March Chef of Chef Works: Esther Choi

If you watched the return of Iron Chef on Netflix last year, then you remember Chef Esther Choi. Not only was she the season’s highest scoring challenger; she battled The Chairmen’s carefully selected posse of Iron Chefs by bringing her full self to Kitchen Stadium.

Korean soul food was the ace up Chef Choi’s sleeve: tteokbokki with dumplings, ssam three ways, crab bibimbap. Her Korean-inspired ramen even impressed the iconic Chef Morimoto. Below, Chef Esther Choi talks with Chef Works about falling in love with food and her Korean heritage, what she really thinks about being a woman in the industry, and how she keeps her dreams dynamic.

Can you tell us about how you got your start in the industry?

Being born in South Jersey, New Jersey, we didn’t really have a big Korean community, let alone Asian community in general. My parents and my grandparents were always very much missing that part of their lives. So my grandma would bring over seeds from Korea and grow all of her own vegetables. They would take monthly trips to Philadelphia, which was the closest grocery store, and she would stock up on as many Asian groceries as she could. But she had to be very resourceful, so she would take a lot of American ingredients and turn them Korean. She was such an amazing cook and still is. I grew up eating Korean food through her eyes — and that’s how I fell in love with Korean food and my heritage in general.

What’s your advice for women pursuing a career as a chef, who are still underrepresented in the industry?

I think that you can’t really think about your identity when you’re starting. You have to know that you want this; that’s the first thing. Not everyone is built for this career because it’s so very, very difficult. Not only for men or women. Just in general. So the first thing is you can’t even think about your identity. Oh, I’m a woman, so it’s going to be harder. No, it’s not like that; it’s hard for everybody. You just have to find your own path within it. For me, I just loved food and cooking. It had nothing to do with ‘Oh, it’s a male-dominated world.’ It didn’t even phase me at the time. I just wanted it so bad, and I was very hungry to learn. That was the main focal point for me: just having that hunger. Of course when you start working in a restaurant, you’re going to be a little traumatized I think either way — being a man or woman. And I think women especially because it is so physically laborious. But I think that you’re definitely born with it. Like if you can endure it, you’re gonna do it. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not for you. And you’ll know pretty quickly if it is or not.

I’m tiny. In a kitchen, I can’t carry 50 pounds of hot boiling oil and clean the fryers. There are things I can’t physically do. But the way I thought about it was: How can I overcome these shortcomings and make it beneficial to me? What can I use that I know are my assets to succeed in this kitchen? That was, for me, managing the people around me. Like making sure I can move that oil even if I physically am not doing it. I, maybe, trade with the guy next to me and say, ‘Hey, I’ll cook you something really delicious if you can move this oil for me.’ There’s things that you can do and ways that you can kind of manipulate the system, and it’s about using your head. Women are very smart, and I think we have intuition that men don’t. We’re very intuitive in a lot of things that we do, especially when it comes to cooking, working people, and being able to multitask. These are the ways I succeeded in kitchens and worked my way up into management. That’s the best advice I could give: figuring out what you’re good at, what your assets are, and how to utilize them to overcome whatever shortcomings you have, whether it be physical or mental.

You’ve done a broad array of work within the culinary industry. You’ve owned brick-and-mortar restaurants, you’ve done shows, you’ve been a judge — how did your career evolve into those things?

When I first started this entrepreneurial journey, it wasn’t with the expectation of ‘I’m going to build this 360 brand.’ It definitely was not like that. I had one goal — and it was to open a restaurant. It was every chef’s dream to be able to open their own restaurant, especially in New York City. I was fairly young at the time; I was 27. And when I accomplished it, I realized that that was actually the difficult part. When you become an entrepreneur, you can’t undo it. It’s like having a child. You gotta accept it, whether you like it or not. Meaning entrepreneurship is not only the amazing things that you see. It’s actually very, very difficult. And maybe I wasn’t ready for it — but I have to be. You have to mature yourself to be like, ‘Okay now I have to really do this.’ And I don’t think people actually talk about that when they become an entrepreneur… how hard it is to change your lifestyle because it becomes your life fully. And you change so much that people around you don’t recognize you anymore, and they have a hard time adjusting to your new self. It creates a lot of tension between your family or your friends. I had quite a bit of a challenge with that in the beginning — and then of course you embrace it and become whatever you’re going to become

And the harder part is once you accomplish this lifelong goal, it’s like, What do I do next? Because without a dream, it’s really hard to live day to day. As a career-driven person, I was like, ‘Okay I accomplished this goal… I don’t know what to do now. I don’t have motivation. Inspiration is hard to come by.’ I had to quickly realize opening a restaurant is just the beginning and not the end-all-be-all. I have to create new dreams and new goals.

There was also the aspect of it not being sustainable for me to operate and own this one restaurant. I’m literally 105 pounds and 5’1” — it was difficult for me physically to work 16-hour days 7 days a week, and that’s what I was doing. I knew that it was unsustainable, meaning if I kept doing that, I’d burn out and close and it’d just be over. So I had to kind of think of ways to evolve past that and think of this as a business and not just a restaurant or my chef career or my art. I had to think about expansion. That’s how it snowballed into trying all of these different things out, really digging for new opportunities and new revenue streams, new brand-building, opening more restaurants, and just building this continuous dream and having different goals — so that I could survive for myself. It was really because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it as-is. I was forced to evolve. And then along the journey of course there were really great things I realized and learned. Like doing TV appearances and brand partnerships — those are really great revenue streams. And building a brand not only for myself but for the restaurants. It was a win-win for everything; and it was also really fun.

What’s been your most unforgettable moment?

One of the biggest pinch-me-now moments was being on Iron Chef and competing in Kitchen Stadium. It was a very 360 moment because I grew up watching Iron Chef Japan and Iron Chef America. And, I worked on four seasons of Iron Chef in the beginning of my career, on the corporate side of the Food Network. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it would be amazing if one day I can be in Kitchen Stadium competing.’ When I opened my own spot and became my own chef, I was sad because they discontinued the show at the time. I would never get that experience to compete. But then they brought it back. And I had a window of opportunity to compete on the show, and I did — and I did really well on it. It was a very surreal moment.

That was definitely a proud moment where I was like, ‘Okay fine I did well for myself, I guess.’ I’m very hard on myself. I’m Asian; you know how it is. It’s just weird for me to be like, ‘Oh my god, I made it.’ I still don’t think that I’ve made it at all. I have a long way to go. But I think that when I was competing in Kitchen Stadium, it was not even about winning or losing; it was just being there, competing, and being with my team, and cooking my food. That, to me, was a surreal moment. I still feel shook about it.

When chefs put on their chef coat, there’s often a moment and a feeling of achievement. Can you speak to that, as well as your experience with the Chef Works brand?

 The moment of wearing the coat and feeling a certain way, for me, started very early on in my career. Because it wasn’t easy for me to decide that I was going to become a chef. Growing up in an Asian household and being female, my parents thought I would be a doctor. For some reason, being a pharmacist as a female Asian was like the ‘it’ career. So I followed my parents’ wishes and went to pharmacy school, which is crazy because I had no interest at all. But I quit midway. It wasn’t an easy choice to be like, ‘I think I want to be a chef.’ And to tell my parents that… it was very difficult. So when I actually decided to go to culinary school and enrolled, it was a very emotional journey for me. When I received the first set of chef whites, I remember putting it on and crying and feeling really emotional and like I had the chills all over. I felt like it was meant to be. It was such a crazy feeling.

The chef coat symbolizes so much of what we are and what we do. It’s kind of like when a med student wears their whites for the first time. And with Chef Works, they sponsor a lot of events — probably more than half the events I’ve ever executed, or donated to, or been asked to work on. So, unintentionally, I’ve been wearing their chef coat for a long time, and I still wear it all the time. I’m a big fan because I just love the fit. And a lot of the chef coats that they’ve been designing are for women and I think that’s really great. Because one of the challenges I faced while growing up in the industry was there were no female chef coats at all. I had to wear the extra smalls of men’s sizes. I remember going to my shift an hour early on the day they’d get their new shipment of chef coats, to make sure that I can snag like ten of them and hide them in my locker so that they don’t all get taken because I couldn’t wear any other size. And even the extra small looked insane on me because it was so big. And now, we as an industry have evolved so much to where, now, there’s women’s chef coats and they’re fitted and they’re really nice to look at. I really appreciate all of that. And I feel like Chef Works were the pioneers to do that.

Is there anything that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

 Honestly, I’m not going to sugarcoat it — it doesn’t get easier. It’s just the amount of effort you’re gonna put into yourself to make it work. It’s just a tough industry. But you have to kind of learn to love it. And even if you don’t — it’s not the biggest deal to try something else. Anyone who wants to be in the industry of food, there’s so many different paths and careers that you can take; it doesn’t always have to be in a restaurant. You just have to believe in yourself and I know that sounds cheesy because everyone says that, but it’s not bad to try all the different things.

When I first started, I tried a million different types of food jobs. And if I didn’t like it, then I just quit. It’s as simple as that. I would say three months is a good timeline to know, but it’s okay to walk away and try something else. Like I’ve done it a million times in my career not only with food but with other types of careers, like pharmacy and childcare. If you don’t like it, just walk away. It’s okay to do that. I think that that’s difficult for a lot of people because they’re like, ‘Oh, I put in so much effort,’ but you have to really love it. And that’s one thing about this career is: in this industry, you definitely have to love it or it’s really not gonna last.

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