Cooking in his family kitchen at 11, the now 26-year-old Deuki Hong never thought he'd work under some of the most influential chefs in New York City.
Growing up in the small town of Leonia, New Jersey, Hong started cooking professionally at the age of 15, and his journey as a chef has escalated since. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2009 and working as a line cook for Momofuku, Hong decided he wanted to run his own kitchen.
Since opening Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in New York City's Koreatown in 2014, Hong's traditional recipes have been recognized by chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and Momofuku's David Chang. Since then, Hong has also published a cookbook called "Koreatown" with New York City-based food writer Matt Rodbard based on the two's travels to Korean enclaves in Los Angeles, Texas, and Atlanta.
In an interview with NBC Asian America, Hong discussed his passion for the food industry and opened up about the challenges he faced on his journey as a chef.
You're 26 years old and achieved so many accomplishments. What's your inspiration for cooking?
My inspiration for cooking is — there's two parts to it.
I'm not one of those chefs that go crazy over a cucumber or tomatoes. I like finding good experiences, and it's about the people at the end of the day. I really put people above food. I like the fact that I get to do that, day in and day out. And good food is just a part of that. Cooking good food as a chef, but providing a good experience is really key.
You made your first dish at 11 years old? What's the story behind that?
I come from an immigrant family, as most Asian families do, where both mom and dad are working. They didn't come home until 5 or 6 o'clock and cooking for myself was based on survival. Not that I'm some culinary genius or some prodigy kid. It's just you're hungry, you have to make food.
My mom taught me these three dishes, "stale-proof." Literally any kid can do it. I also watched a lot of the PBS stuff. Saturday's were like my cooking days. I would watch chefs and copy what they do. Obviously it didn't come out as good as they did but it was my day to cook, and I enjoyed it. Some of the stuff were really horrible, at first. [Laughs]
Since you decided to cook professionally at the age of 15, and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, can you share how one of your very own recipes is now part of the curriculum?
I was in class and one of the instructors was teaching Asian cuisine. One of the recipes involved Korean food, and he asked me, do you know any dishes? And I was like, yeah, I have my mom's spicy chicken stew dish.
Made it for him, he really liked it, and then I gave him the recipe. I just remembered it being part of the menu, part of the curriculum. He loves Korean food, he loves the Korean flavors, so for him he was getting a traditional Korean mom's recipe. I thought it was cool because this is my mom's go-to no fuss menu, and now it's being taught at the Culinary Institute of America.
Now you're the executive chef at one of the most popular restaurants in New York, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. How did you get involved with running that kitchen?
That came about very unexpectedly. The chefs and friends that I associate with talked about wanting a go-to Korean BBQ place to enjoy, and it's just one of those things where the industry kind of embraced us. I'm glad I get to cook for people that I admire and respect.
Amazing! And your journey continues. Can you explain how you decided to create and publish your very own cookbook, "Koreatown"?
Matt Rodbard is a New York City food writer and came up with the whole proposal. We met through a similar project, rating the best Korean restaurants in New York City. He then discussed he was working on his own project, and we started collaborating to make it a better product.
"Koreatown" is 100 percent Matt's brain and Sam Horine, who is a super talented photographer, came in and colored in our work. The end result became a better concept than what we envisioned originally."
What are your other inspirations for publishing "Koreatown"?
"Koreatown" was inspired because there wasn't any type of cookbooks out there that included grandma's-cooking-made-simple recipes.
We wanted to create a book where if a person went to K-Town and had the questions of "What do I get? What do I order? Or What do I do?" We had all the answers. And we really wrote it in that voice, like we were talking amongst our friends. And there are stories of our journey sprinkled here and there in the cookbook too.
Can you describe any experiences that really stood out while you were traveling to make this book with Matt?
There's a lot. We traveled for two years. We met so many incredible people. When I see the book, I see the names that are associated within, and it brings me back as we visited each chef and restaurant.
We didn't necessarily ask for a recipe but developed a relationship over a common bond of Korean food. To develop that relationship overall was a crazy experience for me, and I consider myself a student of the game and the chefs we met are the masters. They're the people that pave the way for a lot of us young chefs. It's just inspiring to be at the same table and talk about our passion for food.
Matt and I worked really hard. We kind of just went in headfirst, made a lot of mistakes, learned from them, and created a cookbook. When everyone comes out to our events, talking about our books, and have our books in their hands, it feels so surreal, and I'm grateful for that moment."
Not only did you launch the "Koreatown" cookbook, you got to share your recipe in less than 5 minutes on The Today Show. What was it like cooking next to Carson Daly?
First of all, it was an incredible opportunity. I was very grateful for it. Honestly, it went by so quick. I had a lot of fun doing it, and I'm proud to be a Korean chef displaying my recipe on the show. As an Asian American, I look forward to see other inspiring recipes on the Today Show.
Any other future plans on your journey as being a chef?
Absolutely. At the end of the day I want my own intimate restaurant, and we're definitely opening up one by the end of the year.
This is something of my own. The concept's up in the air, but in the end it will probably be a Korean restaurant. We're really going to focus on the experience of it. I'm just working on the concept as of now. We want to create an original restaurant. We also currently have a lot of collaborations in the works.
Last thing, do you have any advice for young aspiring chefs that hope to collaborate with other chefs one day, and travel like you?
I fully realize I'm in the one percent of chefs that get to travel and have a restaurant full of people that support me. I know those things aren't normal. I fully understand I'm in a very rare position, even writing a book and traveling for it and having that experience. I know guys that have been cooking for longer than I've been alive and haven't had that experience.
I would say number one, realize how hard it is. People forget that I've been doing this for 11 years of my life. I don't think half of the young chefs think it's a lot of work. Be grateful, in everything that you're doing, even if you get paid $11 to peel carrots. This industry is great because it'll take you 17 different directions. There's an infinite amount of ways in this industry, to be happy. Grind it out. It's hustle and grit. Be grateful in your position. I have really great people around me, and they've always taught me to dream big. Your goals have to be super high. I'm not even close to my goal, or my dreams. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.