A Tradition of Timeless Flavors: Mokbar
South Korea’s latest food fad involves fame-hungry Koreans live-streaming their binge eating experiences and chatting with their online viewers. Known as mokbang, this new phenomenon has loosely influenced the name of a Korean ramen noodle restaurant called Mokbar in New York City. In May 2014, 28-year-old chef and owner Esther Choi (now 29), opened up the ramen shop across from Los Tacos in Chelsea Market.
Since international tourists account for 40 percent of the Chelsea Market population, Choi knew that Korean food as a standalone was a risky business. “Using ramen noodles was a vehicle to introduce Korean food,” said Choi, who combines Japanese ramen noodles and Korean soups in her menu. Despite its growing popularity, Korean food has not quite disrupted the restaurant industry compared with more mainstream ramen noodles. Choi believes ramen will be a “national comfort food” soon in the United States.
I think I just really love eating. That translates to cooking and being a chef.
With few Koreans and no Korean food in her predominantly white hometown of Egg Harbour Township in South Jersey, Choi visited Philadelphia monthly with her family to pick up Korean produce. Choi also watched her grandmother cook meals from scratch using her own vegetables and then share the food with the local community. “I think I just really love eating,” said Choi. “That translates to cooking and being a chef.”
Choi’s decision to become a chef and restaurateur was not originally aligned with her parents’ own vision. With a psychology degree from Rutgers University, Choi worked in marketing at a Jersey-City based IT company to show her parents that she tried the corporate world before enrolling at the Institute of Culinary Education to pursue her childhood cooking career. Despite her classical culinary training in a plethora of cuisine including French and Italian, Choi’s passion lied with her native food and desire to share her Korean culture.
Mokbar has received critical acclaim from major media outlets and averages approximately 250 customers daily throughout the week and 400 customers on the weekend. Choi’s road to success was still rocky. “I had to learn everything on my own,” said Choi. “My parents thought I was insane. If you believe in yourself, your dreams will come true.”
She took one bite of our soup and was like ‘it has to be better.’
One month after Mokbar’s opening, Choi’s grandmother visited and sampled all of the dishes on the menu.
“She took one bite of our soup and was like ‘it has to be better.’ It just kind of shows our culture and parents and grandparents being hard on you but for the better,” said Choi. “Because of that, I perfected things more and more.
Although her grandmother never opened up her own restaurant, Choi clearly understands the sacrifices as a restaurateur. During the first year of Mokbar, Choi worked 120 hours per week and was consumed by insomnia. “I know I will have to work forever probably like this but I accepted it,” admitted Choi.
Mokbar’s menu was inspired by Choi’s endless research on recipes from traditional Korean cookbooks and documentaries about Korean food. She also attended school in Korea from third to sixth grade to learn Korean. The ho cake, one of Mokbar’s most popular dishes, is a tasty throwback to Choi’s childhood memories of a street cart selling hotteok. This sweet Korean pancake is filled with cinnamon, brown sugar and peanuts. Choi’s re-creation of the hotteok is a lightly fried pork bun with a side of kimchi dipping sauce made from chili and apple puree.
Choi understands that she cannot walk alone in her mission to spread the Korean gospel of food. “There needs to be more chefs like me that go with this Korean wave to make it more mainstream. Obviously, I can’t do it alone. [New York City Korean chef] Hooni Kim can’t do it alone. We all have to come together and do that big push,” said Choi.