For Korean Chefs

For Korean Chefs: Raised in the U.S., they’re exploring a heritage they didn’t grow up with through restaurant cooking — and finding both fulfillment and criticism.

LOS ANGELES — Katianna Hong is tinkering with her grandmother’s matzo ball soup for a second time. The first time, she adapted it for a staff meal while she was executive chef at the Charter Oak in the Napa Valley.

But here at Yangban Society, the Los Angeles restaurant she opened in January with her husband, John Hong, she’s making even more ambitious changes to the recipe, and in the process reimagining the cooking of the Korean diaspora.

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Instead of the mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions her grandmother called for, Mrs. Hong opts for what she calls “Korean mirepoix” — potatoes and hobak, a sweet Korean squash — cooked slowly in chicken fat until translucent. She dribbles a spoonful of the mixture around a hulking matzo ball surrounded by swollen sujebi, the hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as the ox bone so

This isn’t fusion food that lifts flavors and techniques from different cuisines and lumps them together devoid of context. It is food that is deeply rooted, encapsulating Mrs. Hong’s identity as a Korean woman adopted and raised by a German Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother.

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“The food we are doing is stuff that is authentic to us,” Mrs. Hong, 39, said as she prepared the matzo batter. “We were eating sujebi, and it reminded us of the homeyness of matzo ball soup.”

As Korean food continues to influence American dining, with Korean fried chicken and bibimbap appearing on all types of menus, a variation on that interplay is unfolding in the kitchens of chefs with backgrounds like Mrs. Hong — Korean adoptees who came to the United States in the 1970s and ’80s. These chefs are coming to terms with a heritage they didn’t grow up with. And they are enthusiastically expressing it through the very public, and sometimes precarious, act of cooking for others.

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In the process, they’re finding fulfillment — and sometimes attracting criticism from other Korean Americans that their cooking isn’t Korean enough.

An estimated 200,000 Koreans have been adopted globally since 1953, roughly three-quarters of them by parents in the United States, said Eleana J. Kim, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging.

The aftermath of the Korean War left some children, many of foreign paternity, abandoned because of poverty and racial prejudice, she said. “During the subsequent decades, in the absence of South Korea’s welfare support for poor families, children born in poverty were quickly shuttled to overseas adoption agencies, which viewed South Korea as the main source of adoptable children.”

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In the United States, the number of babies available for adoption dropped in the 1970s, and American families turned to those agencies. Today, Korean adoptees remain the nation’s largest group of transracial adoptees.

Food is a complex part of the adoption experience for many people born abroad because of the tight connection between cultural identity and cooking, said Kim Park Nelson, an associate professor of ethnic studies at Winona State University, the author of “Invisible AsiansKorean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences and Racial Exceptionalism” and a Korean adoptee herself.

“The most common example I hear, and what I have experienced, is being asked if I like kimchi,” Dr. Park Nelson said. “I do, but not all adoptees are crazy about kimchi.”

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783 South Korean Chef Photos and Premium High Res Pictures

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