“I prefer to be in the middle of the action and to actually see the ingredients and touch them. Hand-to-mouth, I think, really just turns me on a lot more.” – Kelly Choi
ISSUE: Winter 2010
STORY: Jimmy Lee
Hot in the Kitchen
In every kitchen she enters, Kelly Choi turns up the heat. She subjects chefs to the glare of the spotlight on shows like Eat Out NY on NYC TV, scrutinizing them as she sautés over a hot stove. And if she can torment world-class culinary artists as host of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters, with challenges like preparing a dish using in- gredients from a gas station store, well, she relishes that, too. “It was a riot,” she says with a laugh. “Seeing the expressions on [the chef’s] faces was priceless.”
Yet the angst Choi put her own par- ents through could be considered far worse, especially by those in their peer group: Korean immigrants. For one, there was going to grad school for — gasp — journalism. But before that, when she was around 8, after she and her family had set- tled in Virginia and her parents began running a grocery store, Choi wanted to make “American” meals for her folks. “I didn’t know anything about cooking American food, but I knew that I wanted to quote-unquote cook. So I would open up all these cans of stuff and then heat up beans and get mashed potato flakes,” says Choi. “My parents were like, ‘Uh-uh, we don’t like this American food. We’re going to eat Korean.’”
Her skill with processed meats (“Lots of pork and beans, lots of Spam — best things ever,” laughs Choi) didn’t exactly compel her parents to encourage a culinary education. However, they would end up helping to prepare Choi, who’s also worked as a model and a VJ for MTV Korea, for her meteoric rise in the world of television just by being at the dinner table. There, she had to preside over one of the most notorious of all critics: a Korean father. “My dad was always [telling] my mom what was wrong with the food and what was good,” Choi remembers fondly.
If only her late father could see how far her cooking has come, especially with the techniques she’s picked up spending every workday with chefs. “I can’t get enough of it,” says Choi. “It’s great to be around that sort of energy.”
In fact, for Choi, it can be an occupa- tional hazard. “Now I’m so used to going to the back of the house with the chef that going to restaurants [to just dine] makes me antsy,” she says. “I prefer to be in the middle of the action and to actually see the ingredients and touch them. Hand-to-mouth, I think, really just turns me on a lot more.” — Jimmy Lee
More stories from Audrey Magazine’s Archives here.
We featured Kelly Choi in our Winter 2010-11 issue. Here’s more of our conversation with the Top Chef Masters host.
Kelly Choi: I started doing Secrets of New York [a show that explores interesting sites in New York City on NYC TV after Columbia Journalism School]. People at [NYC TV] knew I was just really into food, and asked me to create my own restaurant show, which is how Eat Out NY [which involves Choi spending time in a restaurant’s kitchen learning the chef’s recipes] was born.
AM: Where did your interest in a restaurant show come from?
KC: Growing up in a grocery store, really, and just loving food. My dad was always really into food, and I take after him quite a bit. My dad didn’t cook; my mom cooked. But my dad was very into the culinary arts, and arts in general. He was always the one who’s got to sit at the table and tell my mom what was wrong with the food and what was good.
I have very distinct memories of getting food from our store and bringing it home and pretending like I was cooking. I didn’t know anything about cooking American food, but I knew that I wanted to quote-unquote cook. So I would open up all these cans of stuff and then heat up beans and get mashed potato flakes and read the directions to try to make so-called American food. My parents were like, “Uh, uh, we don’t like this American food. We’re going to eat Korean.”
AM: But those cans of pork and beans can come in handy, though.
KC: I love pork and beans. Lots of pork and beans, lots of Spam. Best things ever (laughs).
AM: That is such a Korean household.
KC: Totally. Oh my god, I had so much junk food, you can’t even imagine.
AM: So it sounds like you were officiating food critics like you do on Top Chef Masters from an early age?
KC: [My dad] was always a critic. It’s true. I didn’t think about it that way. He was always voicing his opinion and telling my mom how she should cook [a dish]. What was wrong with it; it doesn’t have enough flavor. That’s funny.
AM: How did your mom take his criticisms?
KC: She took it all in stride (laughs).
AM: Being around so many great chefs, have you picked up a lot of culinary skills?
KC: I love to cook. I’m sure I’ve learned a lot more than I realize, just about technique and what flavor combinations could really work. And then doing my own thing, I think that’s really important, too. I think a lot of people love the idea of cooking, but sometimes they’re paralyzed by, “Oh, I don’t know what tastes good; I don’t know if I could use cayenne in a dessert.” But I think what’s important is to just make it your own and don’t feel bound by rules. I think that’s the key to good cooking; really following your palate.
AM: So have you been doing that in your own kitchen?
KC: I don’t have as much time as I’d like to. And I need a bigger kitchen. But my job every day is dealing with chefs and cooking, and I can’t get it enough of it. It’s great to be around that sort of energy and to just see people who are truly inspirational. They’re no different from an artist, it just happens their medium is food, which I adore beyond belief, too.
AM: Yeah, must be rough, getting all that attention in the kitchen with a chef and then eating?
KC: God, what a pleasure, right?! Now I’m so used to going to the back of the house with the chef that going to restaurants [to just dine] makes me antsy. I prefer to be in the middle of the action and to actually see the ingredients and touch them. That is so much more visceral, and hand-to-mouth I think really just turns me on a lot more.
– Jimmy Lee
Audrey contributor Tamae Ishii shot some very stylish Asian Americans at New York Fashion Week last month. Here, some of our favorites and why.
This is “how to wear your cocktail dress for day” 101:
Why this works: Camel-toned accessories (a staple in daytime chic), a faded denim jacket and rugged lace-up booties tone down what could have been an evening-only piece in her closet. Try something similar with your favorite cocktail dress!
Next, we have a lesson in mixing it up at night:
Why this works: The plush brown wrap takes an otherwise typical all-black evening ensemble into the current season. (That hardware-embellished bag doesn’t hurt either.) Don’t be afraid to mix it up — it’ll keep you warm at night, too.
When in doubt, go grey:
Why this works: An instant update to all your outfits, leather is especially a standout in an atypical hue like grey. Pair it with the season’s pencil skirt, and you’re pretty much set.
Another shot we really liked:
Shiny slippers are so cool, but oddly enough, I think the best part of this look is that bright red chair contrasting with his geek chic look.
And of course, nothing makes a statement better than a broad smile. Work it like Joe Zee, creative director of Elle magazine …
… or Kelly Choi, host of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.
– Tamae Ishii
It’s an exciting time for Asian Americans in the fashion industry. At the Council of Fashion Designers of America early this year, all three awards for the best new designers of the year were awarded to Asian American men; Richard Chai for men’s wear, Jason Wu for women’s wear and Alexander Wang for accessories. The New York Times wrote an article about Asian Americans climbing the fashion industry ladder. And it just warms our hearts to see the influx in fashionable Asians at New York’s Fashion Week.
Audrey contributor Tamae Ishii scoped out the scene in NY earlier this month and brought to us a bevy of beautiful and stylish people, even writing a piece on the Oscar De La Renta show (pictured above).
Below find more of some of fashion’s fashionable elites including Kelly Choi and Joe Zee of Elle. (Click on shots for closeups).
Even though fashion week is over, you can still get your fix for fashionable Asians at Audrey’s Night Out 2010. Only two more days until show time. Buy your tickets now!