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