In the first episode of Restaurant Roots, F&W follows a rising star chef as he lays the groundwork for a Korean fried chicken shack in New York City.
“I should start frying chicken,” Deuki Hong says as he spins around, mid-conversation, and hustles toward the kitchen.
“Yes, chef,” he says to himself. “Yes, chef.”
It’s 5:00 p.m. on a muggy Monday at Bessou in New York City, which belongs to a friend of Hong's, and in one hour a crew of culinary mentors, restaurant industry comrades and friends will arrive to taste and critique the chef's latest obsession: a modern, supremely delicious take on Korean fried chicken.
“This concept was actually my retirement plan,” Hong says. “I had envisioned this: When I’m really old, I’d teach cooking on the weekdays and, on the weekends, I’d fry chicken out of a window. But I guess we’re just going to do that right now.”
Until recently, Hong was the acclaimed meat-whisperer chef at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, a Korean barbecue chain run by pro wrestler-comedian Kang Ho Dong that drew high-profile patrons like Anthony Bourdain and earned Hong a spot on nearly every rising chef list there is. But despite this success, the 27-year-old chef felt himself growing a bit too comfortable. So, this past summer, Hong resigned in search of a new challenge.
He's found one: Hong wants to assemble a full-fledged hospitality group that taps and empowers local talent from around the country. And it starts with a fried chicken shack, which Hong envisions as the first property in what could grow to a nationwide portfolio of restaurants.
“I’m not trying to go for a star. I’m not trying to go for a good review,” Hong says. “When you boil it down, you’re just simply trying to serve people.”
But first, he’s just trying to give himself a crash course in restaurateur-ing by testing his fried chicken concept on friends. The plan is to take it on a pop-up tour through the U.S., then bring it home permanently to New York City within the next year.
“A typical day for me now is a lot of meetings. A lot of unnecessary meetings,” Hong says. “It’s not just about the food, the service or the decor. That’s the fun part. The foundation of restaurants is real estate, licensing, building permits and HVACs, all the stuff you’re not thinking about when you just want to open a fried chicken shack.”
So, testing days are solace for Hong. “My kitchen is your kitchen,” Bessou’s owner, Maiko Kyogoku, told Hong when he proposed the project. When the restaurant is closed each week on Monday, Hong turns his latest fried chicken dreams into delicious reality. Tonight, there's an improved dredge to give the birds an extra-crispy exterior, as well as a soup made with chicken bones.
By 6:45 p.m., you might say Hong is in the weeds. The chicken is still frying and most of his guests have arrived, their cans of Narrangansett now warm and half-full. But that doesn't stop him from hugging his friends over the kitchen counter and buzzing around the dining room with a small bowl of chicken skin puffs, which he pops in each person’s mouth. His longtime mentor, Michael Bonadies, the seasoned restaurateur behind Nobu (and former partner to Drew Nieporent) and current president of Bonadies Hospitality, starts setting the tables.
“My career has been identifying talent, giving them opportunities and whispering in their ear once in awhile,” Bonadies says. “I can teach someone how to be a better cook, waiter or busser, but I can’t teach how to care or have a work ethic and good personality. I hire them.”
Which is what he did with Hong, the catcher on his son’s baseball team in middle school. After begging Bonadies for a kitchen job at one of his restaurants, Hong landed at now-closed Centrico, where Aarón Sánchez put him to work peeling garlic and deseeding chiles. Then the rest is history: In six months, he rose to the hot line, eventually going on to the Culinary Institute of America, staging at Momofuku and getting his fine-dining bona fides at Jean-Georges.
“I don’t know what makes a successful chef or restaurateur yet. I’m kind of working on it,” Hong says. “But the common theme is they’re always learning, and I think that’s what makes you successful in any industry. You’re never satisfied where you are, not that you’re ungrateful, but you know you can always go another gear.”
On the back of tonight’s menu, there's a questionnaire for feedback on his two types of fried chicken, one made with a cornstarch-based dredge and the other with potato starch . (The overall winner by the end of dinner: potato starch.) It has taken many test rounds to get his chicken to this point. It’s been a quest, an endless path of tinkering, finessing and trashing it all ever since he was at culinary school.
“Probably after the tasting, I’m going to tweak it again and again, and the day we open and even when we open,” Hong says. “I might even be retired and still tweaking the recipe.”