Born: Seoul, Korea; 1970. Raised: Los Angeles. ("I bounced through a lot of neighborhoods; we moved 12 different times.")
Education: Culinary Institute of America; Hyde Park, New York.
Experience: Le Bernardin, New York City; Embassy Suites, Lake Tahoe, California; The Beverly Hilton and Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen, Los Angeles.
Career wake up call: "When I was 25, before I started cooking, I hit rock bottom. I was almost disowned by my family. Then one day, I was lying on the couch watching Essence of Emeril, and I had an out-of-body experience. I felt like Emeril stepped out of the TV and shook me by the shoulders and said, 'Get off that couch. Taste this, smell this, do something.' So I went to the bookstore, started doing research and read about chefs like Eric Ripert [at New York City's Le Bernardin]."
Childhood food memory: Making dumplings in his family's Korean restaurant when he was eight. "In Korean cooking, there are two things that take a lot of prep, besides kimchi: Picking off the bean-sprout skin and making dumplings. You'll always see an old lady sitting at a table making them. You can't wing it--dumplings don't fall out of the sky; you have to sit down and make them."
Guilty pleasure: Milk shakes. "I'm a milk-shake connoisseur: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, banana. I'm a laid-back dude but extremely particular about milk shakes—the iciness, the creaminess. When I cooked in Tahoe, the Nevada border was right across the street. So I'd hop across the state line and drink milk shakes until after midnight in the 24 hour coffee shops. I gained 20 pounds."
On Chego!, his new rice bowl restaurant: "Chego loosely means 'thumbs up' in Korean. It's like when your mouth is full and your grandmother asks how her food is, you just give her a thumbs up."
What he'd be if he weren't a chef: A topographer. "I can figure out a city in 10 minutes by looking at a map, I can almost see it. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator."
Favorite cookbook: La Technique by Jacques Pépin. "It's amazing. For him to build that book at that time—amazing. He's the man."
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.