Chef of Kāwi in NYC, challenging the definition of Korean-American cuisine.

By Khushbu Shah
May 12, 2020
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Gary He

Eunjo Park is on a mission to get the world to respect the rice cake, the chewy Korean staple that has long been seen as the base for humble, everyday dishes. But at Kāwi, in New York City, alongside a menu of candied anchovy–stuffed kimbaps and bold, spicy raw seafood, Park chops up rice cakes like an East Asian gnocchi and showers them in Parmesan and black truffle or buries them in a jammy ragù made from extra-fatty Wagyu beef. At lunch, she serves up a gorgeous, snake-like coil of rice cake that has been pan-fried; dunked in a chile jam made with plenty of raw garlic, mirin, and gochujang; and topped with a translucent layer of Benton’s ham with a flourish of rice pearls for crunch. There is nothing humble about this rice cake, which comes with a $26 price tag and gold shears for serving.

Park never set out to cook Asian food, much less Korean food. Though Korean food has now found a foothold in the American dining lexicon, it wasn’t always the case. “Growing up, I never thought Korean food could be anything more than home cooking.” Park was born in South Korea, and her family moved to Philadelphia when she was eleven years old. She went to the Culinary Institute of America and spent time working in prestigious French kitchens like Daniel and Per Se in New York City before being forced to take a year and a half off after a knife sliced her Achilles tendon.

A friend eventually convinced her to take a job at Momofuku Ko. “At first I was not really into it. It was Asian food and something I didn’t want to do,” Park recalls. “I always wanted to do French, American fine dining.” But once she went in for a tryout, she fell in love with the food at David Chang’s (BNC Class of 2006) tasting-menu spot, where fine-dining techniques melded with Korean and other Asian ingredients. She then moved back to South Korea to cook at Gaon, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant owned by a friend’s parents. “It was Korean food like I’d never seen or eaten before.” Park says those two experiences changed her perception of Korean food forever. In 2019, Chang tapped her to run Kāwi, and today, the soft-spoken chef confidently helms the massive and spendy Korean-influenced restaurant, located inside one of the most ostentatious malls in the world, Hudson Yards.

“I think people see me as Korean, but in Korea I’m not Korean. In America, I’m not American, you know what I mean? It’s like I’m in that gray area.” Like Park, Kāwi operates in that gray area, too. Is it Korean? Yes. Is it American? Also, yes. It’s in this zone that Park is best able to push the boundaries of taste and technique.

Park, who everyone calls Jo, is determined to use her position to shift people’s perception of Korean food, just as it was shifted for her. Like Chang, she embraces gonzo Korean cooking, fearlessly breaking with tradition to embrace flavor. But Park is more methodical and less brash. It is why she is so obsessive when it comes to rice cakes. Park spent days searching high and low for the perfect brand of rice flour. She is adamant that they taste better when made fresh, and insists that all of her cooks learn how to make rice cakes, so that there is a new batch for every service. When it came time to open Kāwi, she even special-ordered a rice cake extruder from South Korea. There is just one for the entire restaurant, which goes through 600 pounds of rice flour every 10 days or so. “I just want Kāwi to be a place where guests can come in and see that Korean food can be different, and not just humble.”

Get the Recipe: Pickled Vegetable Kimbap

Tara Donne