How Jiyun Jennifer Yoo brings top-notch gochujang (and so much more!) stateside.

By Oset Babür
September 03, 2020
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Jiyun Jennifer Yoo, the founder of Gotham Grove
| Credit: Neal Santos

As Jiyun Jennifer Yoo told me the origin story for her online gourmet food shop, Gotham Grove, I thought back to the oh-so-familiar ritual of stuffing my suitcase full of spices and oils to bring back to the United States after a trip home to Turkey. In Yoo’s case, those trips were to South Korea, where she grew up. “I love to try to extend the memory of a place by cooking the dishes I had there,” she says. “Granted, it’s not going to taste anything like a grandma’s [food] or cooking on the sidewalk, but having certain spices on hand helps.”

After growing tired of shuttling products back to the U.S., Yoo, along with her business partner, Rob Thompson, whom she met during an MBA program at New York University, saw an opportunity to both support small Korean producers and satisfy her own cravings. The result was Gotham Grove, which they launched in 2017. From the beginning, Yoo selected products to carry based on feedback from her “guinea pigs”—a group of trusted tasters that includes seasoned food writers and chefs, as well as a close friend who happens to be a divorce attorney. “I like to branch out and ask people who just seem like good eaters!” she says, laughing.

Although all of the products in Gotham Grove’s online shop come from Korean artisans, many of whom have been making these goods for generations, the duo were careful not to pigeonhole their new business as trading in luxury ingredients. “We didn’t want our products to be seen as so special you only take them out once a year to make this one dish,” Yoo says. “Our producers want to know how their items get used in everyday cooking.”

Having grown up in South Korea using ingredients like gochujang, ssamjang, and perilla oil for traditional dishes, Yoo determined that chefs were the best agents to explore the versatility of these items. “Chefs are so great at going beyond that initial boundary of a specialized food product. The first kitchen that let us run a product tasting was Daniel [in New York City]. Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine, is a good friend, and he’s into trying new things,” she says. In Korea, perilla oil is traditionally used in vegetable dishes, but Leroux immediately identified its minty flavors as perfectly suited for seafood dishes—tuna, in particular.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 80% of Gotham Grove’s customers were restaurants, like Atomix, helmed by 2019 F&W Best New Chef Junghyun Park. A partnership with distributor Regalis Foods has played a key role in continuing to expand their reach. Demand has also begun to drive some of Gotham Grove’s supply, with chefs like 2002 F&W Best New Chef Mike Anthony reaching out to request specific products unavailable elsewhere in the U.S.

Gotham Grove’s audience is also rapidly expanding into home kitchens. “Our online traffic quadrupled since the pandemic,” Yoo says. She feels hopeful that Gotham Grove will empower customers to find uses for Korean products beyond their traditional applications, she says. “I think not seeing food products as something so foreign and different is one good way for us to continue the conversation about diversity.”

Gotham Grove Go-Tos

Gotham Grove seaweed
| Credit: Badasoop

All products can be found at gothamgrove.com.

Unseasoned Roasted Gamtae ($16)

“Quite a few chefs who tasted this wild seaweed were reminded of white truffles. We have a seasoned version as well, which is great as is, shredded on salads, or in pesto. It’s a go-to for my friend, chef Kiki Aranita [of Poi Dog in Philadelphia], to use in her poke!”

Infrared-Roasted Perilla Oil ($36)

“I use perilla oil for everything now; it makes me feel good because I know it’s jam-packed with omega-3. Perilla is part of the mint family, but it has such a lovely subtle-but-nutty flavor. I love it drizzled on avocado toast, grilled fish, eggs, salad as a vinaigrette, or in pesto.”

Strawberry Gochujang ($22)

“There is no added sugar in this gochujang, but the strawberries will make you think otherwise. This is my trusty staple for barbecue or the Korean street food tteokbokki. Using this basically means you can omit any additional sugar a dish may call for."

Cheongjang White Soy Sauce ($25)

“Korean soy sauces are different from their Japanese or Chinese counterparts in that they exclusively use soybeans, as opposed to blending in other grains. In Korea, cheongjang is used to season clear soups or root vegetables. I now use it instead of fish sauce.”