How Chef Jae Jung Designed a Menu Around Her Life Story
How do you capture your life story in a six-course meal?
Chef Jae Jung of Le Bernardin approached this challenge with enthusiasm and heart at Story Course NYC, where her limited-run dinner, "How Do You Hug a Tiger?" tells the story of her childhood in South Korea and making it as a chef in New York City. Woven into the cocktail hour and dinner is an interactive storytelling experience; guests eat inspired Korean dishes in between anecdotes—and a moving musical number—based on Jung's journey. The process of crafting her menu required drawing inspiration from her memories, some of them painful.
"I got emotional while recalling my childhood and the moment when I arrived JFK," Jung tells Food & Wine. "But developing the menu wasn't an emotional part. It was actually hard to come up with the cohesive tasting menu that all fits into the story. It was all about balancing out each course."
Jung wanted to keep her food simple and fun, while emotionally impactful. The second course, a spectacularly complex bibimbap dish topped with a crispy cracker, invites guests to "slap" and break the cracker with their spoons to mimick her mother slapping her when Jung announced she was going to culinary school in America. (The oozing egg yolk represents her tears.)
"I got to have a better and deeper understanding of why we have to share food and the story behind it," Jung says of the menu development process. "We all eat to live but food can nourish our soul as well. I'm so proud to do it for a living. It's a true living art and beautiful when shared with many."
Story Course, created by Brian Bordainick (of Dinner Lab) and Broadway performer Adam Kantor, pairs coursed dinners with interactive narratives.
"I'd say the most rewarding part of this experience has been collaborating with some wonderful artists—like Hansol Jung, Shaina Taub and especially chef Jae—on breaking down the walls that exist between the dining experience and the stories behind the food," Kantor tells Food & Wine. "Brian and I posited that food can actually taste different, perhaps even fuller, and that it can actually take us on an emotional journey, if curated and presented within the context of the emotional narrative in which it exists."
Exploring and celebrating the immigrant experience in America has been one of Story Course's more powerful missions.
"We are living in a city wonderfully filled with immigrant chefs, and we are consuming their stories on a daily basis without fully recognizing it, without fully appreciating these journeys on a visceral level," Kantor says. "There are so many immigrant chefs in this city who are cooking in the back of a kitchen, cooking someone else's vision, someone else's story, without the opportunity to share their own story, their own cuisine."
The "How Do You Hug a Tiger?" series runs from February 1 to 23 at Avenues World School, 259 10th Ave, New York, NY 10001. Tickets cost $175 per person, which includes the six-course tasting menu and drinks, gratuity and tax included.