Inspirational spots by chef Esther Choi in New York

The sense of place is of utmost importance to chef Esther Choi.

“Where I am really defined the work I do. My surroundings always inspire me, ”says Choi, owner of two Mŏkbar sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Choi was born and spent her formative years in New Jersey, where her Korean grandparents played an important role in her education.

RELATED: Tune In The Time Out New York Instagram at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 20, for a live performance with Esther Choi.

“I think that really set the tone in terms of what inspired me. When I went to school I would be just one of the American kids, but I would come home and it would just be this very, very Korean environment, and obviously my grandparents didn’t speak English, and that was a great treat for me. Growing up in a city where I was the only Asian, it really affected the way I see myself and my culture, ”she says.

Around the third year, Choi’s parents moved the family to Korea.

“I didn’t speak a word of Korean so it was very interesting for me at such a young age. Being in elementary school and kind of being engulfed in this cultural environment where it was really my heritage, that’s where I really learned my Korean heritage, ”she says.

“A lot of my dishes are inspired by when I was in Korea, especially eating street food with some of the local Korean kids I was in school with. It really inspired me in so many ways to love my culture.

The family returned to New Jersey a few years later, and a few years later Choi began his culinary career at a small Korean-Japanese restaurant in town.

“That’s when I started to fall in love with restaurants and discover the industry. And then from there I went to college and when I got to New York, obviously being in such a competitive and intense city, but also so amazing, that was it for me. It was the dream. Being in New York, obviously, you learn what real haste means. It led me to open my restaurants at such a young age and start my career as a chef.

Today, these inspiring people and places are evident in Choi’s menus at his Mŏkbar stores in Chelsea Market and on Flatbush Avenue. She shared even more of her favorite places with us in a recent interview which has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Its essential spots in the East Village

“I always like to go back to places I’ve really fallen in love with, and sometimes those places aren’t very trendy. These are the ones that are super holes in the wall and go unnoticed. Some spots for me are very old school, like in the East Village. In college I went to Oh Taisho, this place has always been there. And there’s another place a few doors down called Kenka, and then there is Sake bar Decibel. These are the places I went with my friends and loved, loved, loved food and fell in love with the whole Japanese bar scene. These are the places I still think about and still inspire me.

“There are some classic places in New York that I love, that I love to recommend to people. Obviously, being Korean, I think it’s almost a sin if I don’t recommend a Korean barbecue, so in K-Town I have my go-to, Jongro. The great thing about K-town is that a lot of spectacular bars and restaurants can be found on the second, third, or maybe 10th floor of these buildings. And you just have to know that there is a crazy restaurant in one of those random office buildings. So Jongro is one of those places, and it kind of turns you into Korea in the 70s. It’s fantastic and such a fun environment, so I always recommend this place to anyone who wants to experience K-Town.

“I also obviously love, I love, I love Cote, because it’s just a higher experience of Korean cuisine, which I think is important. What it does in New York is to kind of open up the movement to be more modern. I love and pay homage to Cote, and I go there quite often, and the bar below as well. There is so much hospitality there. For a very New York and scenic vibe, Cote is great. “

“I have two Japanese places with holes that haunt me. There is this place called Shabushabu Mayumon, which is a shabu shabu omakase. There’s two of them in New York, and they’re both owned by the same female chef, and all the staff is headed by women and they cook all the food in front of you, you know, like a shabu shabu, in the broth.

It’s just such a fun experience when you go there. It’s really special because it’s very, very intimate and very intentional. There are only six seats so it’s definitely a very special experience that you really can’t find anywhere. Love, love, love it. There is another place called The Izakaya which is more of a laid back environment, it’s kind of a Japanese bar, but the food is so delicious. It’s classic Japanese bar food so well done, it’s so delicious. This place you go for food because it’s about. ”

“There is a classic restaurant that I always swear on. I go there very often because I know the service and food will always be consistent and really, really good, and I love the environmentit’s very classic New Yorkwho is Pastis. Everyone loves Pastis and I will always love this place. The place of origin was still the spot, and I really miss it a lot, but I can’t complain because it came back.

I love it because it’s so consistent and reliable. It’s really important, that’s what I’m looking for in any restaurant environment: to be reliable, even 20 years from now, I know it will be exactly the same. There is a kind of comfort there, especially the environment in New York where everything changes so quickly, so much. This is one of those types of legendary places. “

[Pastis was open at 9 Ninth Avenue from 1999 until 2014. It re-opened nearby at 52 Gansevoort Street in 2019. Ed]

“A place in Flushing that fascinates me is called Hanyang. It is the original Korean market. It’s a classic, it’s definitely OG. In the market, much of their sourcing is from local Korean farms in upstate New York or Jersey. . They also make fresh tofu on site and they source fresh sesame oil which is also made locally. This kind of thing, to do in New York, is really rare. They continue to do so and they preserve this art. , for me is so special, because even though now you go there and it looks very run down and looks very holey compared to those gigantic Asian supermarkets coming in, it really is the one of those who are a special gem. “

“Korin is a classic, I’m obsessed with him like any other chef. This is the place to go for knives. Korin is the best place in Tribeca. You go there and you see everyone, you You’re like, ‘hey, what’s up!’. Every time I go there I think to myself, who am I going to meet. This is one of those places, everyone knows everyone. ”

“I can’t fail to mention Chelsea Market, even though my restaurant is at Chelsea Marketit seems i am biasedbut for years I was not there with my restaurant. It’s still my place. I worked at Chelsea Market before I opened my restaurant there, so I really saw it blossom into what it is now. I have been in this market for over twelve years so for me this cannot be an inspiration as I just spent so much time there and saw so much development happening in the market and even around the market and it’s so inspiring to see that and all the new trendy spots opening up. “

“I have a restaurant in Brooklyn, so I will walk to my restaurant [from Manhattan] every day of the past year during corona. It was literally my saving grace, because being locked in a small apartment in New York, not being able to get out, was so difficult. So I walked to work, even though it was a very long walk. For me, this feeling of crossing the bridge every day, it allowed me to continue. It means a lot to me. It made me feel safe when I did, it was that soothing feeling when the city was really empty. It was a daily reminder of why I live here and what I was doing here. I started walking in the spring and it was always nice at the start of the crown so it was really quiet but you saw the New Yorker at random and we both locked our eyes and kinda knew it, and we felt like, “Hey, I’m with you.” “

10. Midtown

“We’ve been trying to open a third store in Mŏkbar for two and a half years, in a Midtown food hall, and I’m very happy that it will finally open in the fall. Remember Midtown, Midtown is amazing. The shopping on 5th Avenue is amazing, Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Market, all of these iconic New York places that inspire me. Every time I walk into Grand Central Market I am amazed because it is so beautiful. These are things you take for granted and shouldn’t; you look around and it’s so inspiring everyday. ”

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