Korean American chef Rachel Yang and her husband Seif Chirchi have lit the Seattle culinary scene ablaze with the Asian-European flavors of their restaurants, Joule and Revel—the latter was was featured on our Korean Food USA series. The pair have been recognized for their culinary feats by appearing on Iron Chef in 2010 and being a James Beard Award semifinalist for the ”Best Chef: Northwest” category this year.
Korean Beacon had the pleasure of sitting down with Rachel at her newest restaurant Revel to discuss her background and culinary endeavors.
Let’s start with your background and what brought you to Seattle.
My husband and I came to Seattle about 5 years ago. We were both working in New York City. After about 7 or 8 years of living there, we knew we wanted to move out of the city, get married, and start a family. There are a couple reasons why we came to Seattle. The first is my husband’s family is in Portland, Oregon, and a friend of Seif’s had just opened a business in Seattle. So we came out here without really knowing anyone.
How did you start cooking?
After high school, I went to a liberal arts college, and when I graduated, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I enrolled in a one-year cooking school program in New York City. Cooking was something completely new to me at the time, but I loved it because it’s very creative and hands on, and I didn’t need to speak a lot of English, not that speaking English was a problem for me. It was like a sport in that it’s a team effort and you all have a bonding experience. So I fell in love with the environment.
Did you cook a lot growing up?
I helped out in the kitchen, but it was my mom who did all the work. (laughs)
What was the culinary inspiration behind your current Seattle restaurants, Joule and Revel?
The menu and themes were influenced by what Seif and I like to cook and eat all the time. People want to label our restaurants as Asian cuisine, but we’re not exactly that. At Joule, it’s a little more European-centered, whereas here at Revel, the menu pulls more toward Asian street food. In both restaurants though, we incorporate those Asian flavors that more and more people like these days. In some sense, I think our menu could almost be considered American food. If you ask Americans what they eat every day, more people say they eat Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc, foods. Not a lot of people just eat steak and potatoes any more. In that sense, we are cooking what has become American food.
When you first came to Seattle, were there a lot of other Korean restaurants?
Seattle is a diverse city, but when it comes to food, there’s a lot of separation, especially with ethnic cuisine. You have restaurants that only do Vietnamese or Thai food scattered throughout the city, and a lot of Korean BBQ places are north or south of Seattle. A lot of restaurants in Seattle are northwest-centered. So in that sense, our Asian-European fusion restaurants were completely new.
Well, it sounds like you’ve found a lot of success by being different!
Yes, we have. People have embraced our restaurants, but being different isn’t always easy, because people are scared of different. There are always some flavors or dishes that people are hesitant to try, so we’ve had to balance being different with meeting our customers’ tastes.
What was the process for developing the dishes at your restaurants?
Well, with Revel, we wanted the restaurant to be fun and interesting, but we had to present the food in a context that makes sense to people. That’s why everything we do is put in salad, dumpling, rice bowls. We use a simple format that lets us put anything in there, so it’s limitless and bottomless in that regard. We really have so much freedom and fun. For example, we have this new dumpling we’re working on since our dumplings are made here in the house. We start with a dumpling dough flavored with curry and stuffed with chickpeas, roasted cauliflower, and cumin. It’s different, but it’s still just a dumpling.
As a chef, what have been your most memorable moments?
When you’re a chef and run a restaurant, every day is both challenging and rewarding. There isn’t one day that stands out more than the next. The people who come in to the restaurant each day are completely different, and so is the experience of cooking for them. Like sometimes you have a food blogger stop by to eat and the next day they’re writing about their experience online (laughs).
In 2010, you and Seif were featured on Iron Chef. How was that experience, and would you do it again?
When we were first asked about it, we were so ecstatic and honored because at the time we only had Joule, a small restaurant in Wallingford. Being on Iron Chef was a fun and scary experience, since we didn’t know what we would be cooking or how. We also had to close down the entire restaurant for a few days, because the entire staff (my husband, myself, and our assistants) all had to travel to New York to be on the show. Cooking on a show is entirely different from cooking every day in a restaurant. It’s hard, but we’d totally do it again.
Since you and your husband are both chefs, does that mean you eat very well at home?
Everything we cook as home is pretty simple; we’re never formal at home. My husband and I don’t even have the same days off. We have a 19-month old baby, so we have to rotate our days off to maximize coverage. Lately, we eat whatever we can put together late at night.
We love going out to eat and trying new places when we can, but we also love simple Vietnamese pho or Chinese food. My husband will be happy with a slice of pizza, and I’m happy with a bowl of rice or soup.
Do you and Seif have any plans to open another restaurant?
We’re very content with two restaurants. It’s hard to not be involved with our restaurants. Will Joule be ok without us? Maybe, but we want to make sure it will be, so we stay involved. We always have a passion for doing more and challenging ourselves, so there’s always room to grow someday.
How is Seattle’s culinary scene different from others you have encountered?
When we first moved here, Seattle did not feel very diverse, but then again we had just moved from New York. Seattle’s culinary scene has grown tremendously over the past 5 years. We notice that Seattle customers really know what they want to eat, and they have high standards. At the same time, they are also willing to experiment, and the fact that we make different food and people are excited about it is great.
For more information on Rachel Yang’s restaurants, go to:
1913 North 45th Street
Seattle, WA 98103
[Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Yang]