Susan Park wears many hats: she’s a food historian, a columnist for LA Weekly’s food blog, a program director at Ecole de Cuisine, a culinary school in LA, a partner at FOH/BOH³, a restaurant management company that she co-founded with my her husband/chef Farid Zadi and sommelier David Haskell, a VIPretty ambassador for Pretty in the City, and she’s opening a new restaurant this fall.
We talked with Susan about how she got into the food business and culture, her thoughts on Korea’s push to globalize Korean food, and, most importantly, how she gets her drive.
When did you become interested in studying food as a profession?
When I was about 14 years old. My mother is a great cook, but she only made Korean food when I was growing up. So, I started teaching myself how to cook from books. My parents indulged me and let me buy whatever books and ingredients I wanted. I collected all the American classics, beginning with Julia Child‘s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Who knew that years later I would marry a French chef?
Why did you and your husband, Chef Farid Zadi, decide to open Ecole de Cuisine? And how does ECLA differ from other culinary schools?
We planned on opening our own culinary school for 10 years. The whole purpose of him teaching at various schools, including Le Cordon Bleu Pasadena for six years, was to open our own cooking school. He also taught at Sur La Table, Whole Foods, Epicurean, as a chef in the classroom for Los Angeles Unified School District. We waited to open our own school in 2010, because our youngest child, Elias-Deen, turned seven that year. Seven is a critical year, it’s the age when many children reach autonomy in a lot of ways. It was very important to us to spend as much time with our children during their formative years.
ECLA offers a more comprehensive and detailed culinary arts education than other culinary schools. We’re also small and mobile, so we’re better able to adapt to industry demands and trends than bigger schools. Our fabrication/butchery and International courses are especially demanding. We cover lots of skills, techniques, and ingredients that other schools don’t.
We hear that you are collaborating with your husband on a new restaurant. Can you give us some details?
We want to wait a week before announcing the details of our new restaurant with David Haskell. In the meantime, FOH/BOH³ has teamed with Jenee Kim, owner of Park’s BBQ and Don Dae Gam, for a weekend food and wine bar at her latest venture, LaOn. We’re debuting the weekend of August 26th-28th with our interpretation of Korean dishes within the context of gloriously diverse Los Angeles and the bounty of international ingredients that are available to us in California.
For more details about the event, click here.
Last fall you co-founded a culinary school, and this year you’re opening a restaurant — all with zero investors! Where do you get your drive from — especially in the current economic slump? Also, any advice for people thinking of starting a new venture?
I have unwavering confidence in my abilities and work ethic. I’m just not a doubter or worrier. I visualize a goal and start mapping it in my head right away. Most importantly, I know lots of friends that I can count on for help. I have a big personal and professional support network built on trust. That’s how we were able to start with no investors. We found kitchens that were already built out and rented them. We were able to negotiate low rents and deposits or no deposit agreements.
My advice to people who want to start new ventures is to gain as much relevant experience as possible. People who don’t have relevant experience tend to see the glamorous side of it. In other words, they don’t see the all the behind the scenes work that goes into making a successful business. You have to be able to multitask and endure a lot of stress when things aren’t going smoothly. Not everyone has the stomach and stamina for this. And oh, don’t forget to do the math. You have to overestimate your input and underestimate the financial outcomes. Don’t lie to yourself with the business math.
We enjoyed reading your recent article on LAWeekly.com, ‘L.A.’s Idea of Korean Food vs. What Koreans Really Eat,’ and your look at the different (mis)conceptions of the Korean bapsang. What are some of your favorite Korean dishes to cook at home?
I tend to prepare simple dishes at home, regardless of type of cuisine. My husband and I teach or cook enough complicated dishes at work, so we like to stick to basics at home. I make Korean dishes that my kids like, such as bulgogi, kalbi, roasted laver, fried anchovies, clear soups (tangs), Korean curry and bap (rice).
What do you think of the recent popularity of Korean cuisine and the Korean government’s effort to globalize Korean food?
It’s really a handful of 1.5 or 2nd generation Korean chefs or chefs of Korean descent who’ve gained a lot of notoriety in the past years. If you look at Momofuku’s David Chang and Kogi’s Roy Choi, they’re not even making Korean dishes per se. They recontextualize Korean ingredients into contemporary or popular American dishes, e.g. Korean tacos. Or they riff on a traditional dish or presentation by incorporating better quality ingredients or substitutes, e.g. Chang’s Bo-Ssam uses a big hunk of pork butt, which is much more American than even remotely Korean.
First generation Korean restaurateurs have to keep up with demographic shifts. Korean immigration to the States has been steadily declining for years and there’s a growing 1.5 and 2nd generation of Korean-Americans. Korean business can no longer rely on first generation Koreans to maintain growth or even sustain themselves. They have to retain assimilated Koreans and attract non-Koreans to their businesses.
Both 1st generation Korean business owners and the Korean government need to tap into 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean-Americans to act as adapters and translators, if they want to tap into a mainstream American customer base. So yeah, while it seemed like every major newspaper, magazine and website in the U.S. has been buzzing about Korean cuisine for the past few years, that’s really not the case. They were buzzing about what 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean-Americans were accomplishing with food.
Overall, I think it’s terrific that the Korean government spends so much effort on promoting Korean cuisine abroad. But at the end of the day, for it to make economic sense, somebody needs to teach mainstream or multicultural America how to cook with Korean ingredients. Otherwise, that’s a whole of money and effort being spent on singing to the choir.
Finally, how is it having your husband as a business partner?
It works out well because we both have the ability to completely ignore each other at work and at home. In all seriousness, our job functions don’t overlap too often. So most days we’re not actually side by side at work. When we do work together, it’s usually in the kitchen either co-teaching, training staff, a catering job, one-off event, pop-up, running a restaurant etc. But we’re at home together in the kitchen, we know each others habits, skill sets, etc. We can rely on each other in the kitchen.
[Photos: Courtesy of Susan Park; Pasadena Independent (first photo); David Chang: Gabriel Stabile; Roy Choi: Axel Koester/NYT]