Though a graduate of culinary school, chef Esther Choi says she’s never had a mentor. “There are some journeys you just end up taking by yourself,” she says. Indeed, the one-time pharmacy college student found a love of cooking and restaurants all on her own, waiting tables at a Japanese restaurant in her hometown. She went on to become the owner of the Mokbar franchise in New York City, establishing the first location in Chelsea Market in 2014 and then opening a second location in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her latest venture, a Korean-American gastropub in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood called Ms. Yoo, opened this summer, and it pays loving tribute to the one person who shaped Choi’s culinary sensibilities: her grandmother, Jungok Yoo.
The restaurant draws inpsiration from the homestyle Korean food Choi grew up with while living in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Her grandmother took care of Choi and her siblings, as her parents ran a dry-cleaning business, and the chef still considers her grandmother to be one of her biggest culinary influences. Yoo would travel down with the family to Philadelphia to gather Asian pantry staples, but grew many of her own vegetables in the backyard and made her own gochugaru, which couldn’t be found in their local grocery store. Choi grew up constantly observing her.
“My uncle was a pastor at the local Korean church, and my grandmother cooked a community meal every Sunday for this congregation of about fifty people. EverySunday,” says Choi. “She taught me to love food, how to taste food and she definitely left her mark on my own philosophy of cooking.”
Even to this day, Yoo visits her granddaughter, bringing her massive assortment of freshly-made kimchis and yukgaejang (spicy meat and vegetable soup). The familial love is extended through her criticisms, as well. “She hasn’t seen Ms. Yoo yet, but when she first came to visit Mokbar, she didn’t hold back,” says Choi. “She’d say, ‘It needs to be better or hotter.’ But I appreciated it, because it was my take on her Korean home cooking.” The two are incredibly close. “She still cries whenever she sees me, and tells me, ‘You work too much!’”
As Choi looked to expand into drinks and cocktails, Choi also branched out from the super-traditional Korean flavors of Mokbar to create food that was fun and playful. “This is a tribute to second-generation Americans and for many of us who have immigrant parents and grandparents,” she says of Ms. Yoo.
Here, Kimchi is made fresh and in-house, along with handmade dumplings. Popular dishes on the menu include hoecakes with pork belly filling and a signature house burger. A whole deep-fried chicken on duck-fat fried potatoes is a tribute to her grandmother’s Thanksgiving turkey, stuffed with rice, vegetables, kombu, jujube and ginseng. The bird is brined and coated in a chili paste of gochugaru, cooked garlic and toasted sesame oil.
While her grandmother looms large in every dish she serves, the drinks pay tribute to her grandfather. “He loves a good drink! It’s more his joy to have it.” The changing drink menu provides a selection of soju and whiskeys, with an offering of playful seasonal cocktails including Stairway To Heaven, made with pineapple, lemongrass and Thai basil-vodka, and I Saw the Devil, made with gochujang chili paste and garlic-infused Tokki soju.
Choi anticipates lots of fun for the holidays. “We have a party booked almost every night, a new winter menu; it’s all pretty much come down to everyone being able to have fun with everything we have,” she says.
She hopes that the visibility of Korean (and Korean-American) food continues to grow throughout the country, and she brings it all back to learning from Grandmother Yoo herself. “I’ve owed it to my grandma to see this through,” she says. “But no matter what, her cooking is still number one in the world.”