By Michelle Trauring
Deuki Hong does not consider himself to be a child prodigy—even though, on the surface, he could easily be.
Consider the facts. He was cooking by age 11, working in a professional kitchen by age 15 and, at just 26 years old now, he has co-authored a cookbook, regarded some of the best chefs in the world as his colleagues, and opened his own Korean restaurant in Manhattan—Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong—making waves in the food world with a cuisine gone widely ignored by the mainstream for centuries.
But digging a little deeper, Mr. Hong explains cooking as a young boy was simply a matter of survival, not a vehicle for gourmet aspirations. Born in Korea, he moved to Texas when he was an infant, followed by a few years in Alabama before settling down in the Koreatown of New Jersey.
He was the product of immigrant parents who worked long hours, so when his older sister was busy cleaning the house, he would cook “idiot-proof meals” for the two of them, he said during a recent telephone interview.
“It wasn’t like I was some 11-year-old genius, like, ‘I’m going to make a culinary masterpiece,’” he said. “It was just, I need to eat and I don’t want to eat the same thing every day.”
Regardless of his start, he is an up-and-coming player in the future of the food industry, the overarching theme of this year’s Food Lab at Stony Brook Southampton. The weekend-long conference, starting Friday, June 3, will bring together some of the brightest minds—including celebrity chefs Carla Hall and Eric Ripert—to discuss current trends, tastes and the people who are shaping them.
According to Eve Turow Paul, author of “A Taste of Generation Yum” and a panelist this weekend, the future of food is being dictated by the millennial generation, both in the kitchen and out. They are absolutely obsessed with food, she says, to the point where food is social currency and a way of showing off. They wear their dietary preferences as labels. And for those unaffected by poverty—and, in some cases, even those who are—it is often the black hole for disposable income.
Chefs aren’t immune to the shift, either. For Mr. Hong, it is a love-hate relationship. While the average consumer is now more knowledgeable about what they’re eating, they also want to know more about who’s cooking it—to the point where the chefs become the focus, not the food.
“The same thing that worries me is the same thing that excites me,” he said. “I’m excited because interest in food for everybody has risen and, with that, education and knowledge. You can’t fool them with x-y-z, we have to step up our game and provide better quality and a better experience.
“But I worry because of the rise of the whole celebrity chef thing,” he continued. “I wrestle with it because we’re in the service of hospitality. A couple months ago, I did an article about what I ate for five days. I was like, ‘Who cares? Who reads this stuff?’ And for me, it’s tough because I’m a beneficiary of public interest, but it’s getting a bit overblown. Enough is enough. Let’s try to make good restaurants for people—not ourselves and not for our egos.”
Yet, on that same note, the mere mention of his sitting on a panel this weekend with Eric Ripert was enough to send him into a half-joking flurry of admiration. “I’m just going to be looking at him the whole time,” Mr. Hong laughed. “Fan-boying him the whole time, taking selfies with him. It’s like going on a date with him.”
He composed himself and said, “For a kid like me, who is just a student of the game, I read about that guy in my textbooks. It’s one of those surreal moments I’m going to experience.”
Moderating his panel is Matt Rodbard, who co-authored “Koreatown: A Cookbook” with Mr. Hong. For two years, the pair traveled around the United States visiting every Koreatown they could find. Small Korean joint in the middle of Arkansas? They were there.
“I think Asian flavors and cooking techniques is where people are looking toward,” Mr. Rodbard explained in a recent email. “Not just ramen, but the fermented bean pastes of China and the exotic herbs and fish sauce of Vietnam. Also, the regionalization of Asian food is huge. We’re not talking about ‘Chinese food,’ but Szechuan and Yunanaese cuisine. That’s super exciting.”
One day, it is Mr. Hong’s hope that Korean cuisine will be “part of the conversation,” he said. “What we mean by that is say you’re having dinner with friends—not a group of Koreans—and you ask, ‘What should we have?’ The answers are usually sushi, or Italian, or burgers, or Chinese. Korean isn’t part of that first option. We want a family in the middle of Oklahoma to say, ‘What do you want to eat for dinner?’ and someone says, ‘Oh, how about Korean?’ That would be like, wow, we came pretty far.”
Sag Harbor restaurateur Colin Ambrose and owner of Estia’s Little Kitchen is crafting and coordinating the menu for Saturday night’s conference dinner, and while it will not include Korean cuisine, it will be inspired by the season and ingredients sourced from local farms, he said.
“We’re starting with a fava bean pesto served with Carissa’s Breads,” he said. “The salad will highlight pea
sprouts from Amber Waves Farm, along with radishes from Balsam Farms and a garlic scape vinaigrette. For the main courses, we will roll pork loin in belly fat and stuff it with herbs and spring garlic from my garden. A Cioppino Verde made with arugula purée will feature tilefish and scup from Gosman’s. Dessert will be simple and easy with Carissa’s biscotti and Joe & Liza’s ice cream.”
His appreciation of food stems from his days as a boy scout on the riverbanks of Wisconsin, where he learned to cook fish with his grandmother and harvested tomatoes and beans with his grandfather—a tradition he has passed on to his daughters on the East End.
“Harvesting in the afternoon light with the girls, I began to teach them to respect the process of cooking and celebrating the harvest,” he said. “I like the idea of recognizing these experiences as a relationship with food. It’s my family’s bond.”
It starts with the youth, as it did for Mr. Hong, who fell in love with food as a teenager, a torch he has carried with him for 11 years. His parents recognized his passion and encouraged him to pursue it.
“I was raised in a pretty non-traditional Korean family,” he said. “They weren’t all about academics. They were like, ‘Do what makes you happy, don’t hurt anybody in the process, and don’t quit,’ which is very unconventional of Asian parents.
“The whole concept of conceiving something in your head, creating something in your mind, then creating it in your hands and serving it to people you love or for people to enjoy, there’s something pretty raw and beautiful about that,” he continued. “There aren’t many professions and crafts you can still say that about, that have that hand-to-heart essence to it. We can’t lose that.”
The second annual Food Lab Conference, “Future of Food—Trends, Tastes and Directions: Who’s Shaping Them and Where They’re Heading,” will be held from Friday, June 3, through Sunday, June 5, at Stony Brook Southampton. Tickets are $150 and $75 for students and farmers, as well as for those interested in the gala and dinner only. For more information, visit thefoodlab.org/conference.