Table Talk with Chef Esther Choi

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, Mokbar

About the Chef
Chef Esther has been involved in the restaurant industry since she was fourteen years old. After high school, she worked in marketing and helped out at her parents’ restaurant in her spare time. Chef Esther realized that her true passion was food and decided to quit her corporate job to pursue her dream. She moved to NYC to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. While in school, Chef Esther simultaneously worked as a line cook at Ilili and interned at Rachel Ray magazine, followed by Food Network. When her internship at Food Network ended, Chef Esther continued to work there as a full-time employee for two years before moving on to La Esquina for about six months. In early 2014, an opportunity arose to open her own restaurant in Chelsea Market. Mokbar, which means “eat bar” in Korean, is a ramen shop that uniquely combines traditional Korean flavors with Japanese-style ramen noodles.

Mokbar (in Chelsea Market): 75 Ninth Avenue (between West 15th and 16th Street)

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Chef Esther Choi at Mokbar

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in a little town called Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County. It’s in South Jersey right next to Atlantic City.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
To be honest, I loved candy!  (Laughing)  When I was really little, I was a picky eater. I literally never wanted to eat. In order for my parents to get me to eat anything, they would say, “If you finish your food, we’ll give you candy.” Even though I didn’t eat much, I always remember wanting to be in the kitchen. I would follow my grandma everywhere while she cooked. When I was in third grade, I moved to South Korea for a few years. Over time, I fell in love with Korean cuisine.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
My favorite ingredient will always be kimchi. I don’t think that will ever change. I can incorporate kimchi into every dish – I could probably make it into candy or ice cream if I tried!  (Laughing)  In every type of cuisine that I have cooked, I have always incorporated kimchi. I like to experiment a lot with making different types of kimchi – we make about eight or nine different types in house at Mokbar. I use it as a side dish as well as a main ingredient on our menu.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I’m so Asian and I can’t help myself… I have to choose chopsticks! (Laughing) They are very useful when it comes to cooking and plating. Chopsticks are just so versatile and can be used to do so many things. I use the longer wooden ones all the time.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
The food at Mokbar would definitely be Korean pop music from the ‘90s. I love ‘90s K-pop! (Laughing) While I was growing up, it was such a big part of my life. When I cook at home, I get inspired by listening to jazz.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
To be honest, I haven’t been to many other countries. I lived in Korea, but have not been back in eight or nine years. When you travel or eat out at restaurants a lot, you can be heavily influenced by those cuisines and other chefs’ ideas. In a weird way, I think not traveling very much has worked to my advantage. My palate and mind are like blank slates. I think that it keeps things very clean for me and forces me to be more creative. In the future when I get the opportunity, I would love to travel all over Asia and Europe.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
This is such a hard question! (Laughing)  I think I would definitely be doing something in the art world – something creative. That’s where my true strengths lie and that’s what I love to do. Ever since I was little, I was always interested in art, drawing, and creative things.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I don’t really have a specific mentor, but I do draw inspiration from everyone around me, from my cooks to dishwashers.  One person that I have always been a big fan of is Jamie Oliver. I’ve been following his career since the very beginning – I love what he’s doing and his philosophy on food.  I also really respect Chef Hooni Kim, who helped to bring Korean food into the forefront here in New York City.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I always love Koreatown – it’s so much fun. I love eating Korean food and I love soju!  (Laughing)  I also love Japanese food and I like going to hole-in-the-wall places. I’m not a fan of fine dining – I prefer more casual spots with a rustic style of cooking.  Pocha 32 was my go-to spot in K-town.  I’ve been going for about 8 years and I love it, but it’s becoming much more popular now and it’s always crowded. So I started going to Flushing for Korean food and have discovered some great spots that are still under the radar.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
You’re killing me!  (Laughing)  I think I would choose bread and potatoes since I’m not a huge fan of heavy starches. Actually, that was pretty easy!

Table Talk with Chef Esther Choi