“I’m not a foodie,” Marja Vongerichten declares.
The host of the new PBS television series “Kimchi Chronicles” lounges on the couch at Tom N Toms, a small coffeeshop in Koreatown, tearing into a warm pepperoni pretzel and grimacing in pain at the thought of dinners that can drag on for five hours.
And yet as the wife of three-star Michelin chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, she’s had to sit in on plenty. But haute cuisine is just not her style, Marja said, no matter how extravagant and luxurious the courses are.
She’d much rather double-dip into a steaming communal pot of cheonggukjang (a hearty, stinky Korean stew made from fermented soybean paste) or spoon the messy red juices of galchi jorim (simmered beltfish in broth) into a full bowl of steamed rice. Her style of food, Marja said, is food with soul—more specifically, home-style Korean food.
“I call Korean food the soul food of Asia,” Marja said, not only because Korean food consists of simple yet bold and comforting dishes like one-pot stews and pickled vegetables, but because it draws upon her innate familiarity with her roots and soul.
Marja was a 1970s G.I. baby—born to a black American G.I. and a Korean mother. At the time, Amerasians like Marja were discriminated against, so when Marja was 3, her mother gave her up for adoption.
“I had memories [of my mother] but it was only of her physical presence,” said Marja. “I could only picture her from waist down at the height perspective of a 3-year-old.”