For Koreans visiting New York, eating "tteokbokki" (rice cake in hot sauce) feels quite special, and it will be even more special for them to find out that the chef who prepared the Korean street snack is a non-Korean.
The chef of Bann Korean restaurant in New York is Honduran-born Eleazar Martinez and the tteokbokki dish is one of his many creations. Martinez worked for Woo Lae Oak SoHo as chef until he left to work at Bann five years ago - many of Woo Lae Oak`s dishes, including bibimbap, are still made according to his recipes.
"Korean food is challenging, interesting and even adventurous, but I like difficult things," Martinez told The Korea Herald.
Born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, he moved to Los Angeles in 1990 when he was 24. He had cooked in his aunt`s small hotel in his home country. He also become a certified public accountant but couldn`t find work in that field.
In Los Angeles, he found a busboy job at Woo Lae Oak Los Angeles, and it took him only three months until he became a member of the restaurant`s cooking staff.
In 1999, the owner of Woo Lae Oak, sent him to New York to open Woo Lae Oak SoHo, where he became its first sous-chef. From 2001 to 2002, he studied at the New York Restaurant School, while cooking part time for the restaurant.
Bann`s tteokbokki is as spicy as in Korea, but its texture is somewhat crunchy.
"Americans don`t like `tteok` (Korean rice cake) because of the chewiness. So we make it crunchy, maintaining the original spiciness of Korean tteokbokki," Martinez said.
The restaurant`s "doenjang Jjigae" (soybean paste stew) is slightly milder in taste and smell than authentic version, according to Martinez. "I found Americans prefer kimchi jjigae to doenjang jjigae somehow."
For Martinez, the key concept behind both Woo Lae Oak and Bann was to make the traditional Korean cuisine more sophisticated - not just its tastes to satisfy American taste buds, but also how it is presented. "Everybody is looking for healthy food, and Korean food uses lots of vegetables," said Martinez who spent a year in Seoul in 2003, learning the traditional dishes once made for the Korean court.
"But Korean dishes served at Seoul restaurants lack visual sophistication. You know, Americans and Europeans taste first with their eyes and then with their mouth," he said.
When he started at Woo Lae Oak about 20 years ago, Martinez was the first Hispanic cook specializing in Korean cuisine. As the executive chef of both Woo Lae Oak SoHo and Bann, however, he has hired a staff of 30 cooks from Latin American countries including Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala.
Martinez said he now prefers Korean food to Latin food. "I love kimchi jjigae and `bossam` (boiled, sliced pork belly served with kimchi and lettuce). I believe there will be more American chefs specializing in Korean cuisine once more Americans become familiar with Korean food," he said.
By Lee Yong-sung