November 2012 Cover Story: Seoul Sausage Captures Food Network Win, Our Hearts
Let the Sausage Fest Begin
Coming off a big win on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, the future looks bright for the hardworking and charismatic trio behind Seoul Sausage Company.
story by MONICA Y. HONG
photographs by YANN BEAN
When I sit down with the boys of Seoul Sausage Company to talk about their recent cross-country adventures on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, we are just two days away from the grand opening of their eponymous brick-and-mortar restaurant in West Los Angeles. Only a few days earlier, when the show’s finale aired, were Chris Oh and brothers Yong and Ted Kim finally able to reveal their long-kept secret—spoiler alert—they won! They were the frontrunners from the very outset, though Chris, the trio’s uber-talented 32-year-old chef, thought they were going home after the first episode, claiming, “Los Angeles was the hardest of all seven cities.”
Their American field trip took them through cities they had never seen, like Cleveland and Nashville, and when they won the whole thing in Lubec, Maine (population 1,400), they asked the network to fly them to Las Vegas instead of home. After a few days of partying, they ended up taking a Korean taxi all the way back to L.A. “That was the scariest ride of our lives,” remembers Yong, 31.
The last five months have been a whirlwind for these three Korean American friends. They submitted the application to be on the show the day before the deadline. They shot an audition video in one day, edited it hungover the next day, and found out they were leaving the following week.
“The timing just worked out perfectly,” says Yong. We had some down time while we were building the store. They were like, ‘You gotta leave next week, can you do it?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
These guys from Cupertino, Calif., didn’t start out in the sausage business. In fact, Ted, 29, and his brother, Yong, were living together in L.A., and both were working in the advertising industry for several years. One day they tasted one of their pal Chris’ Korean-marinated sausages, which forever altered the course of their lives. Yong remembers that when his parents tasted it, even “they knew the power of our sausage.”
But they were also not crazy about the idea of their sons giving up their days jobs for it, however tasty. “They were totally against it in the beginning,” remembers Ted. “My mom was like, ‘You have such a good job right now. You’re about to become vice president of your company. Don’t quit your job.’”
But it seems these three gentlemen were born to sling sausages.
Their restaurant’s newly built kitchen is bustling with young men hurrying to get everything prepped for the test dinner service. Sausages, slaw, sesame oil and braised meats send scintillating smells throughout the Seoul Sausage shop. The famous flaming fried balls, showcased on the reality series, are placed before me, and I finally understand what all the fame and acclaim is about. A crispy panko shell envelops the sphere filled with steaming, cheesy kimchi fried rice with bits of pork—it explains all of the “Fried balls! Fried balls!” chanting heard across America.
As I’m awaiting the main event, a father and his two young children, around the same ages Ted and Yong were when they first came to the United States, approach the storefront with wonder in their eyes. The father came to congratulate them and tell them his kids watched them every week on the show. The boy and girl are shy at first, but their eyes widen when Ted asks, “Do you guys want some stickers?” They nod excitedly. Ted reaches behind the counter and pulls out a few Seoul Sausage stickers for each of them. Chris asks the young boy for a high-five, and you sense he made their day.
Then, at last, the second course arrives: my very own spicy pork sausage topped with apple cabbage slaw. Its snap is worth its value in won (₩), and its depth of flavor proves their victory on The Great Food Truck Race—which also landed them $50,000 in prize money and a food truck—was well deserved.
But enough about the food. More about these sausage boys and how they went from three guys majoring in econ in college to reality show TV stars to restaurant partners and food truck owners. Though not classically trained, chef Chris proved on the show that he had a way with flavor, putting their team in the top two almost every week during the cooking challenges. On TV with his signature mohawk, “Make Sausage Not War” T-shirt and camouflage cargo shorts, Chris, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 1, does not skimp on personality or energy.
Meanwhile, Ted proves himself to be a born leader with his people skills and knack for customer service. As Yong says, what Ted misses most about his corporate job is dressing business casual. Yong, a former lead guitar player for the Korean American rock band Nemo and now the social media guy (aka director of sales and marketing), has an uncanny ability to effectively use hashtags, according to Ted, who adds, “It’s not easy. It’s like an art form.”
Yong and Ted were born in Korea and immigrated to the U.S. at ages 6 and 4, respectively, when their father, an electrical engineer for Samsung moved to set up the Silicon Valley branch of the company. “He’s smarter than all of us,” Ted says about their father. “He just passed the patent bar last year. He doesn’t have a law degree. He just studied for it and passed. And we’re selling sausages.”
Yong says it best when he states, “We came such a long way.” He describes eating lunch at school during their early days in the U.S., “When we were in elementary school, we had kimbap, and we would go to the corner and eat it because we were so embarrassed. This is when we were fresh off the boat,” he says. “My mom didn’t know what to make for doshirak so she just gave us kimbap. We made her give us the regular lunch after that year, but I remember that one time we ate kimbap in the corner. That was 24 years ago.” Little did they know that one day they would be serving Korean-inspired food to the masses for all the world to see.
Though they continued to surpass the competition week after week on The Great Food Truck Race, these guys stayed humble and at no point thought they had it in the bag. On the brink of what will surely be a successful career in the culinary world, the Seoul Sausage Company shows they are in a class all their own. KoreAm spent an afternoon with them to talk about their food, their fans and their future.
How was Seoul Sausage Company born?
Chris: Seoul Sausage actually originated in San Francisco. I was watching TV one night and saw on Jay Leno one of the celebrity guests actually give a shout-out to Kogi taco (the famous dish originated by Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ trucks). And I was like, “Holy crap, Kogi taco is getting a shout-out on mainstream TV! How can I incorporate Korean flavors into familiar forms like a taco?” So I said I love sausages and I love Korean barbecue, so why not put the two together? Then the next day I went on YouTube, learned how to make a sausage, and it kind of just started there.
So when did you call up Yong and Ted?
Chris: I moved to L.A. not thinking that Seoul Sausage was my ticket, but I just wanted to get back into cooking. Then Ted one day just convinced me to make one of the sausages, and he loved it. Next thing we knew we were at L.A. Street Food Festival with one of the longest lines. People were really embracing the food and liking it, so we just kind of took baby steps and kept going.
I know Ted is junior high school friends with Chris’s brother, Anthony (who will be joining the SSC team full time starting in November), but when did you guys all actually meet?
Ted: I didn’t even meet Chris until we were in college. We all met at Thanksgiving dinner. Because Anthony and I were such good friends, our parents started becoming friends, and then our families just became friends. Every Thanksgiving Chris would cook up dinners for the whole family. The first or second year, I remember just going to Chris and saying, “Hey, your mom cooked so well.” I was drunk and I was like, “Dude, she’s such a good cook, blah blah blah.” He got really mad. He’s like, “Dude, you’re so ungrateful. I cooked everything from scratch.” That’s when I was like, “Dude, this guy’s got some skills.”
So, Chris, where did you learn how to cook?
Chris: I never went to culinary school, but I cooked all my life. Both of my parents worked growing up, so I had to always cook for me and my little brother. I did a little cooking in college, but then obviously after college my parents wanted me to do the whole 9-to-5 thing, so cooking kind of got put on the back burner.
We all know Chris is the chef, but Yong had to help out on the truck when you were on the show. Was Yong a good sous chef?
Chris: You know what? He was. But definitely working in the kitchen, you need thick skin, and Yong has like see-through skin.
Yong: Chris does like to micromanage a lot. But I do make great balls.
Chris: He definitely shapes them very uniform and very nice.
Yong: It’s all in the hands.
So did you guys watch the show?
Yong: Chris watches the show, and he just always laughs at his parts.
Chris: Why shouldn’t I? It’s f—king classic! It’s gold!
Did you like how you were portrayed?
Ted: I kind of looked like a mama’s boy, but we did it for our parents. A big part of it was showing them that we could make it and be successful business owners. They were definitely nervous when my brother and I quit our jobs. We actually didn’t tell them we quit until we got the investor locked down [for the restaurant] and the space signed. So when they came here and we told them, we had something physical and tangible to show them. That’s when they kind of started believing. On top of that, to be able to participate in this race was very momentous.
Chris: I think the show portrayed us pretty well. What we really wanted to exude on the show was our personalities, our easy-going spirits, our work ethic. We just wanted to prove to, not just our parents and ourselves, but all of America that, look, if you put your mind to something and you love it, the sky is the limit. If us three Koreans can do it, then anybody can do it.
Did your parents watch the show?
Ted: My parents had viewing parties that started off with just the two of them and by the end there were 15 people that came and drank beers.
Yong: We delivered sausages for them for their final party.
Chris: Oh, did they eat those?
Ted and Yong: (in unison) They loved it.
What was one of the best memories that we didn’t get to see on camera?
Yong: We made a lot of people try Korean food for the first time, soju for the first time. We found this place in Nashville, and we closed down their entire restaurant. They served our whole crew, and everybody got to try Korean food.
Ted: That was the first time we had Korean food on that whole trip.
Yong: We bought a case of soju there and we were handing it out. We were spreading the love.
Ted: One of my most memorable moments was when we met a guy named Chris Bobbitt in Fayetteville who is a radio DJ host. He’s half-Korean [and half-Caucasian]. He’s never really embraced his Korean side, and what he told me when we were having a few drinks that night was, “I’ve never felt so cool to be Korean in my life.” That was a very heartfelt moment for us because we were almost like being ambassadors for Korean food.
Ted: I’ve always been outgoing. I’ve always run for office. I was never afraid of public speaking. That stuff I don’t get fearful of. Plus I have no shame, so I don’t mind doing stupid things to grab customers.
Yong: He just tells jokes and laughs at himself.
Do you think you could do his job?
Yong: Not as good as him, obviously. We knew that Ted was going be the front guy. It was a no-brainer. Even [host Tyler Florence] gave him a shout out, you know: “the best front man of all three seasons.”
Did America surprise you with their palates? Did you underestimate them, or did they surprise you as far as their tastes are concerned?
Chris: We’re not gonna lie, when we got to cities like Amarillo, Texas, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, we were really nervous. We didn’t know how the people really perceive us, [whether] they were going to welcome us with open arms or alienate us because we’re something not familiar to them. But those cities gave us the most love.
They embraced us, our food, our energy. I was totally surprised. I would go back to any of those cities, any day of the week.
Were there any surprising fans out there?
Yong: Moms and kids. I didn’t know there were so many moms and kids.
Chris: All these emails we get are people from the Midwest.
Ted: Shirt orders are coming in from all over the country, which is crazy, you know—we’ve never heard of these cities before. Yesterday the tables outside [the SSC storefront] were just all non-Korean or even non-Asian people. They were drinking Chilsung cider, eating pork tteokbokki and giving us thumbs up, saying this is the best thing they ever ate. It was such a cool visual.
What is your dream for Seoul Sausage Company?
Ted: My big dream with Seoul Sausage is to get it into the markets so that all of America could just go buy it at Costco. Chris always says he wants to take over the world one sausage at a time.
À la Pinky and the Brain. Is that true?
Chris: That’s my goal. That’s why I got into this. Kogi taco is great to eat and it’s a great idea, but you can’t package it and sell it. Seoul Sausage, you can package and ship all around the world.
So where do you see yourselves 10 years down the line?
Chris: Honestly, I wouldn’t be concerned about Seoul Sausage in 10 years. I just want to see Korean food in 10 years be mainstream. We want Seoul Sausage to be for Korean food what the California roll did for Japanese food.
Right, because the California roll is a Japanese American thing.
Chris: That’s what opened a lot of people’s eyes to sushi. So we want to be the people that open up their eyes to Korean food. And on top of that, I want to be rich. And famous.
Yong: But on the show you said you don’t want to be famous and rich. You only want your parents to be proud.
Chris: I lied.
Do you guys have any idea how to run a restaurant?
Yong: We’re learning on the job. That’s why me and Ted, we’re going to be up front instead of hiring people for the first months. So we can just be the face, interact with people, let ’em know who we are because we don’t want to just make money; we want to have a good experience. This is kind of new, this concept, so we just want to do it right.
So tell us about the Seoul Sausage menu.
Chris: The reason we’ve been so successful and popular is because we’re thinking outside the box, so let’s ride that wave and keep introducing Korean flavors in forms or methods that aren’t traditionally Korean, like the galbijjim poutine. What we’re doing here is taking this street food and giving it an almost gourmet feel. We all want people to continually try Korean food, and we’re going to try to make the most appetizing, appealing thing to help the public try different flavors.
Any last words before the floodgates open?
Chris: If anybody has advice on how to run a restaurant and truck at the same time, please tell us now because this is going to be crazy.
We wish you all the best, SSC. You make us proud.
styling Drew Manares @ BeautywingNY
assistant stylist Jacquelynn Santos
groomer Sonia Lee @ Exclusive Artists Management
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the November issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)