Adoptee Marja Vongerichten, wife of famed chef Jean-Georges, explores the national dish of Korea in a new PBS series that merges culinary adventures with a personal tale.
by David Yi
Photos courtesy of Frappé Inc.
Though she left South Korea at age of 4 with her newly adoptive parents, Marja Vongerichten was no stranger to kimchi. The memories of that cool crunch, the tanginess, that spicy satisfaction bundled up into a single bite made for warm yet fragile memories of the country she left behind.
Yet as a new American, she grew up eating Western food and forgot about the flavors of her birth country. That is, until she was 12, when her parents took her to a Korean restaurant in their neighborhood of McLean, Va. Suddenly, visceral memories of Korean fare were ignited, allowing her to reunite with her past—well, at least the taste of it.
“There were these noodles with black bean sauce , jajangmyeon, and kimchi,” recalls the New Yorker.“And it was amazing because I was like, ‘Mom, I had this before.’ Like, my taste buds had memory.”
So continued her love affair with the pickled dish, which has since been documented in a 13-part PBS-produced series, The Kimchi Chronicles, which debuts this summer. The show came into fruition after Eric Rhee of Frappé Inc., an independent production company that produces programming for PBS, heard of Vongerichten. Having been a longtime friend of Vongerichten’s husband, the head chef of his eponymous 3-Michelin-starred French restaurant, Jean-Georges, Rhee was intrigued and delightfully surprised when he discovered the 34-year-old adoptee’s story. He immediately signed her up as the show’s host.
Part documentary, part culinary adventure, this multi-episode journey takes viewers on a toothsome tour of South Korea—from Seoul to Busan to Jeju Island—with Vongerichten exploring the cuisine of the peninsula known for its spicy kick. Think Anthony Bourdain meets the Travel Channel, but with a curvier guide hosting.