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.
Along with friends Heather Graham and Hugh Jackman, and husband Jean-Georges in tow, the foodie formally introduces the world to the peninsula’s most colorful and varied edibles by visiting eateries, markets and home kitchens. Her personal background is also rooted in the show’s narrative: Vongerichten, who was born to a Korean mother and American soldier, eventually reunited with her birth mother—who now lives in Brooklyn.
Today, the husky-voiced Vongerichten, who is a former actress and model, spends her days experimenting with the spices, garlic, sesame oil and pastes that define Korean cuisine. She is also working on a Korean cookbook (slated for a summer release) that will include more than 75 recipes. “I admit, I’m obsessed with kimchi,” she says. “I tested 30 different recipes until I discovered the perfect one,” she says of her refined concoction, which includes raw shrimp and red pepper flakes, both shipped directly from the peninsula. “Korea’s shrimp just tastes sweeter!” Vongerichten exclaims.
So you’re really into kimchi. Yes. We were vacationing in St. Bart’s and I could not go two weeks without Korean food. I needed kimchi. So I just made my own batch.
And your very famous chef of a husband doesn’t mind? At first, he had an issue with the smell. Now, he’s so used to it. The more sour, the better—especially when it’s “sparkling on the tongue,” as he says. He absolutely loves it.
Actor Hugh Jackman is also involved with this series. How did that happen? He’s my neighbor. After I told him about the documentary he was very excited because he just loves Korea.
Do his children come over often? They do, and they’re always opening up my cabinets asking for something to eat. They love gim (seaweed) and the mandarin juice that I bring fresh from Korea.
You also reunited with your birth mother. Yes. When I was 20, I decided to look for her. I called the Korean Embassy and they gave me the number of two nuns who made it a mission for adoptees to find their birth parents. My uncle’s phone number had not changed from when it was on my records. When I finally got my mother’s number, I held onto it for three hours; I didn’t know what to expect. After I called her, she fainted. A cousin got on the phone and told me that my mother was now living in Brooklyn and had remarried.
Have you maintained a relationship with her? She vowed never to have children after me. My birth father left when she was seven months pregnant. Today, we have a strong relationship, and she comes over to cook. She speaks to me in Konglish.
What do you want people to know about Korean food? Korean food really is the soul of Korea. It is the most delicious of foods in the world. I want people to know that there’s more to order at a restaurant than bibimbap.