December 8, 2010, 12:45 PM
By BAO ONG of NY Times
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s menus include everything from a caramelized foie gras served with green apple and yuzu froth at his flagship Jean Georges in New York to a local fish encrusted with nuts and seeds bathed in a broth of sweet and sour jus in Bora Bora.
But as international as Mr. Vongerichten’s sprawling empire is, a Korean-inspired dish is not among the choices.
Enter Marja Vongerichten, his wife.
Ms. Vongerichten, 34, who is half Korean, will be the host of a show set to debut on public television early next year, “The Kimchi Chronicles.” Her husband is relegated to a sidekick role in the 13-part series, which explores Korean cuisine with visits to restaurants, markets and home kitchens.
“My husband feels like he’s got some competition in the kitchen,” Ms. Vongerichten joked recently while smashing garlic with a chef’s knife in her kitchen. She’s been cooking more Korean food since filming for the show earlier this spring and fall, while also working on a Korean cookbook.
The couple say they’ve learned about the variety of flavors in Korean food, sometimes heavy with garlic and sesame oil, other times lighter with bean pastes and seasoned vinegars, and not all of it spicy.
Diners at Perry Street and Spice Market, and possibly others in the Jean-Georges domain, can expect to find “four-star peasant food” inspired by the show, Mr. Vongerichten said.
“I hope when people watch this show that they walk away with the same interest,” Ms. Vongerichten added. “Let’s all be family and not so foreign.”
Her family’s story is as embedded into the storyline of “The Kimchi Chronicles” as the cuisine.
Ms. Vongerichten was born to a Korean mother and an American soldier. She had no birth certificate until 1979, when at age 3 a couple in northern Virginia adopted her and changed her name from Brenda Bae to Marja. She grew up eating barbecue and typical American food (burgers, tater tots and fish sticks).
At 19, she reunited with her mother, who married an American and eventually settled in Brooklyn.
“I always had memories of my mother and time in Korea,” said Ms. Vongerichten. “It felt like it was a dream, but I was able to confirm it later.”
Korean food played a major role. Ms. Vongerichten recalls her mother cooking bulgogi and rice when they reunited. The familiar flavors triggered childhood memories of tasting the same food before.
Back home in New York, the Vongerichtens keep their refrigerator stocked with kimchi while Ms. Vongerichten perfects the 100 recipes in her cookbook. She says her husband is a fan of a simple pancake she makes with mung beans and water that’s often mixed with some pork and sometimes cheese (a dollop of crème fraîche or caviar also pairs well, she insists).
Ms. Vongerichten’s confidence in the kitchen has grown in the last year, and so has her mastery of Korean dishes. At Mr. Vongerichten’s New York restaurants, the staff often requests her dishes.
“Food really tells the story,” said Ms. Vongerichten, who arrived in Korea earlier last week to tape the remaining episodes of the show.