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June 25, 2011

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Vongerichten goes Korean

"TRY it. Go ahead, stick your finger in!" The dollop of spicy hot-pepper paste is hard to turn down, coming as it does from the blender of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the best-known chefs in the world, not to mention the owner of 31 restaurants and the man known for basically revolutionizing fine dining in New York.

The super-chef has also one Jean-Georges restaurant in Shanghai at the Three on the Bund.

And we're in his own home kitchen, yet. So the pinky-finger slurp is gratefully accepted. "Full flavor, no?" he asks. That's an understatement.

Vongerichten is famous for the variety of his dishes and the magic he creates by mixing unusual and exotic flavors. But in an airy, open kitchen that looks out over a pond in suburban Waccabuc, New York, what's being served is outside his comfort zone and experience: Korean food, prepared not by him but by his wife, Marja.

In July, "Kimchi Chronicles," hosted by the Korean-born Marja, debuts on US public television. (Marja's husband will be her celebrity sidekick.) The show is part travelogue, part cooking show, and aims to introduce viewers to a cuisine that, while on the rise, has yet to make strong inroads in the United States.

Even Vongerichten himself, whose empire includes 10 restaurants in New York alone, among them his flagship Jean Georges and the Asian-themed Spice Market, spent five formative years in Asia but was still unfamiliar with Korean cuisine until recently.

"I didn't know anything about it until I met Marja," he says. His wife of six years has been cooking Korean more and more since the show got under way, vying for kitchen space with her husband.

There are a number of reasons Korean food has not become nearly as prominent in the United States as some other Asian cuisines. Most Korean restaurants are small places in Koreatowns geared toward native Koreans, says Wendy Chan, a food consultant who has worked to introduce the cuisine to Americans.

But it's also the nature of the food itself that's difficult for Americans to understand, even if they may have encountered kimchi (spicy cabbage), or barbecue or bibimbap, a bowl of rice with stir-fried vegetables, and often meat and an egg on top.

"People are confused," says Chan. "They go into a restaurant and before they even order, they're presented with a dozen different little dishes. These little side dishes - maybe vegetables of the day or pickles of the day - are very important in Korean cuisine."

Also, many people mistakenly assume all Korean food is spicy and red - like the gochujang, or hot pepper paste, a Korean staple used to give zest to countless dishes, almost like a ketchup. But that's inaccurate, says Chan.

A big hope for Korean cuisine in America, she notes, is the rise of several Korean-born chefs introducing their talents to the restaurant world: David Chang, for example, at Momofuku Ko in Manhattan, Akira Back at Yellowtail in Las Vegas, and Roy Choi, known for his Korean taco truck in Los Angeles.

There's also a well-orchestrated effort by the South Korean government to aggressively promote Korean cuisine in the United States. At this summer's Fancy Food Show in Washington, DC, the Korean section will be the largest of any Asian cuisine, says Cha.

Indeed, the South Korean government is among the sponsors of "Kimchi Chronicles," says executive producer Charlie Pinsky.

For 13 episodes, Marja and the crew made two long visits to South Korea (her husband came on one of them.) Each episode focuses on one key element of Korean cuisine and involves trips to markets, restaurants or homes. An accompanying cookbook, "The Kimchi Chronicles," provides recipes adapted for the American palette.

Marja Vongerichten hopes viewers will learn from her show that Korean food is much more diverse and interesting - "a whole culture," she says - than they thought.


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