Marja Vongerichten is putting Korean cuisine on the culinary map as host of the new PBS TV series, Kimchi Chronicles. The show features a variety of Korean foods and serves as a vehicle of introducing Korean culture as well. A companion book titled, Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen, was released in early August.
Although the series is primarily focused on Korean cuisine and culture, it also intertwines Marja’s personal story. As a mixed Korean adoptee, she was fortunate to have vast documentation and pictures of her early life in Korea that was collected by her adopted family. From beginning to present day, Marja’s story is compelling, to say the least.
We were able to talk with Marja this past June, just after Kimchi Chronicles had premiered, about her adoption story, the show and much more and are now pleased to present this interview with her.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on Marja Vongerichten
Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1976 in Uijeongbu (의정부), Korea.
Where were you raised and currently reside?
I was raised in McLean/Falls Church, Virginia right outside of Washington D.C.
How did your birth parents meet?
My father was in the military stationed in Korea. He left my mother when she was seven months pregnant with me, so he never saw me.
Do you have any brothers and/or sisters?
I have one sister and one brother. My sister is natural-born from my adoptive parents. My brother is also Korean/African-American but with different biological parents.
Are you fluent in Korean?
I understand a lot. I think due to me being shy and not putting words together properly, I’m not fluent speaking it.
What is your favorite Korean food?
Bindaeduk (빈대떡) is my favorite. Doing this cookbook I was able to perfect a recipe and we have it every weekend. It is protein, good for you and satisfying.
Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans or people of mixed heritage?
No, I didn’t see anyone around where I grew up that was mixed Korean until I went to college. I went to a predominantly white school with a small amount of Asian and Black kids, so there wasn’t much mixture there. I only met one and was shocked as I thought I was the only one in the universe.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We didn’t really talk about me being adopted because I looked like my parents and family. My parents are African-American and my mother is very fair-skinned and almost looked Asian at times too. Nobody ever questioned it and we didn’t really talk about it. My brother didn’t even know about it until much later. I grew up with memories of my birth mother. In terms of identity, I really didn’t acknowledge the Korean side because I couldn’t really without getting into this big, deep story. I identified with being African-American because my family was. I wasn’t really accepted as African-American because I don’t really look “full” African-American. I would always get the “where are you from?” and the Black kids would call me oriental. It was tough and I went through a real identity crisis in high school. I went to a performance arts high school in DC for two years that was predominantly Black called Duke Ellington. I went completely militant and was reading about Malcolm X for the first time and all these famous African-Americans and I felt a sense of pride and that I finally belonged somewhere. In college I had a hard time again. I think every kid whether adopted, not adopted, mixed or not mixed, you just go through the craziness of being a teenager. It was hard.
Prior to working on Kimchi Chronicles, had you been to Korea before?
Oh yeah, lots of times. All of my mother’s family is there. We are all really close.
What do people who meet/see you think your ethnicity is?
They think I’m Filipino or Hawaiian. When my hair is natural and curly, they think I’m Hispanic. I get everything.
Do you mind to share a little about your adoption story?
I always knew I was adopted and remembered my birth mother. I was in St. Vincent’s home for Amerasians with Father Keane. I was there for a couple of months in the spring going into summer of 1979. Kids like us were not given official birth certificates in Korea, so I didn’t really exist on paper until 1979 when my adoption was going through. I remember it being crowded in the orphanage. I remember my mother taking me to pick out a dress at one of those little markets in Korea where they have everything on the walls. She was picking out this outfit for me to go to my new family in. She dropped me off and told me that I was going to go live with my dad in America and told me to make sure to look for her when I get big. I remember my parents coming to meet me for the first time and was adopted quite soon after that. I was a really lucky one and wasn’t there for years. I couldn’t imagine.
When did you decide to try to find your birth mother and what kind of difficulties, if any, did you face in finding her?
After I was adopted, my adopted father was stationed in Korea with the US Marine Corp. He was a newlywed. He did some research and found a picture in my file of my mother and he knew what town she was in but didn’t have an address. He went door to door for days with the picture looking for her and eventually found someone who knew her. They brought my dad to my birth mother. She thought he was bringing me back to her as she had regretted her decision. He explained to her how I was doing and showed her pictures of me and that I had started pre-school. After that initial shock, she felt content with the knowledge that I was okay. He visited with her for three days and had a tape recorder and transcribed their interviews. He basically asked questions about how she met my father, where my family was from, medical history that she knew of and got pictures of her and my biological father. He kept this book for me and there was a letter written by him and by my mother explaining their experience of the whole process about their viewpoint and my situation. I always felt guilty even wanting to know. I think adoptees have this unspoken guilt about that we should feel so thankful and would be ungrateful to even want anything more than what we have. So, I did it kind of in secret when I went off to college. It was actually fairly easy as I called the Korean embassy in DC and told them I was adopted and was looking for my Korean biological mother. They gave me this number for these American nuns in Korea who had kind of made it their life’s work to reunite these adoptees with their biological Korean families. I gave them all the information I had and I talked to them for about 20 minutes on the phone and three months later I received a call from them telling me that she was in Brooklyn.
So, you had no idea that she was actually in America?
No, I didn’t know where I would to have to go to look for her.
Before you started your search, had your adoptive parents given you the documentation they compiled?
I had seen it before and they had showed it to me before. I just took that file with me when I went off to school.
Have you tried to find your biological father?
Yeah, but it is like a needle in haystack. His name is William Brown and he was from Mississippi. It is like John Smith.
Did your adopted family incorporate any Korean culture in your upbringing?
No. They tried to, initially, when I was adopted and was in Korea on the base. My parents got a Korean ajumma to cook and take care of me.
Was your adopted family supportive in your search for your birth mother?
I didn’t tell them until after I found her. They were kind of hurt that I didn’t include them in the process but my mother would have been overprotective and I just wanted to see what was going on. It needed to be my journey and experience.
There is a large community of Korean adoptees, have you connected at all with them?
Yes, I’ve actually connected with a lot of the people from St. Vincent’s. One woman in particular, Maria Hermann, was in the photo I have of when I was in the orphanage. We connected and saw her for the first time since back in Korea. She’s now at Harvard and a law professor. She found me through Facebook and a lot of the Korean adoptees are in search for any kind of connection with the past. She had seen my interview with SBS and they had showed the photo of me from the orphanage that she is also in. She contacted me after that.
What is your current relationship with your birth mother?
We are as close as can be. We go to noraebong every Monday. It is great and we see each other all the time and it is like no time has passed. We’ve been making up for lost time.
How did Kimchi Chronicles come about and how did you get involved?
The producers did Spain… on the road Again with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. After that my producer, Eric Rhee, who is Korean American, had always had a dream to do a show on Korea. He was born here and grew up here and this was just as important for him to connect to his roots as well. I actually met Charlie and Eric (my two producers), at my husband’s restaurant. They were having dinner trying to raise funding for this series and initially they had a Korean chef in mind to be the host. I was having family dinner with our friends the Jackmans (Hugh and Deb). We usually would do Friday night dinners with the kids and we were there and my husband took me over to meet Charlie, whom he has known for years because he has been doing food programming for PBS for a long time. They were talking and I noticed that Eric was Korean and I greeted him in Korean. Eric didn’t even know that I was Korean before he met me. So, the next day they contacted my husband to see if I was interested in hosting this show and then my story came out. It just kind of pieced together and made this show more than just about food and incorporated my personal story and tied everything together. It was just being at the right place at the right time.
Have you always had an interested in cooking?
I’ve been cooking since I was 12. I’m a home cook. My husband has always enjoyed my cooking. But just all this travel and seeing all of these recipes has really inspired me and this book. I delve even further into my abilities.
How did you learn your Korean cooking skills?
My aunt and mother taught me the basics. Miyukgook (미역국), Mookgook (묵국) and lots of soups and things as that is what my daughter was raised on. In terms of the really traditional stuff I didn’t do it until the show came about. It turns out that I’m a pretty good Korean cook!
As far as dishes you can make, what do you feel is your best?
I’ve always had a knack for American Soul food. My husband put my mac n cheese recipe on the menu of one of his restaurants. My best Korean dish is probably Dalkbokumtang (닭볶음탕), chicken stew. My husband loves it and we have that a lot. And also bindaeduk.
How involved were you in Kimchi Chronicles? Did you have input into what foods and locations were featured? How involved is your husband?
Not so much location scouting. In terms of content and stories and getting my family involved, I’m a co-producer of the series and I had some input. My producer Eric did the location scouting and spent six weeks in Korea traveling around finding places.
Were there any difficulties during filming in Korea?
It was pretty smooth. I think the hardest part was getting the Korean government on board. They wanted to push this big global initiative so it took 9 months of them saying “yes, no, maybe” and “we need more of this.” They really were taking quite a gamble on us to do it the right way. We didn’t have any doubts that it would be great but the Korean government was a bit apprehensive initially. We’ve got everybody’s support now.
What should viewers expect to gain from watching Kimchi Chronicles?
They will learn how to eat Korean food. I think there is a way to eat Korean food. You should have certain things with certain things. For instance, I teach how to pour drinks for someone with respect. I explain banchan (반찬) and why it is there and how to construct dishes. It’s going to be very informative and touch on the history of Korea, influential people. This will be the first show of its kind on Korea. We’re going to talk about fashion, traditional Korean dress. I met with Lee Young Hee, who is a famous hanbok designer, and she made a hanbok for me and we filmed that. There is Korean dance and just everything. Where to shop, markets, where to stay, Lotte World, we really tried to do everything. How to take the KTX train from Seoul to Busan. We really need a series two to really explain Korea. There is so much untapped stuff and only had so many hours to incorporate everything.
Are there any plans to extend the series with future episodes or seasons?
In terms of another season, it will depend on the response from this series. The next thing we will tackle after the series airs is the book. My cookbook is Korean recipes but adapted for American kitchens. We really explain what mu (무) and gochujang (고추장) is. It’s very informative and hopefully will be real easy for people to get. Even people out in Utah will be able to order from H-mart online and get the seasonings. Then they can go to their local grocery store. They might not be able to get every single thing but the recipes will allow them to get most everything at their local store.
There is a little bit of celebrity edge to the show with guests such as Hugh Jackman and Heather Graham. How did they become involved and what are there opinions on Korean cuisine and culture?
Oh yeah, we’ve been friends with the Jackmans for years and we kind of bonded because they have two adopted children. They are very heavily involved with adoption awareness. They are just very down to earth people and our kids are the same age. Hugh’s father used to go to Korea when he was young. Hugh’s also an ambassador to Seoul and been there a couple times for movie premieres. I have taken their family to H-mart in New Jersey because their kids love to go in my cupboards for Korean snacks and Korean orange juice and stuff like that.
Heather Graham was a contact through Eric and I didn’t really know her beforehand. She was gung-ho and it was interesting seeing Korea through someone’s eyes who hadn’t been there before or eaten these things. It was exciting. She spent four days with us in Korea.
I know it is already airing in New York on PBS, how has the reception been so far from people?
It’s been really great and supportive. On our Facebook page, people have been commenting their own little stories and it’s been nice. It’s just about bringing awareness to Korea as a whole. We just can’t do it with this one show. I think all of us as Koreans, it is our job to take our friends and expose them to the foods and culture. It’s up to the restaurant owners to expound on the menu when they see Westerners come in and only order bibimbap (비빔밥) or BBQ. That kind of drives me nuts because they never try anything else and I just want to go over there and tell them to order some mool-naeng myun (물 냉면) with that bbq or that its really good with dwaenjangchigae (된장 찌개). As Koreans, it is our responsibility to all be proud and spread the word!
What personal goals do you hope to accomplish with the show?
I hope to put Korea on the map as a country worth visiting and a culture worthy of interest. Most Americans don’t know much about Korea except North Korea and that we have Samsung and LG. It’s such a diverse, amazing rich history and full of a lot of pain. We’ve been kind of displaced people for a long time with all of the invasions by the Japanese, Mongolians, etc. There is this rich, painful history and out of that came this resilient, tough, loving and beautiful culture. I think it is just about exposing it. Japan has had press and everyone has heard about samurai and geisha. China, India, there has just been so much more exposure. Even with cinema there have been more movies on these countries. There is just all this history such as how our language came about and why Korean food is the way it is. People know nothing and I hope that after this series that people will take an interest and think of Korea as a destination to go to. I think it is going to happen but it will just take time.
Any plans for the show to be released on DVD at some point?
We’re going to release them when the show goes national. It’ll have extra bonus clips and I think bloopers, I have no idea.
What does your birth mother think of the show and your involvement?
She’s super proud and amazed. It’s come full circle. For her, it has been validation because she has lived with shame over giving me up. She’s lived with this incredible guilt and pain. Even after we met, it was still painful because people would ask why she didn’t teach her daughter Korean better and all those things and she didn’t want to talk about it. With this series, it has kind of hit her. At first she was very nervous how people would judge her and I had to keep telling her that at the end of the day it is a beautiful story and there is nothing to be ashamed of. She did the best thing she could for me and was the most selfless. This has been a healing process for all of us. Even after I had connected with my mother, I kind of felt like the “invisible” Korean, in a way, because I didn’t really look Korean and nobody really acknowledged me as Korean. There were lots of things that I didn’t know about my own culture. It’s just been healing all the way around.
I met the President of Korea, Lee Myung-bak, about two years ago at a dinner my husband was doing for Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary, at his residence. I met them and the first lady. The President said that when he heard that Jean-Georges wife was Korean he was very proud. It made me very emotional to have him acknowledge me as Korean. This was before the project got off the ground.
Did you receive any negativity from the Korean community towards your involvement on the show due to being mixed Korean?
I haven’t had anything said really. When everything first started coming out about this show, I did see some nasty comments. It’s easy to hide behind a computer and the internet. There were some judgments such as “it is because she is Jean-Georges wife” and “what does she know about Korea since she is only half Korean.” So, yeah, I got some of those stupid comments but who cares at the end of the day.
Now, let’s discuss the book, The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen. How did it come about?
After we got the show premise down we got an offer from Rodale, who is my publisher, to do this book deal. So, I didn’t really have to do much and was lucky as it kind of just fell into my lap. And I was also lucky because I enjoy cooking. I’m not a foodie and am the complete opposite of my husband. But, I guess I am a foodie in my own right as I like what I like and I’m the queen of one-pot dishes and that is my idea of a great meal.
What kind of recipes will you explore in the book?
I take you from japchae (잡채), which everyone knows, to the mung bean/acorn jelly dish. It’s got kimchi recipes in there. All the things my daughter likes to eat. Cocktails. We have a bloody mary with kimchi and made a makkeoli (막걸리) ice cream. We have boodaejigae (부대찌개) in here which is aunt taught me that recipe and she makes the best. We have a soju mojito, soju greyhound. We really did our best to try to integrate everything. My husband contributed a few recipes that are more fusion and his take on certain things.
Did your husband have any experience with Korean cuisine before you two met?
No, most of his travels were in Southeast Asian cuisines such as Thailand, Laos and Malaysian, which he loves. When we met, he had a hard time with kimchi at first. When we moved in together, I had my two big buckets of kimchi in the fridge and he was like what the hell died in here. But he’s grown to love it. His daughter that is 23 and lives in France now, absolutely hated kimchi when she first tried it. But now after eating at home with us and eating it with the right things she absolutely loves it. She recently moved to France and was googling Korean markets on where to get kimchi.
Will there be any book signings upon release?
Yes, not sure what the schedule will be like. We’ll hit the big markets for sure.
Outside of Kimchi Chronicles, do you have any other ventures you are pursuing?
Before I did this show, I was an interior designer. That is my passion and worked for David Rockwell for awhile. He does really big projects and I’ve always loved interior design. I’d really like to have my own furniture line. I want to take traditional Korean techniques and marry it with a more contemporary design. Such as the jagae (자개) – mother of pearl, the embroidery that is so fantastic, the hand-died natural fabrics from Korea and really delve into that and bring Korean traditional arts to the world. It needs to be done in a way where it is traditional technique but be able to work in people’s homes as well. I had done a research trip to Korea before KC and spent about 10 days out there and had samples made, some decorative pillows and cushions from silk and had these women embroider these beautiful patterns in gold silk thread. I actually gave those as gifts to Ban Ki-moon and the First Lady when they came to visit. I love everything about Korea and I want to go back. I can’t wait to go back.
Do you plan on visiting Korea again soon?
I’d like to go back in the summer and it is my daughter Chloe’s absolute favorite place to go for vacation. It is so child friendly and family oriented. The people are so warm and appreciate your curiosity about things and are very helpful. We have our little routine when we go there.
We asked for a few of our members from the HalfKorean.com Facebook group for the questions below.
Paul A. in Korea asks: Are there any plans to distribute the show in Korea and, if so, will you be going there to promote it as well?
Yes, at the end of the year. And we’ll probably be going.
Paul A. in Korea asks: Have you ever tried dog meat?
No, I’ve never tried it nor would I, I think. A lot of people think that they just take strays off the street and cook it. It’s a specific type of dog that is raised. I have two dogs and could never imagine it. There are so few places that serve it and there are animal rights groups and I think that the tide is changing. I think there is enough food out there that we don’t need dog as a food source. But, at one time it was necessary. Beef was so expensive because there wasn’t land to graze cattle. It all makes sense and there was a reason behind it. I try to tell people that when they ask about it.
Mina R. in California asks: For a novice, what kind of tips would you give for Korean cuisine?
As long as you get your ingredients and you know which ones to put together. Korean food is not precise as every household has a different taste and different hand. You could have one dish and every single household in Korea would have a different way of doing it. Don’t be afraid, be adventurous. If you want it to be spicier, make it spicier. You have to taste as you go and see what your taste preference is. Don’t have any fear about it and be creative! It was hard for me with this cookbook to measure because I never measure. I don’t think any Korean household measures anything. Throw it in there and taste it.
Before you were married did you have any preferences towards dating?
I dated mostly African American guys because that is what I related to and was the culture I was exposed to.
How did you meet your husband?
I met my husband through a mutual friend and it turned out to be wonderful.
With your daughter, do you try to incorporate Korean while raising her? How receptive is she to Korean culture, food, etc.?
When I first had Chloe, my emo came over from Korea and she lived with us for four years. She only spoke Korean so Chloe grew up the first four or five years of her life with Korean food and language. She can still understand everything my aunt says but in terms of speaking it she is kind of shy. I’m kind of the same way. We need to stop it and let it go. Her diet is pretty much Korean food. The only thing that she’ll eat that her dad makes is pizza. She also likes French fries, pancakes and chicken nuggets like a typical American kid. It drives my husband crazy.
Do you have any hobbies or interests that you do to relax?
I go to noraebong every Monday with my mom.
Is there anybody in particular that you respect and/or look up to?
My family of course, in terms of public figures it would be Hines Ward. Last year, I didn’t get to meet him but eight kids from his organization came to New York and I hosted a dinner for the kids at one of our restaurants. We gave them all backpacks and a pep talk. All the kids were mixed, such as Korean/Vietnamese, Korean/Mongolian, Korean/Japanese and every kind of mix. I was hearing their stories about the discrimination they deal with on a day to day basis not only from the kids but from the teachers. A few of them had single parents. 90% of them looked full Korean that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It was just so crazy to me. I met some of them who were the same age as Chloe and it just made me so angry that people could be so cruel. I told them to keep their heads up and these are the things that will make them stronger. I would really love to somehow get involved with Hines Ward and his organization. I sponsor five kids in Korean orphanage on my own through Children Incorporated. I would like to bring awareness to adoption and help these single mothers in Korea so that they don’t feel like they have no choice but to give up their children. Had my mother and countless other women would have had support it would have been a different story for many of us.
What did you think of Korea’s reaction to Hines Ward and do you think there is still progress?
He definitely brought a face to mixed Koreans. The progress is the fact that Koreans can look at him and be accepting of him. Granted, he is this big celebrity. I kind of feel the same way with me. They have been able to accept me as a Korean to help represent Korea but it is bittersweet because for a long time I wasn’t recognized and neither was he or countless other people who are mixed. I think times are changing and it is a slow movement. The Confucian idea about blood line is slowly diminishing because what does it mean at the end of the day, maybe 400 years ago but not now.
Do you enjoy soju?
I cook with it all the time and is great for cooking. Jinro/Hite was a sponsor for us, so I had soju at every location. Yes, there are times I enjoy soju but I think you have to have it with certain types of things. I can’t just sit there and drink soju because after awhile it makes me sick. But, the soju in Korea tastes different than the soju you get here, it is more sweet here which kind of makes me nauseous. I enjoyed it in Korea when I have bbq with my uncle, it is his favorite thing.
Do you get on the Internet often and, if so, what are some of your favorite websites?
I look at HalfKorean.com all the time when there is new posts. Korean Beacon is founded by my producer Eric Rhee. I love Seoul Eats, Daniel Grey is the founder of that website. I did some research back when we were starting the project and used his website as a reference a lot. He has cooking classes and culinary tours and it is really great. He also helped us on the show and he’s in a couple episodes. He’s an adoptee as well and really passionate about Korean food and culture and has a real big following. I love maangchi.com, she’s got great recipes and is adorable. I think the Korean government should give her more financial support because she has got a ridiculous following. She’s got people in the Netherlands and places like that. She is really famous internationally in terms of being the face for Korean food with her instructional videos. I wish people like her would get more attention. Another site is Aeri’s Kitchen. Kimchi Mamas, Beyond Kimchee. There are lot of great websites out there. I’m always on those.
How did you find out about HalfKorean.com and what did you think about HalfKorean.com when you first saw it?
I think I was on another blog and saw it on a list of links. I was just looking for anything to do with Korean culture. Over the years, especially after I found all these people from the same orphanage, it has really sparked my interest. There are so many of us that are passionate and I love the feeling of community and that we are all one. It’s really supportive, positive and I think it is great.
Any final words that you would like to pass on to the community?
I’m sure most of us grew up feeling like we were the only ones and to find this community online is really fulfilling. Especially for adoptees, it has been a place of healing to go these websites and know there are others like us. It has been a great support group and I hope that as we go forward we all continue to be supportive and loving of each other and help spread the word about Korea and this culture we love so much.
Thank you to Marja for taking the time to talk to share with us her mixed Korean experience. You can learn more about Marja and Kimchi Chronicles at the official website or the official Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook pages.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders