Happy Moods and Comfort Foods - A Snack at Sunday Bird
In the kitchen at Sunday Bird, you can find Deuki Hong cooking with a smile. For him, being challenged when creating food is more important than fame. Deuki left cooking in famous New York restaurants like Jean-Georges and Momofuku to move to San Francisco where he could run a restaurant available to all. A literal hole-in-the-wall, Sunday Bird is a small snack shop found inside Boba Guys. From his kitchen window, Deuki is able to combine his two passions: cooking and hospitality. His positive vibes come through in his homey pan-Asian flavors, which he compiled into his book, Koreatown: A Cookbook.
By George Ko and Riki Robinson
Photos by George Ko and Eric Nakamura
GR: Can you tell us about yourself and your restaurant?
Deuki Hong: My name is Deuki Hong. I cook for a living and I run Sunday Bird which is behind the Boba Guys in San Francisco.
GR: What is your first memory of cooking food?
DK: I remember it being a necessity for survival. My parents were immigrants so it was me and my sister left at home. We cooked a lot of eggs, a lot of reheating stuff, nothing culinarily interesting. I had full access to the stove when I was in 2nd grade or 3rd grade. My parents didn’t care about safety or anything.
GR: Do you remember the first thing you made?
DK: I tried a Jacques Pepin dish. I used to watch a lot of PBS, I was not rich enough for cable and food network. So Saturdays on PBS, for four hours they would air people like Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pepin, and Rick Bayless. That was my Saturday mornings. I remember Chef Jacques was deboning chicken and I tried to do it myself. My mom bought me a chicken and I was like 12 or 13. I totally butchered it and I just ended up pan frying and eating it. That was my first memory thinking: “Cooking is incredible.”
GR: Did you have a passion for cooking even without experience?
DK: I didn’t know cooking could be a viable career option. I did it because it was fun. I was blessed and fortunate to have incredible people around me. I loved baseball and my baseball coach was a famous restaurateur, which I didn’t know then. He said, “Hey, my son told me you love cooking.” And I said, “I don’t know if I love cooking. I never did it.” And he said “Try it.” Then, when I was 14 or 15, I got to go into the kitchen and really tried professional cooking. At that time, it wasn’t like “I want to do this for a living.” It was more like “I get to hang out with really cool older brothers.” I felt cooler than the rest of the kids in high school and I just wanted to be cool. I still want to be cool.
GR: What kind of restaurant was it?
DK: A Spanish restaurant, it was a Mexican restaurant. It was Chef Aaron Sanchez’s first restaurant in Tribeca.
GR: What was your experience working in a restaurant kitchen compared to cooking at home?
DK: When you know nothing, you have nothing to compare to. I peeled chili peppers for the first 6 months. It was just a process. It was not anything culinary and I think people over-glorify it. They don’t let a 15-year old kid to make beautiful dishes right off the bat. At home, I wasn’t making beautiful traditional Korean dishes. I was frying eggs. Everything was new, everything was exciting. I just wanted to soak it all in. And I did.
GR: Was there a point where you were thought it was grueling work?
DK: The whole time I was just happy that I was there. Looking back on it now I see that I was working for free. No one is paying a 15-year old kid to do anything. For two years, I was there right after school. I would get on the bus and subway and by around 5:00 o’clock I’d be there for dinner service and I’d leave at 11:00 o’clock. And then just do it all over again. It was fun and it didn’t feel like work.
GR: Were there food classes in your high school?
DK: There was my Home Economics teacher Ms. Gray Wilson and my principal. I was super tight with my principal because he was a bowler. I’m a state championship bowler, by the way, so we had that connection. I say it without any hesitation: If I didn’t go to Leonia High School, I don’t think I’d be cooking right now. Everyone was empowering me with full support, guiding me. My Home Ec. class was just fun and then my senior year I was a teacher’s aide for the Home Ec program.
GR: So we have to start talking about bowling. How did you get into bowling?
DK: I’m really competitive. The only thing I’m not competitive with is food, which is weird. I’m the cockiest bastard in sports because I think I rock. But, I talk trash, I dehumanize. Sports were my outlet for that competitiveness. I played baseball for few years and a lot of my mentality is sports and teams. Our team was awesome and we were all Koreans. The funny thing is that I refuse to compete in the food world. I never did and I never will. I’ve been asked a few times but I don’t believe in competing with food.
GR: That’s interesting. I think almost every Korean Chef we’ve interviewed so far was a competitive athlete at some point.
DK: Maybe there’s a parallel with sports. I think you need to be competitive and you don’t have to be an asshole.
GR: Why do you think competitiveness is not related to your cooking?
DK: I don’t just believe in it because that’s not why I got into cooking. I don’t want to ruin cooking for me. Cooking, for me, is supposed to be about serving people and hospitality. Competition is exactly the opposite to what I got into this for.
GR: What happened after high school?
DK: Chef told me to go to culinary school. I was like “No I’ll just work for you because I’ll die for you.” But then he said, “No, you’re an idiot” so I went to culinary school. I searched “best culinary school” because if I’m going to go, I’m going to the best one. Culinary Institute popped up as the first link, I clicked on it, and applied. It was a lot harder to get into a Culinary Institute of America back in 2007. It was hard. They required a two-year internship and recommendations. You can’t just go there and interview.
I’m a Christian, so I pray and I like to believe I have a relationship with God. I remember praying: “God if you give me the acceptance letter to this school, I promise I’ll go into this path. I’ll honor this blessing.” Culinary Institute was the only school I applied to and I got in. If I didn’t get in, I would have been in trouble in different ways. I was good in my junior year and then in my senior year, I was a mess. I was just going to school to pass.
GR: What happened during your senior year?
DK: I wanted to stay in championship. If you’re not worrying about studies, you can do stuff like bowling and golf all at the same time.
GR: What was it like going to Culinary Institute of America?
DK: I was very arrogant. In my first year nobody talked to me. I already knew how to cook. I just felt like I was too good for Culinary Institute in my first year. I had 2 years of experience under my belt. After my first year of working, I knew all these stations and I’m cooking along right next to the guys that you respect and they’ve been doing it longer than I’ve been alive. And I’m rocking with them, day in, day out. And I go to school and there were kids that don’t know how to hold a knife right.
So the first year of the two year program I arrogantly thought, “Why the hell am I in class with them? I’m literally losing my skills being here.” Then I became humbled at Momofuku, my externship. I realized I’m not great as I think I am. In my second year, I got humbled in that experience. I had a better time. I started developing real relationships and friends.
GR: What was your first day experience at Momofuku? What was it like meeting the famous David Chang the first time?
DK: He wasn’t the famous David Chang back then. It was 2007 and that’s when he just moved from the small noodle bar to the big noodle bar. They needed externs because they were hiring for bigger space. They were just opening up Ko. I joined them because I thought I was going to learn Korean food because this is a Korean Chef. Little did I know he isn’t into traditional Korean food.
I remember we were in a small room it was me, him, and his Sous Chef Akira, who I’m really good friends with now. We’re knee to knee and he goes “Hey what’s your name?” “Hi, I’m Deuki.” “Are you ready to work?” “Sure”. It was a 30 second interview and I was hired.
I was one of the first externs. They didn’t have a real program and they just treated me like a line cook. I’m just appreciative that they did. It wasn’t a set structure.
I got yelled at a lot. I got humbled a lot. To this day, I still believe that the cooks and chefs in that kitchen were probably some of the best chefs I’ve ever worked next to and I probably will ever work next to. All of them now have their own spots and they’re legends in their own right. I’m super honored to have worked next to Sean Gray, Peter Serpico, Kevin Pemoulie. We’re all just hanging out and I was the young kid, obviously, but we’re all on the same kitchen at one time. And then, of course, Chef David Chang.
GR: How long were you there?
DK: It was one really long year. I was getting yelled at a lot. I remember when Chef David Chang came in, I knew I was going to be yelled at. It was very humbling.
GR: So where did you go after Culinary Institute of America?
DK: I did a 180 and went the fine dining route. So I went to Jean-Georges with three Michelin Stars. It was super regimented and you wear a toque. It was a total opposite of Momofuku culture but I’m glad that I had that experience because I learned discipline and precision. The standards and quality are second to none. I’m very fortunate to have worked in that kitchen with those guys too.
GR: What was it like working with Jean-Georges?
DK: I respect him a lot. I respect all the chefs and I don’t say it because it’s just a good thing to say. I can last there because I respect them so much. I mean, chefs and pastors are like 1A 1B to me. If you are a pastor and you come to a restaurant, I’m here to worship you. Chefs are the same way.
JG’s got 14 restaurants in New York and more across the country. If he is in New York, he would stop by his flagship and he’d always shake hands and spend time with his crew. It was like he remembered the last time that you had a conversation he’d say, “Hey, how was that thing that we talked about last time?” And I was like “Oh man, you’re JG, you don’t have to remember my name.” But you realize that that’s how he operates. I have no excuse to ever be arrogant and operate on a different level than he does.
GR: So did you ever do Top Chef?
DK: I was never on Top Chef. I said no to Top Chef a couple of times.
GR: Can you talk more about that?
DK: I think I’m one of the most overrated kids in the game and I don’t say that lightly. I don’t know why people come and offer me these opportunities. I’m super grateful for them though. The only thing that I never did and I don’t think I will, is competing with food, in any capacity. Don’t get me wrong and I think it’s really fun and entertaining. I don’t judge anybody for doing it. I just don’t believe in that. I’ve been asked to do Top Chef and Chopped. I just can’t do it because of my core values.
It’s half I-can’t-do-what-they-do and half I-just don’t-believe-in-competing-with-food. I’ve been asked to judge a couple of small pie contests. I don’t do that either. It’s the same thing. If you are not competing with food, you cannot only participate in it, you can’t judge it either.
It’s cool and enticing, but if I never came into the industry for that. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I see the value in the competitive food shows. All my friends have been on it and I say, “That’s so fun. What episode are you on?” But for me, I just want to create hospitable concepts.
Don’t get me wrong, I benefit from the camera in my face. I think overall, as chefs, a lot of the focus has been on us. To be honest, I’m over that, which is very ironic because I’m in front of a camera right now. I’m a benefactor of all the public interest. I want to just focus my energy on the guests. There should be concepts that are guests-driven. I know that sounds very fluffy and cheesy but that it encompasses a lot and it’s never ending.
GR: What happened next during your culinary journey?
DK: I actually did private dining and cooked for high-end, fashion people. That was a totally different world, different clientele and that stressed me out a little bit. I tried it just to see if I could be a private chef. After doing that, I realized I want to be in a restaurant.
I was contacted by the guys that run Circle Night Club. They wanted to get into Korean hospitality. I love Korean food and I want to create a Korean hospitality group. It took years but we finally settled on. None of us had ever opened up a huge restaurant before so Baekjeong was practice.
I don’t know why but it was well received. It had a lot of support and it became a lot bigger than it should have been. It was an incredible blessing but I think it was also a curse. We were very arrogant after the success of one thing. I’m always the worst case scenario guy. Even if we’re doing well I would think, “You don’t know about tomorrow and you don’t know if anyone is going to show up.”
We as a whole, myself included, we got very comfortable and very arrogant as if anything we touched is going to be gold. But that’s not the case. So I had to remove it. It was a beautiful 2-3 years and the only reason why I’m in front of this camera is because of that experience that I had at Baekjeong and the Korean barbecue restaurant and I’m super grateful for it but it came at a cost.
GR: What led to Sunday Bird?
DK: My faith has a lot to do with it and not just fake humbleness. I realized I don’t write my own script. My life has an author and I always check with that. I remember getting really comfortable at Baekjeong in the two years and getting all the notoriety and going around the country and doing events. I was very young.
I was very uncomfortable with the fact that I was very comfortable. Not right now, not at 27. I need to push a little harder. So basically overnight, I removed myself from this situation and I was “Hey guys, I’m leaving.” I had left a very nice amount of money on the table. I needed to find my own voice outside of Korean barbecue.
For me, meeting Andrew was a chance. I didn’t come to San Francisco to meet Andrew. It was a cookbook stop and I got to meet him by chance through a mutual friend. Him being the awesome generous guy that he is, he offered me he’s an awesome and generous guy, he offered me a cooking space in a new kitchen he was working on. I moved across the country on a handshake agreement.
GR: That’s awesome. What was it was like setting up shop in San Francisco?
DK: San Francisco is super welcoming. I remember everyone was texting me asking if I needed anything. You don’t receive that kind of love in New York. If you come to New York, do your thing and prove yourself.
Having Andrew as an incredible liaison was crucial because I’m very awkward. He made it super easy for me to just do what I do and just try to cook. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I know a lot of people said “Why, are you behind? You could have easily taken up a storefront, open up a shop, there’s no reason why you should be serving food out of a hallway.” But I like it. This is where I want to be and this is where I need to be at this point in my career. I wouldn’t change anything if I have to do it over. I can’t thank Andrew and Ben and the Boba Guys enough. I owe them a very big dinner.
GR: Do you mind talking about the food, the inspiration behind it, and modifying something?
DK: I’m always honest. I’m not one of those guys that goes like “My food is the best.” I tried different deep fried chicken and I realized Popeyes is 300 feet away and you can’t beat Popeyes. I love Popeyes.
I wanted to do good fried chicken. I’m a Korean chef. So people think I’m going to do a Korean fried chicken. I had no intentions of making a glorified version of the Korean fried chicken franchises. That’s what ended up happening because I was very insecure in a new city and I didn’t know the clientele here.
New York was my backyard for 12 years and I know what they want. I’m very confident cooking for them. I think I gave up a lot of insecurities moving here, settling down here, and cooking for a new crowd. I didn’t hold firm on what I believed was good, and what I believed was my style.
The first two months, I was just following everybody’s lead. “Oh you want that? Great. I’ll make that.” I wasn’t happy. We’re talking like two weeks ago so it’s still happening as we speak. I just wasn’t happy and I didn’t know why. I’m cooking and I get to do what I do. But I wasn’t flexing my creative muscles and it just felt like I was producing. There’s a difference between cooking and creating and producing. I was just producing, I was just getting buried in the fried chicken. And then two weeks ago, I thought, let’s just be a fried chicken shop and I’m not going to sell fried chicken. It was a radical decision but it was for my sanity.
We’ve kind of transitioned away from a traditional Korean fried chicken menu to snacks. I get to play within this really small lowbrow container and do fun stuff and make food that I grew up eating; food I enjoy eating right now. There’s no real boundaries. Different Asian food —Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese— it's all in the same menu and it’s okay because we are playing around with snacks. I actually enjoy eating those foods. I think chicken or Oyakodon is better than anything Koreans create with an egg and chicken, so I’m going to create that.
I have Kimchi fried rice on the menu because I think that’s really good. I’m going to emulate or take inspiration from what I think is the best dishes from these home-close-to-heart dishes. So I’m having a lot more fun thinking about this new menu item.
GR: That’s awesome. So what’s the future for you? What’s your end goal for San Francisco?
DK: My end goal for San Francisco is to create a hospitality group that is guest-first. It’s not run by some big-name chef or huge hotel. It’s just young people with the same philosophy on guest-first hospitality and we just want to cook for guests and do it our style.
For me, my personal goals is to empower young talented chefs and wine people and service people and give them their own platform. If I’m fortunate enough or blessed enough to do that, I want to do that. I’ve been blessed enough to know people establish a network and have resources, have people that are willing to sign a check for me on a concept.
I realized traveling around for this cookbook project is an opportunity that people who are far more talented than I am don’t have. So how do I share that? I want this hospitality to be a platform where I can just shed light and be a part of your story. And shed light on these incredibly talented people and help where I can help and leave you alone in what you do best.
GR: What food are you making at home? When you’re home, do you buy food yourself or you make it?
DK: I don’t cook at home. It’s such a horrible thing. I live right across the street from a Panda Express and a Popeyes so that should tell you everything of what my diet usually consists of. I know every worker by name.
It’s really sad but my health is not something that I’m proud of. If I had to cook at home, it would just be cleaning out of fridge; all the small dishes that I have, putting it in a rice bowl and just mixing it up with some Korean chili pepper paste, fry up a couple eggs or boil them. I’m not thinking about creating dishes at home by any means.
GR: Can you talk about the small pan?
DK: The world’s smallest pan is my main arsenal. I wanted to do beautifully composed dishes in small four and half inch diameter deli containers. So we do Kimchi fried rice with a nice quail egg and some fried chicken skins on top and the pan aids in creating like an egg that’s right to size. I realized when I decided to do this, all my equipment had to get smaller too. I just want to package and present traditional and maybe non-traditional comfort food in a snack size portion.
GR: Do you have aspirations to develop an expensive multi-course meal?
DK: No, I respect the fine dining game so much. Obviously, some of the chefs and George and I talk about it all the time. George is super well versed in the food game to a point where he’d rocked it! I respect those guys so much and I can’t do what they do because I don’t think like that. I cook what I love to eat and I don’t eat works of art on a plate.
For me, I don’t like to eat at these $200 or $300 places. Me and George have this date lined up for Alinea, and that’s like once a year type of thing, maybe. I think the bottom line is that I don’t eat like that and I can’t cook like that. But I respect the hell out of people that do and I have worked in a kitchen that does, I know what it takes, I just can’t do it.
GR: If you can eat five things in one day, what would it be?
DK: Fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken.