Han Ly Hwang, the chef and owner of Portland's Kim Jong Grillin food truck, joins us in the studio to talk about the Korean-American food revolution, being on Chopped, what it means to cook your own food, and the Sisyphean task of gaining parental approval.
Soleil Ho You’re listening to “Racist Sandwich,” the podcast that explores the intersections between food, race, gender and class. This is Soleil Ho.
Zahir Janmohamed And I’m Zahir Janmohamed.
Soleil Today, we are in the studio with Han Ly Hwang, the owner and chef of Kim Jong Grillin’, a much-beloved food truck in Portland.
Zahir One of the reasons why we wanted to have Han on the show for our second episode is, like Bertony Faustin from our first episode, Han has been really active in mentoring and supporting other chefs of color in Portland and promoting Korean culture through his food.
Soleil The way he talks about Korean barbecue is just really evocative, and also the fact, he told us later, that he puts soda in his bulgogi. And that excites me, because I always put Sprite in my nuoc cham fish sauce. So, they’re related.
Han Ly Hwang Kim Jong Grillin’ originally opened up in 2009. And we were open for 10 months. We did the Eat Mobile competition, which at one point was just a gigantic deal to me. This was the year they had celebrity chefs as judges and everything. We ended up winning the Judges’ Choice award, which was rad. All these people that came through had their trucks. Or they had like fake grass for their little booths. I had a Weber grill. I’m super hungover. Next thing I know people were just like, “Yeah, you won.” And I was like, “What? There’s like 700 food carts here.” I thought it was a joke. I’m out celebrating. Two hours after being into a nice whiskey drunk, I get a phone call from one of my regular customers, who somehow got my number from a friend of a friend, was just like, “Hey, your food truck’s on fire.” I go back and the fire department had already come and left. It looked like a campfire inside. I was devastated. Like, devastated. Somebody was telling me, “Oh my god, it’s a horrible accident.” And I was like, “Fuck you an accident. Are you kidding me?” I just get an award this night and then, you know, if you’re even slightly a conspiracy theorist, you’re going to go ahead and think somebody burned my shit down. And so, that was Kim Jong Grillin’ one.
I tried to open a restaurant. Between the Division neighborhood association permitting and somebody backing out as an investor, I didn’t even get to open the doors. And at that point, I was also having a child. My daughter was born around the same time. And then I had a really hard decision to make. I was like, “Man, this is over.” I started delivering food for a local specialty cheese company.
Zahir You got an email from Chopped in the middle of the night. And at this point you were kind of down and out, delivering cheese. How did you go from email to where you are now?
Han So, I got that email, and I thought it was a prank. And they were just like, “Yo, we’re going to be casting in your area. Come in for the interview.” I just kept getting emails like, “Hey, we liked your headshot. We’re going to interview you. Hey, we liked your interview, you’re kind of funny.” And anyways the whole time I was working. Ended up getting flown out to New York, and it was insane. It was crazy to go into like, “Yeah that’s where we film Iron Chef.” I couldn’t believe it.
Zahir That’s cool. So after Chopped, how did you go from there? You came back and started your two food carts?
Han Well, I didn’t have any intentions to reopen. And on the episode of Chopped, one of the judges, Scott Conant, was just like, “What are you doing? You owe it to yourself and everybody to get back in the fucking kitchen.”
(audio from Chopped)
Scott Conant I’m trying to get my head wrapped around the point that your food truck burned, and now you’re driving a truck delivering produce when you’re clearly talented.
Han Well, right after it happened it was like I made this decision should I open a restaurant. But I just kept getting knocked down and knocked down trying to open up, and eventually you kind of have to throw your hands up.
Scott So, I want to be a little hard on you. Either you want something, you don’t want something, but you’ve got to move things forward.
Han You know, like I said, man, I got beat down a lot.
Scott It’s crazy talk. Get your ass back in the kitchen and get to work. You can’t give up.
Han And to hear somebody be like, “Dude, you have really good food.” And then kind of get mad about it, that where you’re at in life, is like—I could have walked away and been like, “That dude’s an asshole.” But I literally was like, “Damn. That dude’s an asshole, but he didn’t have to say that it was good.” So when I got back it all started falling into place. I was like, “Ok, I’ve got to find money, I’ve got to find a truck, I’ve gotta get a new logo.” So when I got back I was pumped. I was super stoked to do it. Right when I got back into town, somebody heard that I went to Chopped, and they were like, Here’s 15 grand. Like, straight up.
Zahir An investor came up to you.
Han Yeah, and was just like, here’s 15 grand—
Soleil That’s so dope. Oh my god.
Han —He’s like, “Think of me as a Kickstarter. But I want to see where you can go with this.” And then I called my homie that owns Koi Fusion, Bo Kwon—
Zahir —Oh, of course. Yeah.
Han —So, Bo and I started around the same time. And I obviously fell off, and he became a monster. And I called Bo and I was like, “Hey man, you know anybody looking for a food truck?” And he’s like, “Fuck you. Are you opening again?” And I was like, “Yes.” And he’s like, “I got the truck. I got your truck.”
On Twitter, Mike Russell, the food writer for Oregonian just wrote like, “This is why I always go to Beaverton for Korean food. There’s no good Korean on the East side.” And I tweeted it like, “Not for long, homies. See you in June.” Or, “See you in August.” And from that was like this daisy chain of press that just started hyping. The first day I opened, I saw customers that came to the first truck. And every single one was like, “Dude, we’ve been waiting.” If I think about it too long, like seriously, I get really choked up. Because to see people then, now they come with their kids, and they didn’t have their kids before. And I was like, “You guys still remember me. That’s a big deal to me.” It was huge. That alone was like, I’ll die broke and still be super happy to see that.
Zahir Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up and how you came to Portland and what your experience has been like here, especially like as…
Han Right. So, I grew up in Northern Virginia, right outside of D.C. I went to school in Philly to be an animator. And I was doing a lot of illustration animation work. At the time doing 3-D animation and stuff was huge. Especially for the DOD. But if you can’t get a security clearance—like if you can’t get shit like your top secret clearance or secret secret clearance or whatever—you’re not going to get a job no matter how good you are. And I already had a felony. I had two felonies on my record because I was an asshole teenager. And so I kept applying for these jobs. And they’re like, “Oh my god. Your demo reel looks great. It’s great. And you’re Korean. Awesome, studious work—”
Han —You know? Seriously, you just see these white faces light up like, “Oh dude, this guy’s going to change the game.” And then they’re like, “Alright, so we’re just going to do security clearance. No big deal. So we’ll call you on Monday.” And they’d never call me back.
Zahir And I know Northern Virginia has a large Korean population. Did you grow up with a large Korean community, or did you grow up in a really white neighborhood? Because I know Virginia can also be very white, too.
Han Yeah. So the Korean community… Yes, I did grow up with a big Korean community. I didn’t have too many Korean friends, though. Most of the Korean community there, though, because they’re first-generation or second-generation, you have to have a lot of money to come from, ethnically like from where you came from. Even to go to school here, you must have been a baller from where you came from, you know? So most of those kids I didn’t really get along with. My mom cut hair. My dad was a mechanic. And most of those kids were wearing Armani shirts in school. And I’m like, “That’s fresh, but I have this tie-dye.” I did have great exposure to Korean food, though, because of that.
When I left, there was like almost 400,000 Koreans. There were so many Korean restaurants that—and the thing about Korean restaurants is they don’t cater to anybody but themselves. So they won’t even print menus in English. And some places won’t even print a menu. They’re just like, “You don’t know what we do, then you shouldn’t be here.” So I ate a lot of food like that growing up. It was great.
Anyways, the reason why I moved to Portland was I was getting really into snowboarding. And I was so sick of getting snubbed by jobs. I visited a friend out here in Portland. I was like, “I’ll be here in six months.” So about six, seven months later I moved out here, and it was kind of the shock of my life to be honest with you.
Zahir Why was it the shock of your life? I know it’s super white. Is that why or…?
Han Yeah, I think I was down on like 5th and… like around where like Little Bird is. So I was sitting there. I was sitting on the corner, I was looking around like, “What the fuck? There’s something so weird.” And then it all hit me. Everything where people were at, even in my peripheral vision, was white. And it was the most jarring, shocking thing in the world to go from Northern Virginia where you have this melting pot of just all these people—it’s not even a melting pot. It’s almost like 50 different species of ants fighting for the popsicle stick. People crawling over each other to just blanketed white people—I was just so jarred. I went home and was just like, Holy shit. What did I do? I’m going to get my ass kicked.
Soleil It’s kind of like The Matrix, isn’t it? Like that moment when you’re just like, Ahh! You know?
Han Yeah. Absolutely like The Matrix. Absolutely. It was so jarring to me. I thought I might have made a huge mistake. There’s something to be said about when—ethnically wherever you’re from, wherever your family is from—and you go back to where they’re from. When I went back to Korea, I started going back when I was five, and I used to go back every two, four years. And it’s been awhile since I went back, but I think I was 14, 15 when I went back. I realized this weird calmness that happened because I looked like everybody else. Got off the plane in Seoul. Look around, I look like everybody else. And that’s… I’ve never been able to describe it in words, but it’s one of the weirdest feelings ever.
Zahir So, Han, if you’re comfortable, have you experienced any direct racism or microaggressions here? Like, have people said stupid shit to you?
Han Yes, in both directions. I always look at racism like a pendulum, and we’re all just trying to fight to stay in the middle, to not be too politically correct. When I first moved here I lived in a house with six other people. And all of them were white. And all of them are like in college, SEIU kids, whatever. And I used to go by Henry, by the way. Like, my name’s Han. It makes sense if you put the “ly” and… Henry. So when I moved in they’re like, “There’s no way Henry’s your name.” I was like, “No it is. I’ve been going by Henry for like 20-something years.” And they’re like, “No, what’s your inside name? Not your outside name.” And I was like, “OK, um—”
Zahir That’s such a Portland white boy question.
Han Yeah, and I was just like alright—
Soleil Inside name?
Han Because on your rental application it says “Han Ly,” and I think that’s more fitting. And I was like, “Well, I think I don’t give a fuck. But OK.” And then it stuck. And then, next thing I know, everybody calls me Han. Even my wife now. She’s like, “I can never call you ‘Henry.’” And one of the things in the meeting, she had notes, and the last thing was like, “Alright, so, um, OK. Han, listen. I want you to know we’re a family here. And just let us know if anybody treats you different outside of here or anybody makes you feel uncomfortable coming from an ethnic background. Because that’s just wrong, and we have unions behind us for this kind of stuff.” And I was just looking at her. I think she was expecting a “thank you.” And it was unbelievable. So that’s one swing of the pendulum where it’s too politically correct, where they just have overeducated people only seeing differences but not respecting the difference.
And then you have the other pendulum, like the time my wife and I, we drove out to Montana to go see Glacier. And I don’t know if you know this, but the panhandle of Idaho, it’s just like one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been—never seen so many swastikas just like right out in the air. We went to a cafe, it was myself, my wife, another family. Didn’t get served. Sat there for like 30 minutes. Went to Butte, Montana. And we jump out of the car, gas up, and I ask this woman [laughing] I asked this woman, “Is there anywhere good to eat? We’re looking for like a sandwich on the go.” And this woman just looks at me like, “Well, the Chinese restaurant opens up at noon two blocks away. There’s another bar about a block that way, Chinese food. Um, I don’t know man. I think there’s some kind of teriyaki place up the street.” And I was looking at her like, “I asked for a fucking sandwich.” You know? So, yeah. Since I’ve moved out here I’ve experienced some things.
Soleil So, OK, you mentioned that—just to go back to restaurants a little bit—that the Korean restaurants in Virginia, where you’re from, were really insular, right? They didn’t really care about opening up to broader clientele. And, on the contrary though, your mission with Kim Jong Grillin’ is to sort of open it up and bring Korean food to the masses—
Soleil —So, why is that? What’s your motivation behind not being insular?
Han I think if I was insular with Kim Jong Grillin’ I would’ve been out of business like day two. So, I have to cater to the audience. I honestly knew this years ago. I always thought Korean food kind of hits a lot of different levels with people. Like what Bo was doing with the Korean taco and everything. I was like, “Wow, people are really liking Korean components.” I don’t like being insular, because all of a sudden that makes me the bigot. That all of a sudden makes me… being too exclusive to anything, that’s kind of rough. We were recently in a documentary—I’ve been in two documentaries—for KBS1 in South Korea. It is a special on Korean Americans going back home and making Korean food. And there’s a bunch of Korean-American chefs right now that are just killing the game. It was probably the proudest moment of my life. It wiped any Yelp review, anybody’s review. Now, I don’t care. I had folks from Korea come here, look at me like I’m a white unicorn because they’re just like, “You were born here. How do you know how to make all this stuff?”
Soleil I feel like a lot of ways, a lot of immigrant chefs are always either subconsciously or consciously hoping for that approval.
Soleil And it’s almost echoing the parental thing. Like, if my grandmother actually liked my food one day, I could just die.
Han Yeah. Yeah. I’m so glad you brought that up. Let me counter that with a question. How much of your career has been dedicated to cooking professionally the food you grew up eating versus white food.
Soleil [laughs] OK, so, a lot of my career has been learning how to push against white food. And I’ve worked for restaurants. I’ve never had my own restaurant. I’ve had pop-ups where I cooked my own food. But a lot of it has been me negotiating trying to do the food that I find interesting, that I find inspiring. Like you doing Korean barbecue at these other establishments and then leaving because it was just too frustrating. When I would do it, when I would put Vietnamese specials on the menu, and they would kill it, sometimes the owners would be like, “Well, we’re not an Asian restaurant. So maybe don’t do that anymore.” And that was the frustration that I was struggling with.
Han Yeah. So, I’ve spent most of my career cooking food that was not my ethnic background, obviously. Not to say that you have to to be a good chef. However, when it comes to getting that approval from your mom or getting approval from another Korean that might look like my mom… I mean, we’re talking like maybe two weeks ago my mom finally approved of what I did.
Soleil Oh my god!
Han Yeah. And I’ve been cooking for a long time. Yeah, thank you. It’s a very big compliment. And this is what it took. It took for me, one, to financially stand up on my own. And she’s like, “Alright cool. But, you know, you’re still a cook. You’re still a peasant.” Two, to have somebody that’s Korean... I had to physically show her that, “Yeah, I have Koreans that come by here, mom. It’s good.” She’s like, “Yeah, OK. Whatever.” Three, I had to fly her out here to be a part of the documentary. And the whole time my mom just thought it was my friend with a camera—
Han —until she got the business card that said KBS1. This is the biggest and oldest broadcasting crew in Korea. And even then she still was like, “So, is this like an internet thing?” I’m like, “Mom. No. It’s going to be on TV in Korea. Your family’s going to call you. They’re going to see this.”
For myself, what it was like… When I was a cook, my mom was just like, “You’re not a doctor or a lawyer, so you’re going to pick the hardest job out there. You could’ve just been a desk monkey, you know. You could’ve just had an easy life, but no. You wanted to be this.” And then on top of that she’s like, “No one’s going to eat the food. White people don’t like Korean food. White people don’t like Vietnamese food.” Whatever. But, what I don’t think my mom realizes is that it’s all an homage back to you. And I don’t think—I’m sure it’s like this with your parents, too—they don’t get how much that food meant to you. And being able to reproduce and put it back out to share with people, they don’t see that. It’s always money.
My mom was like, “Dude, I didn’t go through all this hell to get to America just so you can become a fucking cook.” You know? [laughing] That’s how it was over and over. I kept coming to the same thing. She’s like, “You went to school for animation. I said you shouldn’t go for that. But it’s still with computers, so I thought you’d be ok.” I’m like, “Mom, I’m sorry. I can’t not do this.” Kudos to you for seriously getting frustrated at places where they’re like, No, we’re not a Vietnamese restaurant. See, I hate that. I really hate that. You’re a restaurant. It’s just good food. It doesn’t have to be ethnic, but it’s a gift for me to be ethnic and give you an ethnic food and another option to get something that’s like 19 percent food cost. Fuck you.
Han You know? Like, I helped you make money. Let me do this one day a week.
Soleil So you mentioned that there’s a lot of Korean-American chefs coming up and doing a lot of really great work like Roy Choi, Deuki Hong, David Chang. Koreatown just came out also. It’s an amazing book. And so it looks like Korean food is entering the mainstream in some way. So how do you sustain interest or, I guess, investment in Korean food beyond the sort of flash in the pan thing that you were worried about before? And how do you keep it from becoming that nightmare scenario where white chefs are opening Korean restaurants and getting James Beard awards, that sort of thing?
Han I think Deuki, his book Koreatown was incredible because it really showed everybody, no, you can do this. But the one thing that no one really talks about is without already pre-made ingredients really kind of showed the down to earth side of it instead of… Because I’ve met white chefs that are just like, “No, I got this soy sauce. And these guys like slaved over it. And it was like four years to ferment.” And I’m like, “Oh that’s sweet. We’re a Kikkoman family, so we’re going to use the Kikkoman, so…”
What I see though is the complications of doing certain ethnic foods will kind of always keep the interest. People will always want to find out fermentation and stuff like that. And B, you have to be let in to do that. So if a white chef was trying to be the most Korean chef out there, I mean, that is quite the challenge. We’re not known to be the nicest people of the Asians.
Soleil and Zahir [laughing]
Han You know what I mean? If you did due diligence, went out there, didn’t look at it like, “I’m going to be a weirdo and take advantage of this culture…” I mean, I find it just really hard, with Korean food especially. I find the things that I look at for the things that are trending, it’s like, yeah Deuki and Matt wrote this awesome book. It’s all of a sudden accessible. The next person that writes a book after that is going to be that much more authentic. And before that he had somebody that made all these hybrid recipes of Korean-American-Japanese, which was the Momofuku cookbook. Momofuku cookbook was great because how many fucking restaurants have that book? How many restaurants have opened based on that book?
Zahir For young chefs of color coming up, what advice would you give to them?
Han Don’t fight what you are. You’re different. No one can take away the fact that you’re Asian, Black, whatever. You are who you are, that’s part of your definition. And for people to take that away from you is a big deal. It’s a big no-no to me. You don’t have to be racist to recognize that I’m Korean. Any chefs of color coming up, never be ashamed of being like, “I grew up eating this curry.” Or whatever. Because that is a huge disservice to not only just you. It’s a disservice to everybody. It’s a beautiful thing to show people what you grew up eating. Because that’s what shapes you. There’s a reason why when diplomats, presidents, everybody meets, it’s like breaking bread, that’s a big deal. And that’s why it’s also one of the biggest insults not to eat that meal. So I think, yeah man, be the diplomat. Show everybody. Don’t just make a sandwich for people. Don’t dumb it down. Go for it. It’s the scariest thing that I ever had to do, but I was so uncompromising about it that it seemed to have worked. And the payoff has been great.
Zahir So moving forward, what are your goals as a cook? Do you see yourself opening another food cart or perhaps a brick and mortar business?
Han In Portland, I don’t want to open up another Kim Jong Grillin’. I’ve really loved what Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are doing with Loco’l. It like brought tears to my eyes to see them be like, “No dude. People should have access to good food.” And what I would like to do with Kim Jong Grillin’ eventually is I want to open in places where the rain doesn’t affect the business, obviously. But I kind of want to make it a little bit more modular.
There’s a great company out there called—well, I don’t know if they’re around anymore—but they’re called like Bibi2go or Bibigo or something like that where they do bibimbap on the fly. And I want to kind of make Kim Jong Grillin’ modular. I want people to come up and never spend more than $10, get an awesome box of food that makes you feel good. Maybe throw a little bit more options in it. But I want to try to make it like fast food and put it out there. I’ve already proven to myself that I can hang with other chefs and stuff like that and come up with creative dishes. And I want to really fill a pocket that I think that needs to be there. Whether it’s just to spread the word that Korean food’s awesome and can be fast, or it’s ok to go and eat kimchi. So that’s what I want to do.
Zahir Is there anything you want to plug or promote?
Han Yeah. We have a location on 46th and SE Division. We have another one on 26th and NE Alberta. And I just, actually… You know the one thing I want to plug? Be nice. Be nice to the people that cook your food. I feel like that’s really forgotten these days.
Soleil So where can we find you on Twitter?
Han @kimjonggrillin on Twitter. You can find us on Instagram at @kimjongrillin on Instagram. And then our Facebook is Kim Jong Grillin. We have a website, kimjonggrillin.com, that needs to be updated.
Zahir Well you heard it from Han. Be nice to everyone.
Soleil Thank you for joining us, Han.
Han Thank you so much for having me. This was great.
Soleil You’ve been listening to “Racist Sandwich.” We hope you enjoyed this interview with Han Ly Hwang.
Zahir And we actually hope for those in Portland to have a meetup at his restaurant sometime in June. So people can meet chefs of color here. Stay tuned on our website for that, racistsandwich.com, or our Twitter feed @raceandfood.
Soleil And you can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/raceandfood. Or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d like to thank our friend, Alan Montecillo, for editing this episode. You’re the shit, Alan. Thank you very much.
Zahir That’s it. Be nice, as Han says.
Transcribed by Ann-Derrick Gaillot.