Over the years I realized that it was not just a job anymore; my love and passion for food grew every day. At some point, I realized opening my own restaurant was something I had to do – it was in my blood and bones.
mŏkbar chef and owner Esther Choi grew up cooking traditional Korean food with her Korean-native grandmother. So while Esther was born in New Jersey and spent her early childhood in the oceanside town of Egg Harbor, she was always keenly aware of her Korean heritage. That awareness morphed into immersion when her family moved to Korea for three years, because her parents wanted to ensure that their children would cherish Korean culture. Esther enthusiastically embraced her parents’ goal – her mission today is to broaden New Yorkers’ understanding and appreciation of Korean culture through her food.
“Food is the ambassador of a culture,” says Esther. “It expresses all the elements that define a country – its history, social customs, language, geography and arts traditions. It is something passed from generation to generation – in my case from my grandmother to me. She taught me everything I know about food, how to love every ingredient, how to respect the process and thoughtful preparation of every dish.”
Esther truly believes in the simplicity of dining, yet strives to deliver complex and perfectly executed traditional Korean cuisine with humility, demonstrating her true commitment to the authenticity of her Korean heritage.
Her formal training as a chef began at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), continuing in the kitchens of ilili and La Esquina, as well as that of the Food Network. However, Esther began her professional education at 14 when she started working part time in restaurants.
“I probably worked every job there is in a restaurant, whether it be front of house or back of house,” Esther adds. “Over the years I realized that it was not just a job anymore; my love and passion for food grew every day. At some point, I realized opening my own restaurant was something I had to do – it was in my blood and bones. I honestly just love cooking for others and introducing and surprising people with the unknown, amazing flavors of Korea.”
Since the 2014 opening of her first venture, mŏkbar, Esther has been hailed as a New Rising Chef by Food Republic and in 2015 was named a Zagat 30 under 30 “Rock Stars Redefining the Industry”. mŏkbar was also acclaimed as the Village Voice’s 2014 Reader’s Choice Best New Restaurant and was awarded Best Kimchi in 2015 by Epoch Taste.
Now Esther is poised to expand the mŏkbar brand with the debut of mŏkbar Brooklyn across Flatbush Avenue from The Barclays Center. There, she will focus on serving authentic Korean soul food the way it is presented in Korea with multiple harmonious, vegetable-driven small dishes called banchan, accompanying various protein staples.
“To me, Korean food is not just about cooking and being a chef, it is about the love of family, culture, respect of my heritage and that is who I am personally and professionally,” Esther says. “I want everyone to fall in love with Korean food and culture and that is my ultimate goal.”