The Untold Truth Of Esther Choi

Like most successful chefs, Esther Choi discovered her true love at a young age: food. She got her first restaurant job at the age of 14 while growing up in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, according to her biography on the Institute of Culinary Education website. "Over the years I realized that it was not just a job anymore; my love and passion for food grew every day," Choi said. "At some point, I realized opening my own restaurant was something I had to do."

Choi's love of food was inspired by her grandmother, who improvised Korean dishes in their south New Jersey home by growing her own Korean herbs and then making the most of what American grocery stores had to offer, according to Matador. While some celebrity chefs may come across as too full of themselves, Choi's grandmother taught her humility. "Her philosophy was always, cook with your whole heart, cook with love. It's really about the person you're cooking for, and not necessarily about yourself," Choi said.

Her grandmother's dumpling recipe would end up being the most popular appetizer at Choi's first restaurant, Mŏkbar, according to a video by Choi even calls them halmoni dumplings, "halmoni" being Korean for "grandmother."

Esther Choi's first restaurant was an instant success

Esther Choi opened Mŏkbar in 2014 at the age of 28 (via Nation's Restaurant News), which suggests she just burst onto New York's culinary scene without paying her dues. That would be wrong; Choi earned everything she got. When she hit the hot line in restaurants after culinary school, she had to work twice as hard as her colleagues in this male-dominated part of the kitchen to earn respect, per Matador. She worked up to 100 hours a week with no days off, running from a daytime server job at one restaurant to an evening kitchen shift in another. To win a space in Manhattan's Chelsea Market for Mŏkbar, Choi had to impress the selection committee with an 80-page business plan and a real-world test of her skills: a dinner for 10.

Mŏkbar was an instant hit. The restaurant's website mentions that Choi made Zagat's "30 under 30" list, and Mŏkbar earned the Village Voice reader's choice award for best new restaurant. With Mŏkbar, Choi uses a familiar vehicle — the Japanese noodle restaurant — to introduce newbies to Korean cuisine (via The Korea Times). "They are so excited to have found these new flavors," Choi said. "That kind of reaction that we get, that to me is pretty amazing. I'm proud to be able to do that with our culture."

Esther Choi has three restaurants with a fourth on the way

When Esther Choi opened her second Mŏkbar location in Brooklyn, in 2017, she got away from the easy lure of the Japanese noodle. As Choi told in the second video the organization made about her, the Mŏkbar BK menu is more refined and more traditionally Korean. In the video, Choi showed Mŏkbar BK's jipbap, or home meal — a traditional Korean spread with rice, a protein, and side dishes presented in small bowls. Choi also presented a mung bean pancake made with a white kimchi that lacks the usual spicy Korean red pepper. "When kimchi first came about, it didn't have red pepper in it, actually," Choi said.

Also in 2017, Choi and her partners opened a gastropub, which is just a fancy word for a bar with good food. The Lower East Side lounge, called Ms. Yoo, was inspired by another NYC gastropub, The Spotted Pig (via Eater New York). Choi's third location also was obviously inspired, yet again, by her grandmother. Ms. Yoo is Choi's grandmother. OpenTable noted that Ms. Yoo, the restaurant/bar, was the inverse of Choi's Mŏkbar restaurants. Rather than offering Korean dishes with a Western touch, Ms. Yoo offered American food with Korean flavors.

Choi plans to open a third Mŏkbar in Midtown Manhattan this fall (via Time Out). When summer arrives, Choi will retreat to the Hamptons, to be a Pop Up Nation guest chef at Old Stove Pub.

Esther Choi is becoming a food TV fixture

New Yorkers may know Esther Choi through the hopping night-life scene at Ms. Yoo or the authentic Korean flavors at her Mŏkbar restaurants. The rest of us know her through her many television appearances. Her first job at Food Network, however, may not be what you think. Before she even opened her first restaurant, Choi worked in the purchasing department, finding ingredients for the network's stable of celebrity chefs, according to Eater. Even then, Choi got a smidgen of media exposure. She was featured in 2012 on Food Network's FN Dish blog, making a "family meal" for her coworkers. (A family meal is what a restaurant kitchen prepares for the staff before the dinner shift.) FN Dish might have pulled off the Food Network understatement of the decade when the blogger wrote, "Esther is especially good at making Korean food."

Choi's real TV career began as a contestant in Season 2 of "Beat Bobby Flay," per Food Network. She appeared as a guest chef on "The Chew" in 2017 and "Today" in 2018 (via IMDb). Then came stints as judge on "Worst Cooks in America" and "Chopped." Up next is a guest-judge slot on "Battle of the Brothers," which starts on Discovery+ June 17. That's not all. Choi hosted a kitchen gadget show for Eater. Amazon live-streamed "Cooking with Esther Choi," according to the Mŏkbar website, and she is featured in "Her Name Is Chef," the 2021 documentary about sexism in the restaurant industry.

Esther Choi has publicly embraced cannabis

Esther Choi's ascension to TV celebrity coincides with increasing mainstream acceptance of cannabis, exemplified by new shows such as "Chopped 420" on Discovery+. Think "Chopped," except some variation of cannabis will appear in those mystery baskets. The show hit the streaming service on April 20 (appropriately enough), with Choi appearing as a regular judge.

Choi and cannabis are a good fit. She defeated two other Korean chefs in a 2019 episode of Viceland's "Bong Appétit," making an appetizer, main course, and dessert with THC-infused products. The contestants got high, and the judges got even higher. Choi said on the show she has never cooked with cannabis before, but she's no newbie. "I am a user, of course," Choi said. "I need it. It's very medicinal for me."

Keeping with the cannabis theme, Choi launched a CBD-infused sesame oil called Sessy in April (via Instagram). "I am so happy to see the industry growing out of its stereotype and being destigmatized, as really it is a plant with so many positive qualities," Choi wrote on Instagram.

For Esther Choi, food is a gateway to Korean culture

Over the past few years, Choi has evolved from chef to entrepreneur. "Life of a Restaurateur," a three-part video series on her YouTube channel choibites, gave her fans access to a day in the life of Choi that did not involve a lick of kitchen work. She met media producers, she scouted New York's financial district for a new restaurant location, she tasted wine, she strategized in the Mŏkbar business office, and she dropped in on Ms. Yoo — which was still jumping after 1 a.m.

One of the latest phases in Choi's evolution was her podcast, "Get Down with K-Town," which was about more than Korean food (via The Creative Independent). "When I started to expand on my career, that also had to do with media presence and being that face of Korean food," Choi said. "Then that evolved into not only Korean food but Korean culture as well."

Choi had set her sights on expanding from food to culture years earlier. "What I'm trying to aim to do is spark an interest in the culture by food," Choi told in a video in 2016. "Food is really the starter of what interests you in any type of culture. Who would really care about Korean culture really that much if it wasn't for the f****** food? The food is, like, so ... good, and just so different, and really special." We could say the same about Esther Choi.