Chefs John and Katianna Hong met in a kitchen many moons ago. After years of cooking in renowned restaurants together, from Melisse in Santa Monica to The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif., the culinary couple returned to Southern California with two things: a young daughter, Sia, and plans to open their own restaurant.
Yangban Society, now open in Downtown L.A.’s arts district, is a labor of love from new parents eager to share their cultural heritage and professional histories with hungry guests.
“Every dish here is reflective of us. The cooking is very personal,” Katianna says. “Originally, we thought we would study traditional Korean cuisine and regional cooking. When that felt a little forced, we made the decision to cook food that’s authentic to us, that represents our experiences as Korean Americans and our cooking backgrounds, our travels, all of that.”
The deli-style setup, for example, is a nod to their childhoods. Guests order at the counter, picking out dishes from glass cases and adding a hot plate or two from the menu hanging overhead. Many of the dishes have a specific back story. The pea shoot and chive salad, for example, was inspired by both the omnipresent side salad at Korean barbecue meals and all the pea products Katianna and John used while cooking in Napa. And the approachability of the restaurant is intentional, too.
“I grew up in New York, and John’s from Chicago,” Katianna says. “We both frequented delis – Jewish delis, Russian delis, Polish delis, Italian delis. When we imagined a restaurant that fits into our lifestyle now that we’ve started a family, we thought of the deli, the neighborhood gathering spot.”
When 2-year-old Sia visits Yangban, she beelines to the marketplace in search of seaweed snacks and chocolate. When Katianna and John are cooking for her at home, she wants soup and rice, scrambled egg rice or curry gravy, which is a Korean staple for kids. It’s a dish you can kind of make your own, Katianna says. Pair it with biscuits, pasta or rice. In terms of veggies, almost anything goes. Think carrots, peas, corn, broccoli, zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms. If you want to hide the vegetables — like from a picky toddler — that’s easy, too.
“I cut everything really small, or quickly pulse [the veggies] in a food processor,” Katianna says. “Then they sort of melt into the curry so the kids can’t see large chunks of veggies and want to pull them out.”
The Hongs are beyond busy right now — a new restaurant is a child itself, in a way — but they’re grateful for moments with their child, too. Sia loves to eat, much to the joy of her culinary parents.
“We are both terrible overworkers,” John says. “Having Sia has forced us to re-evaluate our time and revalueour time. We want to work more efficiently at the restaurant so that we can spend time with her. She has helped me tip the work-life balance more toward life and find things that are important to me outside of work. I didn’t really have anything like that before Sia.”
Serves 4 – 6
2/3 pound ground pork
2/3 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 minced onion
2 minced carrots
5 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon curry powder
3 tablespoons flour
1½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon fish sauce
3 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons Vermont Curry roux (available in most Asian grocery stores)
¼ cup cream
Salt and pepper
Brown pork and beef in medium to large pot. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add onion and carrots and cook 1 minute. (Other veggies can be added here as well).
Add butter. Once melted, stir in flour. Add turmeric and curry powder. Continue heating gravy for 1 to 2 minutes to cook flour.
Deglaze pan by adding soy sauce and fish sauce. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Simmer curry for 8 to 10 minutes.
Add Vermont Curry roux and simmer another 5 minutes. Finish with cream.
Serve with rice, biscuits or pasta. A salad pairs well, too. Ground chicken or turkey can be used as protein substitutes. Optional: Add other chopped veggies. If you want to “hide” the veggies, pulse them in a food processor before adding to the pot.