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Deuki Hong of The Sunday Family on Starting Over from Scratch

Renegades Volume 1 feat. Deuki Hong of The Sunday Family: Renegades is an immi interview series featuring influential individuals who push for progress by creating their own rules in life.

About: Deuki Hong is executive chef and owner of The Sunday Family in San Francisco, CA. At the age of 15, Chef Aarón Sanchez invited him to work in the kitchen at Centrico in New York City. Deuki is the former executive chef of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, author of Koreatown, a 2015 Eater Young Gun, and a 2016 Forbes 30 under 30 for Food & Drink.

In January 2018, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco tasked Deuki and Boba Guys co-founders Andrew Chau and Bin Chen to revamp the museum’s café and to implement a menu that speaks to the breadth of Asian cuisine. The café is part of the museum’s ongoing $90 million renovation project.

Can you tell us what your experience was like growing up as an Asian American in America? 

I was born in Korea but I came here when I was very young – probably 2 years old. I don’t remember Korea at all but my house was very Korean. Anywhere outside of my house, hanging out with friends, was not Korean.

The Asian culture was embedded within me – I speak Korean very fluently and my parents made sure I never forgot my culture, language, and food. 

I don’t know if I experienced too much negativity. A lot of my friends have faced racism. I faced some racism but it never put me down.

Growing up on the East Coast as an Asian wasn’t something to be celebrated. But coming here to the West Coast, it’s now about celebrating being an Asian American.

And that’s incredible but I grew up 20 something years just being who I was and not necessarily putting my Asian upbringing on a spotlight. 

You were part of a traveling baseball team. Did you travel across the U.S.?

It was more on the East Coast. I took it pretty seriously growing up. Sports and cooking – there are certain mediums where the playing field is even. Whether you are Asian, Black, White, and any other race, if you are good at baseball, you’re good at baseball. If you’re good at cooking, you’re good at cooking. 

Sports really speaks to me because there are a lot of similarities between sports and cooking. For me, sports was a big part of forming who I was and building my community.

Did your family ever pressure you to pursue a career that was more stereotypically Asian?

No, my parents didn’t even graduate high school. They never pushed academia on me and they were always fair.

They told me very early on that they would never push grades which is very rare as Asian parents.

My dad in particular did say that whatever you choose to do, follow 2 things:

  1. Be one of the best at it or be the best at it
  2. Try not to hurt people in the process of doing it

That was it. They fully supported me. When I wanted to be a baseball player, my dad would drive me to camps and scouting places.

When I wanted to cook, they covered my cooking school. I know if I wanted to be a musician they would have supported that too. So I know it’s very rare and that’s not the norm in Asian culture. 

You’ve talked about how you had a tough relationship with your father growing up but now you consider him one of your best friends. Many children have a hard time opening up to their parents. Can you talk about how you were able to open up to your father?

My dad was a disciplinarian. My mom tried to be a disciplinarian but she’s a tiny Asian lady. 

I got beat growing up. 

You know the kids who got beat growing up. I think… you should always get beat. You just turn out better haha.

When my dad came in, you turned everything off and pretended like you’re doing something productive.

I was always scared of him. He wasn’t warm in any way.

In the past 5-6 years, he’s gotten older and we’ve developed more of a brotherhood type friendship. I call him bro and he calls me bro.

For the first 25 years of my life, I just forgot that he was me 30 years ago and he was struggling through the same things.

I saw my dad cry for the first time 5 years ago. Obviously this was him allowing himself to be more vulnerable in front of me and me recognizing that I could learn a lot from him. He hasn’t walked the chef path but he had to hustle and take care of a family when he was 30. He had to raise kids.

I know it’s such a cliche thing to say, but there are so many things we can learn from our parents.

I’m trying to go back to New York next week and I know that’s likely not happening now but the reason is just because I want to tell my dad, “dude, I miss you.” And my dad never says anything like that – I don’t think any of our parents normally do.

I haven’t seen him in 10 months and he called me to say “hey man, what are you up to?”

It’s something I appreciate a lot more now.

You’ve worked in some very out of the box kitchens like Momofuku but you’ve also worked at traditional white linen cloth institutions like Jean-Georges. What were some of the most valuable learning experiences that you took away from working in both of these kitchens? 

The most notable places I’ve worked are Momofuku and Jean-Georges. But my first kitchen ever was with Aarón Sánchez at a Mexican restaurant, Centrico. And he was my age when he started that. 

So it’s cool seeing a young chef being a restaurateur and leading a team. He was doing food media stuff too.

I fell in love with restaurants because the environment he set was something I was addicted to.

My last 2 years of high school was spent at his restaurant and kitchen. He made it a place where I wanted to work.

I credit him and his kitchen a lot more with making me fall in love with restaurants. 

It’s not food. I don’t have this grandma cooking growing up story. My first love growing up was restaurants vs. food. 

But… there are a lot of restaurants where it will have horrible service, and it won’t be clean, but the food is great and you’ll go back all the time.

On the flip side, there might be a beautiful restaurant with great hospitality but the food isn’t good and so you don’t go back. 

So early on, despite my love of restaurants,  I realized that I need to learn how to make good food.

But apart from Momofuku and JG, I’ve opened a falafel restaurant, I’ve even worked in a school cafeteria. Looking back, all these experiences are used now.

Momofuku really taught me creativity. There was this pride of working at Momofuku. Back then, I was in that kitchen in 2008 and 12 years ago, nobody outside of East Village knew what Momofuku was. No one knew who Chef Dave was. He wasn’t David Chang. He was just Dave.

He was just known in the East Village. And I went to him because I wanted to learn how to make Korean food. Little did I know that he doesn’t cook Korean food.

On the second day, he said, hey this isn’t a Korean restaurant.

But I learned that I just have to own it. Momofuku is probably the most talented kitchen. Every cook now runs their own thing. Like Sean Gray, Kevin Pemoulie, Peter Serpico. 

All these people are main names in Seattle, New York, Philly. 

Tulsi, at Milk Bar – she used to be the ice cream lady that just came in on the weekends.

All those people are just crushing their things and their own avenues. But at one point, we were all just in the kitchen as line cooks together. 

For me, to be surrounded by that talent and creativity was the biggest thing I took out of Momofuku.

At JG, which was 3 Michelin stars, that was where I learned the highest caliber of cooking. Even wiping things correctly. Standards. Chasing Michelin stars. The only time I ever thought in 15 years of cooking that I wanted to quit cooking was probably at JG year 2. 

It wasn’t because it was hard. It just wasn’t the reason I got into cooking. I needed to do that for 2-3 years of my life to recognize that I never wanted to do that again. Or Michelin stars and that avenue isn’t what I wanted to dedicate my life to.

But I learned a lot of my technical skills there. I learned what it means to really really care.

At JG, they tell you to wipe a certain direction. You can’t just wipe it clean. You have to wipe with two hands. And you ask why? But it really matters. They instill these skills in you that I’ve brought to my own kitchens.

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Having had all that training, if you were to interview a new chef today and you could only ask them one question to determine if you would hire them, what would you ask?

Whether you’re in the front or the back, I do ask one question. At Sunday Family, the one question I ask is “what is your dream?”

I know it sounds generic, but I need to know. 

All the technical stuff we do, I feel very confident that I can teach. You don’t need to be equipped. The beautiful thing about Sunday is that nobody outside of our baker went to culinary school. None of the chefs. 

None of the front staff went to hospitality school either.

It’s just driven people that love serving others. I know it sounds cheesy but I tell them, just give me the commitment, the attitude, and the loyalty and I promise that we’ll cover you on everything else.

We’ll teach you how to make boba. How to make food to the highest standards. How to have great hospitality and service. 

There’s not much else we ask for, but there are some things where no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to teach. I can’t instill motivation. I can’t be your motivation. Your why? Your dream? I can’t help you with that.

We’re lucky in that our culture is filled with hungry people who aren’t necessarily the most skilled or the most qualified and neither am I, but we do really awesome stuff and we make sure we celebrate all the awesome things we do.

So I don’t have a technical question like “Show me this technique.” Because the more I do this, the less and less that stuff matters. Which is very ironic.

You’ve stated before that as a cook, you never want to lose that desire to learn and you firmly believe in seeking new things and endlessly exercising creativity. Do you have a process or any sources of inspiration that help you develop your creativity?

Did you watch my commercial? I think I did a Hyatt commercial one time with that quote hahaha.

The first thing is that being creative or expressing creativity is a huge privilege. Even kids who are grinding. Peeling onions. You have to earn the chance to be creative, especially in cooking.

Secondly, once you earn that privilege, it’s about how you approach creativity. There isn’t any one right way.

For me, my creativity is influenced by people’s stories. I’ve always approached creativity as experience-driven. What do I want someone to experience?

Do I want someone to crack up? Or do I want them to cry? 

I can create these emotions through creativity in my food. The most beautiful thing about food is that it can invoke any spectrum of feelings. I don’t know many industries that can do that. Maybe music… and I’m sure there are others.

But food is so personal and it connects to people on such a deeper level.

For you two, if I wanted Kevin and Patty to laugh after the meal, then I’d create a playful meal. I’d do some research. Maybe you’re from Chicago and you like Portillo’s Hot Dogs, then maybe I’d do a play on that. 

Or maybe I hear your story of your grandma who passed away but you remember her for a dish.

In my book, that’s what I talk about with my butter dumplings.

That’s the only recipe my dad has from his mom, which in turn is the only recipe he taught me. So there’s a connection there. So for him, every time he eats that, he thinks about my grandma.

So if I were to do a dinner for him where I wanted his heart to feel warm, I’d make a rendition of that dish.

How you execute this creativity is your art. For me, that’s the #1 question I ask. Regardless of whether it’s a 2 person or 500 person dinner. How do we invoke that same hospitality and feeling? Maybe in our restaurant, we write notes.

There’s no one way to do this. Because our whole goal is to serve other people, I can curate the experience. I start with the end and reverse engineer. 

If we were to cook for you, what would be the experience you would want?

Well… I’m like a robot. I don’t experience anything. I’m stone cold. You aren’t going to get me haha.

First off, my mom’s not a great cook. She hates it every time I say it. And I make sure to say it every chance I get. When she listens to my interviews, she always says, stop telling people I can’t cook! But she can’t. 

But she does make these three dishes really well.

It’s a Korean spicy chicken stew called Dak Dori Tong. Her Kimchi stew, which I stole when I was working at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. And lastly, the Kkori Gomtang, which is an oxtail stew. 

Those 3 things – and she rotates them throughout the year, are the only 3 dishes she makes. And those are legit. Those are the three things I give her.

So for a last meal type question, if I got any of those three meals that she makes, I’d be very happy. 

But you won’t see me crying over any meal. 

So no Ratatouille moment for you?

No. Nice try haha.

After an incredible career in New York as a very young executive chef at 25, you came to SF to rebuild back at square one with Sunday Bird. Can you recall one moment in the founding journey of Sunday Bird that made you think “this was all worth it”? 

I think there are a lot of moments where I thought, “this isn’t worth it” haha.

During Sunday Bird – oof that was such a big blur.

I don’t know if this is answering the question or not in a very ironic way. But I do remember a moment in Sunday Bird where it was the bottom of the bottom.

I think for me, why I mention that is because I needed to know how in a very sadistic way, how low can I go?

Because when you know it’s the bottom… and that whole cliche about when you’re at the bottom there’s only one way to go and that’s up… is actually not true. There are probably a couple more levels you can go down.

I wanted to know how low I can go. To be honest, I had it pretty easy. And not in terms of privilege. For the first 10 years of my career no one cared what I did or who I was.

But in the past 5-6 years, being part of the Korean BBQ restaurant and having a platform, I’ve had a lot of cheerleaders and people holding me up. So I felt like I could do no wrong in the three years I was at Baekjeong. 

And I came to SF with a lot of arrogance, whether intentional or not. There’s a scene in the movie Chef with Bradley Cooper. And there’s a scene where he’s just shucking a million oysters. And when I saw that, I said, is that what I think he’s doing? And by no way am I shucking a million oysters. But I feel like SF to me, is my shucking of a million oysters.

For a while, it was just too good in NYC. For a kid who was 25 or 26, it was too much. Too good, too much, too fast. I was very big headed.

When people initially came to Sunday Bird, they thought, oh this guy who used to do Korean BBQ is now doing Korean fried chicken. So it was busy at first… but frankly speaking, it was really bad.

Even for me, I would think, I wouldn’t buy this. For me, it was a bad year when I came in 2017 Valentine’s Day where I sold… probably 3 things. For a total of 90 bucks. 

I was there for the whole day, and I probably made less than 100 dollars. And I remember just sitting there thinking, sure it’s Valentine’s Day and people are out. But whatever excuse I made brought me to the point where all of the arrogance that I had… none of it exists anymore.

I’m starting from scratch now. And I needed that. I don’t want to say that it was all worth it. But it was really important to me. It showed me that I drank my Kool-Aid a lot in NYC and when I first came here. That was the look at myself in the mirror moment and say, okay, now you have to actually prove it. 

Because you don’t have a huge Korean restaurant group behind you. It’s just you, and if you can do it, then this will be worth it.

That was the catalyst and after that I became bold. Because… you can’t sell any less than this! So I remember that very vividly. 

I’m not even answering your question of whether this was all worth it because to be honest, that first 6-7 months wasn’t worth it. There was no moment where I was like man this is so fulfilling. I was just beating myself down.

But I really needed that. And we all need that sometimes. I’m not saying that when it’s going well you should temper it. But the way I operate, I need that. So that whole experience for me was more than worth it. 

It’s still surprising to me in a very grateful way that it’s up and running. The fact that Sunday Bird has stayed up so long… I’m very grateful.

You were (and may still be) a chief vendor curator for H Mart. Is there a food or beverage (can be packaged on shelf, frozen, or refrigerated) in H Mart that you think more people should know about?

Oh the H Mart project. I’m not involved anymore. But we did a project with Sunday Bird and H Mart.

But… Korean banana milk. I don’t drink it enough.

Did you inspire that Korean banana milk drink for Boba Guys?

It was “inspired.” I drank tons of it. And then Andrew Chau from Boba Guys came over to the museum and kept taking my banana milk. 

And I was like yooo stop taking it, that’s expensive haha. It’s this tiny little drink that I have to buy. 

Him and I would keep doing meetings and he would keep drinking my banana milk. And then he said, yo I want to do a Korean summer drink. And that came up.

So they made an incredible drink. Man when is that coming back? 

But I didn’t make it. They have Alex, who is their flavor genius. But he said, hey does this taste like Korean banana milk. And there were several iterations. But when he made it I was like dude… just leave a jug of that right here and we’re good to go.

So yes, I hope I inspired it.

What is your favorite Asian ingredient to cook with?

Obviously ginger & garlic are building blocks for a lot of Asian cuisines. 

But if I had to pick a pantry item… probably fish sauce. It’s not even Korean but I really like fish sauce. There are all kinds. There’s fancy fish sauce. There’s the cheap, I-probably-shouldn’t-buy-this fish sauce. But I love them all.

If I run out of fish sauce, I’ll say, sorry I can’t cook for you guys. There’s nothing I can do here for you.

You said your grandmother left a dish for your dad, which was the butter dumpling. And your dad passed that on to you. If you could only pick one dish from your repertoire to pass on to your own child, which one would that be?

Probably one of my mom’s dishes. Dak Dori Tong, spicy chicken stew. That was one of the first dishes I made in culinary school. That was a dish I made for family meal at JG. It’s one of those dishes that I don’t have to think about and I know it’s good.

It doesn’t matter what race you are, you’ll like it. It’s got spicy, sweet, salty, all in one dish.

It’s probably also a dish where I’m like ok child, I don’t want to make this anymore, make it your dad.

You’ve written before that true chefs are leaders who take care of their team first before thinking of themselves. Are there any chefs that you really admire during this time for their leadership? Why?

New York taught me how to be a chef. Technical elements. Running a kitchen. 

San Francisco is currently teaching me how to be a leader. And you need both.

I’m honored to call other chefs my peers and my friends. I saw more in these last three months why my friends connect with me so much. Because we have the same ideals in how we approach our craft.

Helen Nguyen from Saigon Social. She’s one of those chefs I’ll text to catch up. And she’s the one who will say, hey I’m doing a charity event. Want to come help? She’s always thinking of more ways to help.

She was supposed to open her restaurant two days before the lockdown. She couldn’t even do her restaurant opening. She’s waited a ridiculous amount of time. And it’s so sadistic that a global pandemic has prevented her from opening.

She’s shared with me how tough it’s been. But her resilience and her ability to adapt makes me so honored to call her a friend.

She’s one of those cool people where I’ll say man… even if I could be half of that. I’m inspired. I’m always checking my social media feed and thinking wow there she goes again.

If there is any silver lining that came out of this, it’s a deeper appreciation for other chefs in this community.

Imagine you get to take a year off of life to do an apprenticeship – what asian dish would you spend that year perfecting?

I just got excited thinking about this. A YEAR?

I’d definitely go to Korea. I just want to learn Korean food more. I feel like what I know is so surface level and it’s almost embarrassing. 

When I go to Korea and eat the food, I just realize I know nothing about Korean food.

For a dish… it’s not a dish but I do want to learn fermentation more. Koreans are masters at fermentation – I firmly believe this.

I just love how they’ve perfected it. They consistently build and create incredible dishes with fermentation, which you have no control over. You’re fermenting out in nature.

For me, there’s something incredibly beautiful about that. I just want to learn. Kimchi. Pastes.

I want to be a master of fermentation.

Deuki Hong Sunday Group

There seems to be a recurring theme throughout this interview. Traditional success from a standard point of view like staying in NYC and chasing Michelin Stars isn’t something you wanted to do. And when you interview people, you ask about their dreams. What does success look like for you?

Hm… always ending it with a bang. 

You’re right. It’s a keen observation. It has nothing to do with food. And I feel fake sometimes because food is my medium and my craft. But sometimes, I don’t feel like a chef… in a good way.

One success with Sunday Group, is about building a company that lasts. Sunday has to last, even if it’s a day longer than I live. It has to outlive me.

But the biggest thing about success to me is that we just want to be part of people’s testimonies and dreams. 

My dream, my success is to instill dreams. 

There are people who make up Sunday with their own set of dreams. It might not be hospitality or food related. But I’m hoping that them being a part of Sunday at any juncture in their story and journey ultimately gets them what they want to achieve.

I just want to be a part of your story.

Like one of my guys, he’s shared with me that he wants to run his own board game cafe. And he’s learning how to run a concept. 

Later down the road, he might share, hey one time in my life, I was a part of Sunday Family with a ragtag team who worked hard and learned a lot. And because of Sunday, I got to live my own dream.

For me, if we can be a part of a lot of people’s stories like that, then what more do you need? I don’t have any interest in accolades going forward. If I never do any media talks after today, if I never do another Munchies episode, I’m still great.

But if you said, hey you can’t be a part of anyone’s stories or instill dreams going forward, then I’d be devastated. 

So success to me means that as long as I live, I want to be instilling dreams.