In an Italian home, there is almost no more important culinary art than making “sauce”. It is an art, because in reality there is no set standard for what goes in it. Ask any Italian grandmother, “What’s in the sauce?” and the answer will range from ingredients, to technique, to process, and even to the cultural or personal history that led to the recipe. “What’s in the Sauce?” is a deeper question then it seems on the surface. When looking for a name for our restaurant/eatery profile series, we quickly realized we didn’t want to just write your standard review. We wanted to be able to discuss whatever attributes of a particular venue made it special, from the design, to the atmosphere, to the story behind it all, to, most obviously, the food. “What’s in the Sauce?” is our way of exploring some of our favorite restaurants, bars, and eateries and uncovering what about them makes them not just great, but unique. No two profiles will be done the same, because each venue’s story isn’t the same. However, just like making sauce, there is no one way to make it, the important part is what makes yours just a little bit different.
Chelsea Market is one of those spots where you could go ten times over and still discover something new. I personally love roaming the market and just picking up little bits to eat or cook with from the dozens of great eateries, bakeries, and grocery stores. One of the newest hidden gems in Chelsea Market is MOK BAR, a Korean/Ramen fusion that is gaining all kinds of acclaim. Located right across from Los Tacos, MOK Bar may be the new kid on the block but the young Chef behind it has definitely earned her stripes elsewhere in the food industry. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef Esther to learn about her interesting journey from regular college student to chef of one of the hottest eateries in Chelsea Market.
Originally a pharmacy student at Rutgers, Esther was on the fast lane to a cushy well-respected career yet she was as unhappy as ever. After deciding she didn’t want to go into pharmacy, she tried a 9-5 corporate marketing job but unfulfilled, she left after only 3 months. I know this may be beginning to sound like a story of someone unwilling to commit to something and unable to keep up a drive to stick it through but it’s far from that. Drive and motivation can come from various things. You could have the drive to want a better life, the need for a certain level of financial security, or the motivation to reach that “next level” in your life. For Esther, her drive and motivation comes from passion and neither of these jobs aligned with her passions. After finishing her degree at Rutgers and even giving a shot at the “normal” 9-5 corporate job without success, she decided to turn her life upside down and start over.
Trying to figure out what you are so passionate about that you could engulf yourself in it for hours, days, years is not always straight forward or easy. For some it is very black and white and easily identifiable but when it’s not, it’s important to look back on your life thus far and look for the constants. What always seems to pop back up in your life even when you don’t realize it or intend for it to? For Esther, that was food. Ever since she was little she she found herself wide-eyed and curious as her grandmother stood in the kitchen creating magic. Esther mentions that her grandmother has become her greatest inspiration. She would carefully observe how her grandmother would prepare traditional Korean dishes for the family, she would cook with her whole heart.
Beyond the endless inspiration Esther found in her grandmother, she also noted she had been working in restaurants all her life and without even realizing it she was slowly falling in love. Between her built up years of restaurant work and the love she had for her grandmother’s way of cooking, Esther decided to enroll in culinary school. With nothing more than motivation, she picked up and moved with her sister to NY. She worked round the clock at various restaurants while being enrolled at school full time.
Talking with Esther, I noticed she had a very unique personality. As she walked me through her career path I immediately recognized how independent and driven she was. Esther has had experience in many facets of the food industry, she wasn’t tied to the restaurant side from the beginning. However, regardless of whether it was during her position as a food purchaser for Food Network, a sous chef at La Esquina or even just in the classroom of culinary school there was one theme she always found her self running into: having a healthy competitive spirit will take you places.
Parts of working in the food world can be glamorous and I envied Esther as she talked about the wine lunches and gourmet food tastings she experienced while working at Food Network but it all comes at a cost. There are many people fighting for these positions and most are often freelance positions in which you must prove yourself. Esther mentions, “without a competitive spirit you won’t last”.
As previously mentioned, part of having a competitive spirit comes along with diving head first into the passions you love. When you find something that keeps you up at night because you love it, it also seems to give you the energy to continue moving forward no matter how tired or worn out you are feeling. Esther was a great example of this, finding that her competitive attitude emerged almost organically as she became more and more involved with her passion for food and cooking. She was able to work 80-90 hour weeks without hesitation. She was able to go up against acclaimed chefs in an intimadtingly male dominated industry and still succeed. When the opportunity popped up for MOK bar in Chelsea Market, she competed against dozens of acclaimed chefs and concepts through rounds of tastings just to win the opportunity to open her eatery. Even after beating out some of NYC’s top emerging chef’s based on the quality of her food and concept, she then was tasked with developing the business side of her operation (business and financial planning), which she had never previously been taught how to do. From tastings, to business planning, to interior design plans, Esther didn’t balk and didn’t quit even while maintaining her day job (80 hours a week in the kitchen at La Esquina!).
Interestingly, other than the inspiration from her grandmother, Esther hasn’t yet found someone, a mentor persay, that she relies on to help drive her forward. A lot of my friends have graduated college within the past few years and are now embarking on the beginnings of their careers and I often find them tossing around the word “mentor” and wishing they could find one. What I learned from Esther however, is that mentors don’t just pop up in your life and they’re not always for everyone, sometimes you just have to rely on yourself. Her method of choice is that when she comes across things she doesn’t know or is unsure of, she looks to research and books. She finds a way to make things work and finds a way to figure out the things that aren’t working and this independence is truly inspirational.
Regardless of the early success of Mok Bar, Esther is far from satisfied. Her competitive spirit keeps her motivated to continue improving Mok Bar as well as looking to future restaurant and eatery concepts. Not only does Esther have high aspirations for herself, she also realizes the importance of surrounding herself with the right people in order to achieve this success. “Getting to that next level will require training the right staff and building a team I can trust and who see parallel with my vision”, is a very astute realization for such a young entrepreneur and chef. While we weren’t able to pry out of Esther what her next step will be, we’re sure of one thing… Mok Bar won’t be Esther’s only success. She’s too passionate and too ambitious to let herself be satisfied.
For more info on the delicious Korean food that is getting served up at Mok Bar head on over to Pretty in Pistachio.