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“I Feel Like a Lot of People Forget that We’re Human Beings”—A Chef’s Account.

“I Feel Like a Lot of People Forget that We’re Human Beings”—A Chef’s Account.

Chef Spotlight, Food & People, Homepage Featured, Must-Read Features, Washington D.C.

“I was always a happy kid, dancing around in the streets.”

Jong Son is an established chef in the DC circuit now as the Chef de Cuisine at Tiger Fork and he still retains a youthful face and happy demeanor.

Chef Jong Son

“I was born in Seoul, Korea, and we moved to Maryland when I was nine. It opened the whole world for me—new language. Totally different lifestyle. And new foods.”

Son grew up with the feeling of being an outsider. Despite adopting much of American culture, Son’s family was proud to uphold their Korean roots. “Thanksgiving for us was always a chance for the whole family to meet and make dumplings.” He smiles. “My grandma would always ask me for help.  I would make kimchi with her. Cut onions. Greens.”

After high school, Son attended college in Baltimore but soon found it was not for him. After some deliberation, he decided to pursue his culinary passion in New York. “I did a lot of research before attending school. I learned that French cooking is everywhere—from the structure of a kitchen to simple techniques, it’s embedded everywhere. At that point, I was like, let’s learn from the basics. If my foundation is strong, I can build from there.”

And, so, Son enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America studying French cuisine and techniques. He took on some high-profile externships including one at Volt with Chef Bryan Voltaggio and Chef de Cuisine Graeme Ritchie.

When asked what his biggest takeaways were from that externship, Son reflects, “This industry, especially for the back of house, is very militant at heart. I feel like a lot of people forget that we’re human beings. [At Volt], they actually treated us with respect. They took the time to get to know us at family meals and stuff.”

That feeling of respect and camaraderie is something Son not only never forgot but also carries into his own leadership style.

“Another thing I learned is to lead by example. It’s hard to say that because there aren’t a lot of chefs that will jump on the line to show you—that quick diving in to say, ‘This is why we do it. This is why we love cooking like this. Let me show you the ways.’”

When it comes to showing chefs “the ways”, there’s a great deal of talk among the restaurant industry and restaurant patrons as to who has the right to cook what cuisine based on their race and culture. Son weighs in on the topic.

“For me, it’s more about whether a person put love into it. In my head, if there is love and care in the process, and if there is no disrespect to the culture of the dish, it makes sense.”

What constitutes as “no disrespect”?

“In my head, it’s if there was a process of collaboration and understanding. When researching dishes, it’s more than just weights and ingredients. We need to research the history of the dish. Why do people eat it? What’s the significance of using a certain protein? When we dive deep into a culture, it’s not just about combining common flavors we think would work well. It’s about staying true to the culture as much as possible. If people are willing to learn, how can you say no to that?”

Son speaks from a place of true experience as a Korean Chef de Cuisine of a primarily Cantonese or Hong Kong style restaurant.

photo credit: Scott Suchman

“We did R&D all day long,” he says of Tiger Fork when he first came on board in 2017. “I was learning the basics of Chinese food—flavors, ingredients, history. Me being Korean, I had no clue how in-depth Chinese or Japanese food could be. I heard about Tiger Fork opening and dove right in because I wanted to broaden my horizon of Asian knowledge.”

Although he started at Tiger Fork as a tournant (the “relief” cook or a cook that supports all aspects of the kitchen instead of having one specific role), his research paid off and he was promoted within a year. Today, Son has a prominent hand in creating the menu.

“My sous chefs and I think of ideas and run weekly specials. If we see guests that are super adventurous, we’ll send out a special as a gift to get their feedback. We love to be hands-on in communicating with guests to learn whether things work or not. We do cater to the seasons but keep our staples like fried rice, beef chow fun, pork belly, etc.”

photo credit: Scott Suchman

The landscape of America’s food scene promises hope for chefs like Son. “There’s a lot of things coming to light where chefs should be treated as people. A light is being shone on the old militant ways of the industry. Being mad about it now shows. I’m excited where we go from here because of that.”

He’s especially proud of the diversity and respect that Tiger Fork supports in its kitchen. “Half the kitchen is women. We have chefs of all Asian descent. I like it. It’s diverse. We’re all learning together. We care and we love it.”

Tiger Fork

922 N St NW, Washington, DC 20001

Open Tuesday-Friday from 5pm-12am; Saturday from 11am-2:30pm and 5pm to 12am; Sunday from 11am-2:30pm and 5pm to 10pm; Monday from 5pm-10pm

IG: @tigerforkdc

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