Photographed by Nick Surette
Irene Yoo’s fourth-floor Brooklyn walk-up is exactly what you’d expect of a self-described “freelance photo producer and food creative” for the likes of Food Network and Food52. Her bookshelves—occupying an entire wall of her small kitchen—are filled with cookbooks, faded issues of the now-defunct Lucky Peach, rows of pastel glassware, a small Korean flag, and a hand-sewn Spam can made entirely of felt. Sandwiched between these shelves and a chartreuse entryway, you’ll find her well-stocked, restaurant-ready pantry and a storage closet packed with equipment for Yooeating, the Korean-American comfort food pop-up Yoo started in 2015 with her partner, Nick Dodge. At the time, the pair was hopeful that their new venture could sate as well as educate. “I remember that for the first time, people were interested in Korean food instead of being like, ‘Oh that’s weird you’re using Spam,’ or, ‘Kimchi smells and I don’t like that,’” Yoo says.
Five years later, Yooeating still features plenty of Spam and kimchi, but the once-casual dinner parties have evolved into full-fledged culinary experiences. Yoo is a master of fusion, from Italian classics to American mainstays; No matter the cuisine, her food is all about comfort…and there’s plenty of cheese. She melds cultures with ease throughout her menus—“Coreano Cubanos” with coffee-and-cola-poached carnitas, fried Spam, grilled kimchi, Gruyère, American cheese, and gochujang (red chili paste) aioli on toasted Cuban bread; “Yoo Quiero Taco Bell” featuring her take on a Crunchwrap Supreme filled with bulgogi beef, red leaf lettuce, miso sour cream, soy-pickled Korean peppers, and nacho cheese sauce; “Kimchi Carbonara” with chewy rice cakes, bacon, kimchi, egg, pepper, and parmesan. To catch the next Yooeating pop-up, follow along on social media and get ready for a trip to NYC. Or, try your hand at Korean-American comfort food from the comfort of your own home: Yoo’s Spicy Kimcheese Dduk brings the heat (recipe below).
“The key with kimchi from grocery stores is to leave it out for at least one night,” says Yoo. Commercial kimchi is sold under-fermented, so allowing it to hang around at room temperature for a bit means it can fully ferment and develop the pungency of a quality kimchi.
“I want to be able to share my story as a Korean woman,” says Yoo. Her story weaves its way through Los Angeles’ Koreatown circa the early ’90s, to the dorms at the University of Pennsylvania where Yoo taught her college roommates the joys of cooking with Spam. Yoo’s narrative makes occasional pit stops in Detroit, and eventually settles in the veritable melting pot that is New York City. Fusion food makes sense for someone whose culinary identity is an amalgam of these experiences, as opposed to one that’s shaped by an isolated, singular cuisine.
Yoo always has plenty of curds on hand. She stores her wedges in an airtight white box in the refrigerator that she jokingly refers to as her “cheese cave.” Lift the box’s lid and you’ll find bits of cheddar, hunks of mozzarella, logs of chèvre, and the occasional wild card brick from Whole Foods adorned with a bright yellow SALE sticker.
Spicy Kimcheese Dduk
- 2 cups dduk Korean rice cakes, any shape
- 2 tablespoons butter divided
- 1 cup kimchi chopped
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 tablespoon gochujang optional
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 ounces sharp cheddar grated
- 4 ounces mozzarella grated
- 1 ounce parmesan grated, plus more for topping
- 1 scallion thinly sliced
- ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
- ►Soak rice cakes in cold water for at least 30 minutes before cooking—this helps them to cook evenly.
- ►Heat one tablespoon butter in a frying pan over medium heat and add kimchi. Sauté until kimchi is lightly caramelized and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- ►Bring a pot of water to a boil.
- ►Meanwhile, in a saucepan or medium pot, heat the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Once melted, add flour. Stir frequently until a light brown roux is formed, 3 to 5 minutes. Add gochujang if using and cook for one minute to incorporate.
- ►While stirring vigorously, add milk slowly until incorporated. Slowly add cheeses, little by little, until cheese is completely melted. Season with salt and pepper and turn off the heat.
- ►Add dduk to boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft. Drain and rinse briefly in cold water to stop the cooking.
- ►Reheat cheese sauce on the stovetop and add dduk and reserved kimchi, stirring to incorporate.
- ►Heat oven to 425°F and butter two oven-safe large ramekins (or similar oven-safe bowls). Divide the cheesy dduk between the two dishes and top with grated parmesan. Bake until cheese is bubbling and sauce is thickened, about 20 to 25 minutes. Top with sliced scallions and sesame seeds and serve.