In the Kitchen With Marja Vongerichten
They say behind every great man is a great woman, and for three-star Michelin chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, his wife Marja is making quite a name for herself. Marja’s story is truly one of perseverance and passion. Born outside of Seoul to an unmarried Korean mother and African-American G.I., Marja was given up for adoption at age three. Soon after, she moved to the United States and was raised in Northern Virginia. “I remember my biological mother saying, ‘You’re going to move to America and find your passions and follow your dreams. And after you do, just go and find me one day,’” Marja says.
And that’s exactly what happened. At age 19, Marja dropped out of school and moved to New York to find her biological mother. Through her mother, Marja reconnected with her Korean roots.
“My mother taught me everything about Korean culture and cuisine. I’ve been able to see Korea through her eyes,” Marja says.
Marja connects deeper with Korean culture in her latest show/documentary "The Kimchi Chronicles" on PBS, which premiered Sunday, May 8. Think Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow in Spain: On the Road Again. With her daughter Chloe and husband, Marja discovers Korea in a whole new way. Prior to filming the show, Marja says she has visited Korea six times, and sometimes, for periods of one month. Moreover, she had already fully embraced Korean culture, cooking traditional Korean meal. Her daughter Chloe has also learned how to speak Korean through her grandmother.
But Marja took away something different from her travels in "The Kimchi Chronicles." Growing up, Marja had not felt very connected to Korean culture, moreover Asian culture, until she met her mother. “I always thought Korea was a homogenous culture. And in some ways, they are. But I was happy to discover that they all wanted the same things we wanted. They strive to take care of their families and make them happy. They care about friendships, and they were so welcoming to me. Much like my own family initially wasn’t very accepting of me, they were happy I was there to share in their presence,” Marja says.
Through the 13-part series, you’re able to see Marja discover Korea with her family in a new way. She shares everything about her experiences from visiting historic temples and palaces to learning about what goes into some of her favorite Korean dishes.
“When I went to Korea to film the series, it was the first time I had learned how to bow properly. But just by visiting several cities in Korea and trying out different dishes, I really think Korean food is the soul food of Asia. It really brings home all the ingredients that mean comfort to me,” Marja says.
When asked who dominates in the kitchen at home, Marja says she and Jean-Georges work best apart. They can never be in the kitchen cooking at the same time. “He [Jean-Georges] cleans as he cooks. He’s the neatest chef ever. I’d have to say though that when it comes to soul food, my dishes dominate,” Marja says. Her famous mac and cheese recipe is featured in Jean-Georges’ restaurant menu.
Despite her life struggles and regrets, Marja says her life has turned out the way she always wanted it to be and that her family and friends are her riches. “I was always a dreamer growing up. I visualized everything I wanted to be. I pursued my passion for interior design and started my own firm. But food has always been a constant for me. I cooked meals for my family at age 13. It’s never too late. Live up to your dreams.”
To learn more about Marja and "The Kimchi Chronicles," visit http://www.kimchichronicles.tv/.
Photo via kimchichronicles.tv