Interesting Korean-American #6: Q and A with Kate Telfeyan, owner and chef of NYC’s Porcelain restaurant(& formerly of Mission Chinese restaurant in NYC)

Kate Telfeyan

When I read the NY Times article about Kate Telfeyan and other Korean-American adoptee chefs, I knew I had to convince KT that doing a Q and A for my modest blog was worthy of her time. After all, anyone with an Instagram account and a past pop up called “Vaguely Asian” at a Queens restaurant, must have a sense of humor and be self-aware. (I want “Vaguely Asian” in script on a t-shirt!).

ME:I have to believe you are a scrappy, ambitious person for starting a pop up during COVID and opening your own restaurant, Porcelain, that is by all accounts thriving. What gave you the gumption to do all this?

KT:I don’t think ambition was ever really part of the decision making process. For me, given the current state of things I was mostly just following my gut. Before the pop-up I had started doing meal prep and delivery out of my apartment, partly as a way to keep busy, but also in an attempt to service my community in whatever way I could. The pop-up and the partnership at Porcelain became evolutions of the same inclination.

ME: What’s your adoption story? (e.g., year you were adopted, what age were you, what kind of family adopted you)

KT:I was adopted at age 2 from Korea in the early 80s. I grew up in rural coastal Rhode Island with my parents and an older brother (not adopted).

ME:Are your parents similarly creative and entrepreneurial?

KT: I think my parents are creative and entrepreneurial in their own right and I credit them with teaching me the very best things I know about how to pursue all things in life, business or otherwise, with kindness, strength and curiosity.

ME: Have you ever searched for your birth parents or like me, thrown your hands in the air and embraced your unique, mysterious past?

KT: I’ve never made any attempts, though I can’t say that I won’t ever; it’s just not something that’s ever been a huge priority. I think it’s mostly because I feel extremely fortunate for the life I have, and while the past may offer some insights into my biological origins, who I am is undoubtedly a reflection of the world in which I was enveloped post-adoption.

ME: I agree with that but I do have passing fleets of fancy re my birth family. The following question is not one I’ve considered myself but maybe you have:

If you were to meet your birth family, is there any fact about them that would sorely disappoint you ? (e.g., they aren’t explorative eaters, they lean Right etc).

KT: I don’t think so. I think if I were ever to meet them I would just hope they’ve lived a life as fulfilling as mine.

ME: Have you looked for any blood relatives via Ancestry or one of those services?

KT: Not actively. I did 23andMe a while back so I still get the “new relative” email notifications sometimes, but they’re always fractions of percent related.

ME: When i was a little girl, my grandma bought me a pretty Korean doll dressed in a silk hanbok. I used to perch it on a high closet shelf and play a game where my friends and I would run past the open closet and try not to scream as we ran by. (We always shrieked).  Did you have similar fear/conflict about your Korean identity?

KT: I wasn’t really exposed to Korean culture as a child, and wasn’t even really hyper aware that I was different until I hit adolescence. My hometown was not a very ethnically diverse place when I was growing up, so I white identified almost my entire childhood.

ME: I have been reading how recently there’s been a shift re: how Korean adoption is portrayed in the media. As you know, the bull-horned message used to be that we Korean adoptees were so lucky to be rescued from abject poverty; now more adoptees are voicing the darker side/the trauma of loss and forced assimilation that has been harmful to some. Have your feelings about being adopted morphed at all over time?

KT: Not really. Without knowing the circumstances under which my birth mother gave me up, I never had a narrative to fall back on except that maybe she was sick (I had tuberculosis when I was adopted). If the alternative to being adopted was to grow up motherless/family-less in Korea then I think I made out pretty well.

ME: Do you have qualities that your adoptive family do not, which you attribute to your birth family?

KT: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on the notion of nurture v. nature as it pertains to human development, and specifically when it comes to food proclivities. And while I have no conclusive theory, ultimately I tend to believe people imbued with certain inarguable inclinations from birth, but that most of us are products of a beautiful and sometimes complicated chaotic mish mash of dna, environment, access, and individuality.

ME: Do you think that being adopted has fueled your creativity?

KT: On some level, yes. Wanting to learn more about my Korean heritage definitely led me down a pathway filled with foods and flavors from a whole different part of the world than where I grew up.

ME: Is food the main way you have explored your Korean identity or are there other ways?

KT:Definitely food was the driving force initially in my early 20s. But as I got older I wanted to learn more about the culture as a whole and made my first trip there in 2012.

ME: Favorite Kdrama/Korean movie if any:

KT: I have so much more to explore on this front! But I would say of the shows / movies I’ve seen, My Mister and the Reply series are my two favorites. I also loved Train to Busan.

ME: Have you, like me, been felled by late-in-life attempts to master Hangul and the Korean language or are you victorious?

KT: I’ve made a few half-hearted attempts, but as the years go by I feel more and more compelled to take a serious stab at it.

ME: Do you celebrate any particular Korean holidays/traditions?

KT: As someone who didn’t grow up celebrating them I always feel a little conflicted about trying to adopt them into my life now, but I do enjoy marking the occasions of Chuseok and the new year – mostly just by making the traditionally eaten foods of each 🙂

ME: Did you have a specific light bulb moment of realizing you wanted to be a chef for the long-haul?

KT: it wasn’t really a light bulb moment, it was more of a dull nagging voice in my head that persisted from the time I was about 20 until the day I started my first cooking job.

ME: Are you classically trained as a chef?

KT: Nope – learned everything I know either from teaching myself, or learning from all of the talented people I’ve been fortunate to work with along the way.

ME: Some of your favorite Korean foods:

KT: Tteokboki, kimchi jjigae, gimbap, soondubu jjigae, pretty much all banchan, samgyetang, seolleongtang…too many!

ME: Five essential food items you need from Hmart:

KT: eomuk, kkaenip, soon tofu, salted shrimp, shin ramen

ME:The gold medal for best K-town in the USA goes to:

KT: I’ve only been once, and only for one meal, but I would say LA’s K-town is probably superior

ME: You are a culinary wizard. Take Dan Dan lasagna on your current menu. How in heavens did you wrestle up this combo?

KT: I generally think of food as cross-cultural. There are culinary traditions that are unique and foundational to every culture, but in looking at the birds’ eye view of the world, similarities and derivations start to emerge across borders and country lines that start to seem familiar and recognizable. I think of a dish like dandan noodles (which I love!), and start to wonder about different forms it could take while still remaining true to the traditional preparation. As someone of eastern heritage raised in a western world this cross-pollination of ideas, flavors and techniques really speaks to me, and represents my palate and viewpoint.

ME: It’s quite a gift to forgo recipes and mix unexpected ingredients together to make an appetizing dish. (I am unfortunately much like lil’ orphan Annie in the Jamie Foxx-Cameron Diaz film update who combined a motley set of fridge ingredients to cook Foxx(Daddy Warbucks), a gag-worthy dinner).

Are you by any chance good at home decorating? (e.g., artfully mixing let’s say antiques and modern pieces. I suck at cooking and home decorating so I am wondering if that means there’s a good cook,-good home decorating correlation.)

KT: I definitely am not a home decorator! I like things organized and aesthetically pleasing, but that’s about where my commitment to decor ends 🙂

ME: Restaurants that you love in nyc other than your own:

KT: Bamboo Garden, Keen’s, Taste Good, Taiwanese Gourmet, Ops, Taste of Samarkand

ME: This shows me what I already knew: I am not at all current with the NYC restaurant scene. Thank you. I will be looking up all of these places.

Arguably the litmus test for Korean-ness: a love of Kimchi and soju (independently). Do you like one type of kimchi best?

KT: There are so many, and I certainly haven’t tried all of them, but I would say radish kimchi, water kimchi, super fermented napa kimchi and mustard green kimchi

ME: Is there anything you can flat out say you’d never mix with kimchi?

KT: milk?

ME: Do you have any soju-drinking rituals you follow?

KT: I must admit I’m not a big soju lover!

ME:Is there any food you will not try?

KT: None that I can think of…

ME: Any chance you were a picky eater as a child?

KT: Not at all!

ME: Do you follow food trends on let’s say Tik Tok/Instagram or do you try to wipe away the noise to preserve your own unique voice?

KT: I’m aware of them for sure, but only as pure entertainment

ME: I am a bit obsessed with people who have many multiple talents like Rhode Scholars, the Leonardos of this world and you. I read about your culinary career path from working as a line chef at the Talk-of-the Town restaurant Mission Chinese in the LES to opening your own Mission Chinese as head chef in Bushwick. On top of all this, I see you are also also a talented writer with a PR background and, excuse me as I wipe the sweat off my brow, a bit of a restaurant industry activist. (You are putting the rest of us Korean-American adoptees to shame!).

What helps you stay sane and unwind?

KT: I watch a lot of really trash tv (like crime procedurals and food tv!), and if I don’t cook / go out to eat on my own time away from work I get antsy.

ME: As a legal services attorney who has represented restaurant workers in wage and hour and discrimination cases, I was pleased to learn you want to revamp the oft-toxic restaurant industry and that you’ve put your money where your mouth is by doing things like paying your workers no less than $20/hour. Bravo!

Where does this impulse to be fair and decent come from?

KT: I think in part from having come up through the system and seeing so many talented hard working people struggle to live on trash wages while expected to work excessive hours. I also have the perspective of coming from outside of the industry in the early part of my career life, so I experienced many different workplaces and was able to really form and articulate my belief system as far as what I feel is equitable and fair.

ME: I used to work on employment law cases in collaboration with with a restaurant worker center whose members long ago all co-owned a Manhattan restaurant. I loved the idea but unfortunately didn’t love the food. Their restaurant did not endure. Do you think a cooperative restaurant can thrive/survive the NYC restaurant scene?

KT: I definitely think there’s a model of coop restaurant that could work, but not with the current laws and regulations in place in NYC.

ME: My 13-year-old son and I are always eager to find service opportunities in the City. Thanks to your shout out in one interview, we now know about non profit Heart of Dinner that feeds dinner to home-bound elderly Asian-Americans in New York. City. Do you know of other good non profits that serve Asian-American communities that might offer volunteer opportunities?

KT: There’s an amazing farm in Chester, NY run by Christina Chan (who I am in total admiration of) called Choy Division. She specializes in East Asian produce and I do as much buying from her as possible during her harvest season. She, along with other Asian American farmers in NYC and the Hudson Valley are working to “weave relationships between AAPI growers, mutual aid, and community based organizations in order to preserve the ancestral foodways and provide culturally resonant produce to those in need” (taken from their web site).

ME: Favorite COVID-era hobby/past-time (if you have any leftover time for hobbies):

KT: Vacuuming! I became a bit obsessive about it during lockdown and now I find it quite soothing 🙂

ME: What, if anything, is hard for you?

KT: Writing recipes

ME: What skill do you wish you had?

KT: Singing or drawing

ME: What is something you are good at that is a modest achievement but an achievement nonetheless?(my own examples: being a happy, adventurous eater, drawing Garfield the cat with my eyes closed).

KT: Folding a fitted sheet

ME: Bravo! That is an achievement!

I imagine chefs must have dry hands and aching feet so you need a good moisturizer and good shoes. Do you have a favorite moisturizer and do you wear a specific type/brand of shoes to work?

KT: I usually just use something that’s good for sensitive skin, except in the winter when I need something stronger for my hands like aquaphor. For shoes I’ve been a die hard birkenstock fan since day one.

ME: Have you ever joined a Korean-American adoptee group of any kind? Can we start a group and gather at intervals at your fine restaurant or elsewhere?/srs.

KT: I’ve never been a part of one, but would be open to it!

ME: I read about Korean han (Korean rage) being a uniquely Korean feeling. Do you think you’ve experienced han? It’s not clear to me if we Korean-American adoptees can feel it.

That said, what if anything pisses you off? (Hopefully not middle-age bloggers who approach you on Instagram for a q and a and then deluge your inbox with pages of questions).

KT: I definitely think I have it – I’ve been told I’m “fiery” 🙂 I think I mostly get annoyed when people I care about are mistreated.

ME: What’s next for you?

KT: I have no idea! But I actually think that’s the next chapter – the unknown leading to new adventures.

ME: Thank you Kate. Appreciate your time so much. Enjoy the Unknown!

P.S. A sincere note: if you do want to form a club for Korean-American adoptees, i’m in. I’ll bring some crafts. Please bring the food and maybe the other Korean-American adoptees (as i know none in the area)!

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