For 13 episodes, Marja Vongerichten and the crew made two long visits to South Korea (her husband came on one of them.) Each episode focuses on one key element of Korean cuisine _ such as rice _ and involves trips to markets, restaurants or homes. An accompanying cookbook, “The Kimchi Chronicles,” provides recipes adapted for the American palette.
But back to that personal story: Marja was born to a U.S. soldier and a Korean mother. She was adopted at age 3 by a northern Virginia couple.
At 20, then a student, she tracked down her birth mother, who had settled in Brooklyn with an American husband. When Marja (then named Marja Allen) got the phone number, she stared at it for hours. Then she called, and her mother fainted straight away on the phone.
Marja flew up to New York and reunited with her mother, who, as mothers do, immediately fed her _ Korean food, of course. “All these flavors came back to me,” she says.
In her Westchester kitchen, Marja Vongerichten takes out some sushi rice and rinses it; it will accompany the chicken dish she is serving, dak bokkeum, basically chicken in a big pot with carrots, onion, potatoes, and lots of gochujang. Her husband picks up the lid of a pot steaming on the stove and beckons: “You have to smell this,” he says.
He’s also making sure no one is hungry or thirsty as they wait. “The chicken will take an hour _ how about some strawberries and cream?” he asks those standing around the kitchen, starting to whip the cream already. That snack will be accompanied by espresso, and then later a little sake.
Finally Marja’s chicken is served, in two firepots, one version exiting a bit spicier than the other. “Hot pepper is good for losing weight,” notes Diana Kang, co-executive producer and a food expert on Korea.
The stew is accompanied by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s perfectly prepared asparagus. A friend tries to dump several stalks, willy-nilly, onto the chef’s plate; “No,” his wife says of her famously exacting husband. “He won’t accept it that way.” She lines up a few stalks, just so.
Over in another room, the couple’s young daughter is eating Chinese takeout with a friend _ “this is a little too spicy for her,” acknowledges her mother, although she does frequently cook Korean for her daughter.
Marja Vongerichten hopes viewers will learn from her show that Korean food is much more diverse and interesting _ “a whole culture,” she says _ than they thought.
“I hope people get more adventurous,” she says. “I hope they learn that Korean food is more than just barbecue and bibimbap.”