Words by Naomi Tomky
To paraphrase the revolting classic Matthew McConaughey line, as Seattle-based chef Rachel Yang gets older, the cooks she hires stay the same age. “I don’t want to just hand them some recipe we’ve been doing for 20 years,” she says. “I want to ask them, ‘What are we doing today? What can we do? What are you interested in?’” Maintaining relevance, to the 20-year-olds working the line and to her restaurants’ customers, is one of Yang’s highest priorities—and biggest stressors.
This extra work doesn’t go unnoticed: Yang, alongside her husband, restaurant co-owner, and co-chef Seif Chirchi, was among the finalists for Outstanding Chef at last night’s James Beard Foundation Awards (the food world’s answer to the Academy Awards). It marks their fifteenth nomination in as many years—and the one Yang says is most important and surprising. When the couple first opened their unique Korean steakhouse, Joule, in 2007, she remembers being floored by semi-finalist nominations for Rising Star Chef and Best New Restaurant. Three years later, as they opened their second restaurant Revel, the nominations continued to mount, leading into a 6-year-streak as finalists for Best Chef: Northwest, broken only by this year’s national Outstanding Chef nod. While they did not win this year either, they didn't exactly go home empty handed. "Truly understanding what it meant to be nominated for the outstanding chef gives us a clear direction of how we want to cook and to lead next year."
For the 44-year-old mother of two living and working far from the Michelin-star competitive chef world in New York and Los Angeles, graduating from the regional Best Chef nominations to the national Outstanding Chef category was a nice surprise. “There’s someone outside this tiny universe that also considers me relevant,” she says.
But Yang credits the insulation of Seattle for not only their success but their longevity: “[The city] gave us a great playground to cultivate my own Korean fusion.” A decade ago, she felt like people still struggled to find a “box” for her food, which acts as a showcase of her life story, a distinctive mash-up of Korean flavors, French technique, and Pacific Northwest ingredients—an early review praised it, while saying the “eclectic” food “defies pigeonholing.” Restaurant writers fixated on the formality of Yang and Chirchi’s kitchen, using it as a foil to the dishes, like Manila clams with house-made XO sauce and Kalbi-style short ribs.
Since then, Yang found that America's increasing familiarity with Korean cuisine has helped keep diners and reviewers alike from trying too hard to put a name to what she’s doing. At the same time, she continues to hone her own culinary vision, as rendered in her menu of gochugaru-crusted black cod, cauliflower gratin with bonito fondue and pickled apple, and smoked tofu with honshimeji confit.
Yang moved to the U.S.from Seoul at age 16 and built her career in the kitchens of legendary chefs Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller. After consulting on the menu of a swanky, very New York, French-influenced Korean restaurant, she ended up taking on the role of chef there, after the owner failed to find anyone else capable of executing her vision. “No one could do what I was doing, because I was born and raised in Korea,” Yang says. “The flavors are so natural, they’re embedded in me.”
Many of the chefs working on similar projects were second-generation Korean chefs, who she saw as on a different mission in their kitchens. “They were born here, they want to find their heritage,” she says. “We’re in the same place, but we came from two different directions.” Yang also found herself briefly distracted by the “badass Korean boy chef” style that dominated the culinary conversation around the time she opened Joule, and again had to figure out what she—as an immigrant and a woman—was doing. Moving to Seattle helped—there was no David Chang or Roy Choi dominating the conversation around Korean cuisine. “There wasn’t anyone to compete against or compare to.”
Seattle also allowed her to step away from the intense, fast-paced New York world. “The reason I can do what I do is because I’m not burnt out,” she says, something she attributes to her family. Her happy place, the kitchen of her restaurant, gave her a place to get a break from the hard work of parenting, and vice versa.
It still took some mistakes over the years to cement her appreciation for that, though. Yang and Chirchi’s restaurant group grew, first adding Revel, a more casual spot for rice bowls, dumplings, and Korean pancakes, in 2010; then a four-part complex called Trove in 2014, featuring separate, connected restaurants serving noodles, parfait-style ice cream sundaes, cocktails and Korean barbecue. By 2016, it stretched to Portland with the splashy Revelry. Trove closed in 2019; Revelry followed in 2020. “The pandemic helped us reset,” Yang says optimistically. She and Chirchi turned their full attention back to the original pair of restaurants. “They helped us to be chefs in the kitchen again.”
Outside the kitchen, the changes gave Yang clarity on the rest of her role as a restaurateur, too. She looked at the accusations of abuse, harassment, and mistreatment of restaurant workers vocalized against acclaimed local chefs Edouardo Jordan and Blaine Wetzel, and saw a pattern: every article started by reminding readers that the accused was a James Beard Award-winning chef. “How can you be associated with a foundation that tells aspiring chefs, ‘These are the people that you want to be?’”
She came into the industry with the mindset to keep her mouth shut, which she attributes to her Korean upbringing and French kitchen training. “The world sucks out there, but it is what it is,” she thought. “You put your head down and get through it.” Now, as a restaurateur, she has come to realize that she can’t tell staff to just tough it out. It changed what she asked of her employees, and she used her platform to push the James Beard Foundation to make changes that consider ethics and diversity in their awards and programming.
When Yang was first a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef, she saw the recognition as all about the food. Now, she sees the need for awards to also be about human responsibility—which the James Beard Foundation is trying to do, with this year’s addition of impact statements from nominees. Asked if she feels like the changes are working, Yang hesitates. After the ceremony, she said that the diversity of this year's winners felt to her like it reflected the industry, and the ceremony honoring so many BIPOC chefs reinvigorated and inspired her and Chirchi—more so than previous awards, of which she notes she has seen many.
"One tiny pivot that you’re making may not feel that far from where you started,” Yang says, diplomatically. “But if that direction has changed…five years later, 10 years later, the distance created can be quite astonishing.”
Published on June 14, 2022
Words by Naomi Tomky
Award-winning Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersections of food, culture, and travel. Her first cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter @Gastrognome and Instagram @the_gastrognome.