Daniel Harthausen (left) and judge Dan Levy on “The Big Brunch.”

Meet ‘The Big Brunch’ Winner Exploring His Korean Roots Through Food

If you haven’t yet encountered Daniel Harthausen, you’re in for a treat

Daniel Harthausen (left) and judge Dan Levy on “The Big Brunch.”

Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max

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Words by Chin Lu

Like so many others, I’ve spent countless hours deeply delighted by The Great British Bake Off, my go-to comfort cooking show for its low stakes, relatable kitchen mishaps, and quirky banter. Thankfully, around the time season 13 of GBBO was wrapping up in November, HBO launched The Big Brunch, which has fulfilled my need for heart-warming cooking content. For those who haven’t watched, the eight-episode series showcases 10 food industry professionals competing for the grand prize of $300,000 (a financially significant step up from what winners receive on Bake Off, which is zilch). Thanks to its creator Dan Levy, who hosted two seasons of the Canadian Bake Off show, it’s infused with Schitt’s Creek’s signature warmth and humor as well. 

The Big Brunch contestants were chosen not only for their prowess in the kitchen, but for creating meaningful impact in their communities. Worth mentioning, too, is how diverse the roster was: five people of color (two Asian North Americans), four women (two of whom explicitly identify as queer), and one non-binary person. The judges include Levy himself, James Beard award-winning restaurateur Will Giudara, and Sohla El-Waylly, a Bengali American food writer and chef who is often highlighted as the judge with the most cooking experience and knowledge, doling out the comprehensive and specifically constructive feedback. Those who follow food media news will know El-Waylly’s history of calling out unequal pay and racial discrimination at her former employer Bon Appétit and the industry at large. Her presence is not only a delight but also a statement. 

All 10 contestants of HBO’s “The Big Brunch.”

Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max

Witnessing the rapport develop between the judges and contestants makes me feel like a part of their big group brunch, and I was ecstatic when contestant Daniel Harthausen won the finale. The talented Richmond, Virginia, chef will be using the prize to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant version of his popular pop-up Young Mother, which explores his Korean heritage, in the fall with an incubator space that will allow other aspiring chefs to try out their fine dining concepts. Over video chat, I learned about his wild journey to this point: 

*Interview has been edited for clarity and length

Chin Lu: So did you watch a lot of cooking competition shows before Big Brunch? And what made you apply? 

Daniel Harthausen: When I first started cooking around 18 or 19, I spent a lot of time watching America’s Test Kitchen and Chopped. I didn’t know the basis of the culinary world, so that was my introduction into it. But after I started working as a cook at restaurants, it got really intense for me to watch those. 

Once I did get on the show, I started to watch Top Chef for the first time, because I was like, what are they going to have me do? I actually didn't apply to be on the show. A casting director reached out to me on Instagram. They said they had an HBO opportunity and sent an application link. I filled it out, and I didn’t find out it was the Big Brunch until the second or third video interview. 

Daniel Harthausen prepares a dish on “The Big Brunch.”

Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max

CL: On the show, you mentioned the competition has helped with your confidence and leadership skills. Looking back now, months after it finished, what do you think has been its impact on you? Besides the $300,000 grand prize money. 

DH: It’s been in stages. We filmed back in March for about a month and a half. Once I got back to Richmond, I just jumped right back into my life working as a bar manager, and the extent of my cooking was my monthly pop-ups.  

CL: Right, because you had to keep winning a secret until the finale aired. 

DH: Exactly. Once the show was announced, what surprised me was the level of confidence people had in me to win. It was really validating to hear people say those things, and then for me to be able to deliver on that. 

On the personal side, the most valuable thing I learned from the show was really from the critiquing and the judging aspects. All too often as chefs we don't have those opportunities to get in-depth critique of the things that we put in front of people. The setting really felt like the judges were there to truly help us and see us succeed. The thing that I took away was that having your voice and clear intentions about what you're serving, those translate to how you operate your business day-to-day. 

CL: Yes. I think a lot of other cooking competition shows are more about asking the contestants to “show the best food you can make.” But Big Brunch is more about “tell me who you are through the best food you can make.” So I would love to know in your own words, how would you describe yourself as a chef now. 

DH: I've been thinking about this a lot lately. The show showed me how powerful narrative can be, and how that can also translate into people ultimately enjoying the food in front of them. My job as a chef is to cook food for people, but my most important goal as a chef is to provide a narrative for these dishes I find very close to my identity. 

When people are hyped or obsessed about certain dishes, ingredients, or techniques trending from other cultures, I feel like they don’t get the recognition of why they’re culturally important. It’s almost like this act of taking rather than respecting. So a lot of what I want to do as a chef, in the context of my own culture being Korean having an intersection with Japanese culture, is to provide a lost narrative to a halted conversation because of the trauma between the two countries. But also to highlight the fact that I am Asian American

Daniel Harthahusen and judge Dan Levy on “The Big Brunch.”

Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max

CL: I read from your other interviews and IG posts that you identify as multiracial, and you’ve spent time in South Korea as well as Okinawa, Japan. Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how that connects to why you chose to specialize in fusion cuisine? 

DH: I exist because of the U.S. military complex. I’m the byproduct of two generations of Americans who joined the military and found their spouses in Korea. 

I grew up in a very traditional Korean household. I was born in Korea and lived there until I was 5, moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, then moved back to Korea from 10 to 14. It was a big cultural shock for me (on both sides of immigration.) When I think back to how I relate to my cultures, it's always been in the context of food, because I had a hard time connecting with my peers. 

I spent a little under a year in Okinawa. My parents divorced when I was young, and my mom was living there so I stayed with her for a while. There I noticed some similarities around the rituals of food. But it wasn’t until college that I actually learned about the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. It gave me motivation to research and learn more about my own identity. Korea actually started a campaign in the ‘70s or ‘80s to push out Japanese culture, so a lot of history about why we have certain dishes and ways of farming in Korea today was erased. 

CL: Wow, when you mentioned you’re self-taught, and I just assumed you meant cooking, but you were also learning about history, politics, and agriculture. What were your go-to resources? 

DH: I Googled things to have a starting point, but it leads to academic articles or even Korean recipe blogs where they talk about how regional dishes were created. And I also get to go to Korea often, because my family still lives there even though I don’t really talk to them.  

I’m actually planning a trip now! Mainly Busan and Jeju island, trying to immerse myself in seafood culture. And then I want to do a salt tour of the west coast of Japan, and Osaka after that. I’m excited to go to the sources of different producers of salt, soy sauce, miso, gochujang. 

Daniel Harthausen mixes drinks on “The Big Brunch.”

Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max

CL: I love that! Let’s talk about your endeavors. How’s the pop-up going? 

DH: Yeah, the waitlist was about a yearlong, so we’re not taking any reservations anymore. We’re not doing a lot because the main focus right now is opening the restaurant. I’m hoping to have a building before the end of the month, then we’ll start construction, and to have it fully operational in the fall. 

CL: You’re doing a lot of creative experiments through the pop-ups. Is the thinking to bring the best hits to the restaurant? 

DH: Yes and no. I’ve done so many different pop-up concepts, everything between casual bar food and refined tasting menu. It’s been an exploration of my abilities, trying out new techniques and dishes. When it comes to a full-fledged Young Mother restaurant, it’s going to be more streamlined, but still a place you can trust to have really good food with a really good story. 

CL: On IG you posted about how the anticipation around the new restaurant has been kind of stressful. Do you have something you do to remind yourself of why you want to do this in the first place? 

DH: The thing that has been really grounding me lately is zooming out. The expectations can get a little overwhelming: I got on a show that got national exposure, and then I won. I do have a really strong belief in my product, not just in my ability to cook food well, but also I trust myself to be able to figure it out, like recipe development and leading a team.  

CL: Speaking of which, you’re only 27. For other young people who might want to pursue less conventional career paths—especially ones their parents might not support—do you have any advice for them? 

DH: Having the conversation with yourself to really figure out what you want to do is important, but sometimes you won’t be able to know what that is unless you try. It's not like I grew up wanting to be a chef. I dropped out of college, and got a cooking job because it was the only place that would hire me. I would have never known that it’s something I would fall in love with without that step. 

Published on January 17, 2023

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Words by Chin Lu

Chin Lu is a social media strategist turned writer, a 1.5th generation Taiwanese American in California, and a pop culture junkie with a Media Studies degree from UC Berkeley. When she's not working, she's cooking elaborate meals or writing her romance novel and YA fiction. Find her on Twitter @ChinHuaLu for more.