Most culinary careers begin in kitchens, but Deuki Hong's began on a baseball diamond. Michael Bonadies, then a partner at Myriad Hospitality Group with Drew Nieporent, was also the coach of Hong's traveling baseball team.
"I told his son — we were teammates — that I was kind of interested in cooking or whatever, and he said 'Oh, my dad owns restaurants,'" said Hong.
At 15, he began working with Aaron Sanchez at Centrico, de-seeding dried chile peppers in the kitchen. After he finished high school in Leonia, NJ, he left Centrico to attend the Culinary Institute of America, at Sanchez's insistence. While there, he did a ten month externship at Momofuku, where he worked as a line cook from the first day. Hong graduated from the CIA in March 2009, and the following day, he started work at Jean-Georges, where he spent about a year and a half. Hong considers both experiences, although entirely different, vital to his career.
"[Momofuku] wanted you to think outside the box, creatively," he says. "Jean-Georges was very, 'We're Jean-Georges. We don't need you, but we'll hire you anyway, and you're lucky to be in this kitchen.' So it was a mind shift, but I got a taste of both styles of restaurant." said Hong. "But once you get within that crew, and once you've really been out there a couple months, you really become part of that family. They're very tight knit, too"
Hong, now 25, is the head chef at Manhattan's Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, the Korean barbecue chain founded by rapper Kang Ho-dong. His outpost opened in December and has caught the attention of chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Benu's Corey Lee, and Hong's old boss David Chang. Hong says he's totally humbled by the success. He attributes much of the praise to the simplicity of the menu, which features a standard assortment of Korean barbecue sides and meats, like short ribs and thin-sliced brisket (Hong only buys USDA Prime beef) with some unusual additions, like pork jowl. He cites his mother's home cooking and his CIA classmates as major influences, and has even tweaked recipes based on conversations with customers.
"He has a love and passion for food that is just that — a true passion that is all about making the best possible dishes possible ... it's not about his ego or getting press, it's about doing what's right for the ingredients and ultimately the guests" says Bonadies of his former catcher.
As his star rises nationally, Hong has a bunch of projects planned for the future, but he mostly seems intent on having fun cooking for his customers. When pressed, he admitted that a new restaurant is in the works, which will still be meat-focused, though he doesn't quite know yet when it will open. His first cookbook, "Koreatown: A Cookbook," written with Matt Rodbard, is due out next February.
"[We] spent the past few years collecting stories, recipes..." says Hong. "Well, they're my recipes, my interpretations of Koreatowns in LA, New York, Chicago, Virginia.... Even I learned in the process, it was like, damn, there's freakin' Koreans everywhere! And a Koreatown everywhere."
He says he's lucky that cooking is global and "can take you anywhere." He doesn't expect to be in New York forever. "If in five years, I am still in New York doing my daily routine, I will know that I failed to take risks and stretch myself whether that is due to fear, complacency, or whatever the reason may be," he says. "As a cook, I never want to lose that desire to learn and I firmly believe in seeking new things and endlessly exercising creativity."
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