For the month of September, exclusive for the Asheville Citizen Times, I will be photographing and talking with Asian-American immigrants living in Asheville. Chesky spent nearly two years living as a foreigner in Busan, South Korea before returning to his hometown.
Christina Im is the owner and head chef of Korean House. She is from South Korea.
Nathan: Where did you grow up?
Christina Im: In Korea, near Seoul. It was kind of countryside before, and now it’s all bright. Everything is 24-hour stores, and everything just keeps changing a lot. Each year I go there, and new buildings have all gone up. They keep going up.
Nathan: Can you tell me a bit about your move to America?
Christina: I came here in 1995, so I have been here for 21 years. I first moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. My aunts, both of them, were there so they invited us to move to Cincinnati. Then Ohio to Kentucky, Kentucky to New York, New York to Asheville. So I lived in Brooklyn, and I am married to a Chinese man and there is a huge Chinese community there. They all thought I was Chinese, and as soon as I spoke English they didn’t like me and would say “You are Chinese, why would you speak English?” (Laughs)
Nathan: What took you to Brooklyn?
Christina: My husband’s family is in New York City. Since he was stuck with my family first, for five or six years in Cincinnati, we tried it there for about the same amount of time. I lived with a bunch of Chinese people and I didn’t understand what was going on. I respect their culture, but they looked at me as an outsider a bit and in Brooklyn they all lived in one area together.
Nathan: So you were living in America but having almost a harder time fitting into the Chinese culture there. Was that more difficult than just finding your place in America in general?
Christina: I didn’t see almost any America there. It felt almost like another China, really. Here, if you want to sell food outside, you would have to get safety permits, but there you could serve whatever you wanted in the street. That’s China. People smoking everywhere. I didn’t understand that part.
Nathan: So, New York to Asheville? How did you find Asheville?
Christina: Yes. So, I have been working in restaurants for a long time. I’ve been serving. I’ve been managing. You know, anything. I worked mostly at Japanese restaurants. But my last job before New York was in a Korean restaurant. I was a manager there so I got to see everything they do, but I love to cook! I love to cook for many people. I am always cooking at my house for everyone and share. So my friend from there, she was Chinese, asked me to move to Asheville and open a restaurant with her. She knew my dream was to open my own restaurant and feed all the people as family. So I was like, OK! I’ll come check it out, and we opened it up.
The first place we opened, I really didn’t have much experience. I mean, I can cook the home style, but not the fast-paced restaurant style. So I hired a very expensive chef. But it didn’t work out.
To me cooking is experience plus common sense. So me, now I have both. My food, I could not teach anybody how I do it. I don’t measure like 2 ounces of this, 1 ounce for that, because it all just comes out from my hand and I put it in.
So, I opened the first Korean restaurant in Asheville and it was a big hit. It was good business. So after two years I decided to open my own restaurant on my own as well. I sold the other one, Stone Bowl, to my partner and now I have this one. I own Korean House downtown and she has the two in South Asheville.
Nathan: Where did you learn to cook this way?
Christina: I think from my grandma. Yes, because I lived with my grandma until I was 14. She’s from out in the country in Cheongju. A place where Bibimbap is very popular. So she cooked like I do now — she just touches it and everything tasted good! My mom is from Mokpo. So you know, a totally different side of Korea. My grandma used to always give her a hard time on how she even made rice! For me, everyday a new thing comes up, so I am still learning as I go.
Nathan: How do you like where Asheville has come, and your place in it?
Christina: Asheville has a lot of people moving here. Which is a good thing because they usually have tried Korean food in bigger cities and then they come here and always have good things to say! Saying it’s the best they’ve had. I’m so picky.
So, this is my fifth year in Asheville. It has nice weather and really nice people. People who come here know, this is my concept. We are the only place right now that you can do Korean barbecue at the table. If you walk in this door, we are here to make you feel as comfortable as if you were family. We like to remember people’s names. In Korea, customer is king. I think most of our customers are repeat customers and regulars. I just want to make them happy when they walk out the door.
Nathan: What does the future hold for you and Korean House?
Christina: Right now I am focused on this one. We have at least two more years in this building. I may open one in West Asheville or Black Mountain. With maybe a simpler menu. I have a good crew, who want to go further with me, so that is what I am planning. I got a lot of good experience from this restaurant. So maybe by then I will know how to make money! (laughs)