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Chef Clara Park Interview

Chef Clara Park self-admittedly has the “heart of a research nerd” - and damn if that’s doesn’t give her a serious edge in the culinary world. From local wins like Best Burger in Philly for her Korean BBQ Bulgogi Burger to being a champion on Chopped to flexing on a Fancy Food Show panel, Chef Clara is popping up everywhere you look.

And nearly 20 years in the industry working for Michelin-star restaurants and developing product formulations for the nation's top grocers to now being the Executive Chef of The Quaker Kitchen, a teaching kitchen at The University of Pennsylvania - she’s nowhere near slowing down.

We caught up with Clara for our Periodically Inspired chef Q&A series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s story and inspiration to talk Korean food, her favorite things, lunching with Anthony Bourdain, and more. Check out the full interview below:

People around you, music, books, travel, research - where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“That's a great question. I think: ‘Okay, what am I eating that I'm excited about? Where have I traveled to that I'm excited about? I get excited about really beautiful ingredients, too.

And, I also look to other chefs that I admire for inspiration.

The internet can also be a really great place, so anytime I need a recipe or if I need to make something specific I'll look up like a dozen different recipes to see what the consensus is.

I'm a researcher at heart. If someone asks me to make the ultimate Korean barbeque dish, I’d tackle my Korean cookbooks, look on the internet, and try to get as much anecdotal, personal and hard evidence of great recipes. I was a researcher in my old life so I kind of leave no stone unturned in terms of if I'm trying to figure something out. I don't assume that I know everything.

I also tap other chefs - I think that chef camaraderie and just being able to talk with your peers and bounce ideas off each other is really important.”

You sound like a cookbook fan.

“There's probably over a hundred cookbooks in my library and some of them are super old - I'll go to antique stores and cookbook shops and even Goodwill. I literally have an old cookbook that's just about corn. I love cookbooks and feel that (especially) old cookbooks used to spend a lot more time and money with recipe developing, testing and writing.

Back then recipes were vigorously worked on and I feel like you can trust older recipes more. I love to use my cookbooks - I pour through them and they all get food stains, and I'll go back to them over and over again, they're a really great resource.”

When did you first find a love of cooking?

“My mom is a great cook and my dad loves to eat, so I grew up in this house where we always had freshly steamed rice and stews and fish and barbecue. We always had a pretty hearty table.

I think one of my earliest food memories - I must have been around five or six years old - and my grandma had grown all these zucchini. When they get really, really big they turn into what Koreans call “old” zucchini or “old” squash. She'd make hobak juk or a porridge with all the squash, and it was sweet and savory and a really amazing color and cool texture. To this day squash porridge is one of my favorite things to eat.”

Does Korean cuisine influence your cooking nowadays and if so, how?

“The cuisines I ate the most growing up were Korean and American, so I’d say yes. I love spicy things, strong flavors and pretty much add garlic to everything, so I don't think that's a coincidence. Gochujang and kimchi make everything better.

I'm not a fussy chef, but I always start with good ingredients. And I’m probably not going to make something that has 50 steps and takes three days to prepare. That was for back in my line cook days. Nowadays I’m doing more laid back cooking - less fussy, but not less delicious. So braised meats, high-heat roasting techniques that bring out a lot of flavor with not a lot of energy. Low lift - high payoff: stews, braises and soul-warming food.

Braising meat or fermenting or pickling things - you set it and forget it and then a couple hours or days later it's turned into something really magical just because time, bacteria and microbes have transformed it.”

Is there a dish that you're best known for?

“The restaurant that I worked for won best burger in Philadelphia - and that was my Korean bulgogi burger. We made ssamjang mayo, homemade pickles, and a shredded scallion slaw with toasted sesame oil and gochugaru. The marinade had over a dozen ingredients in it including Asian pear puree, it was essentially all the best parts of Korean BBQ in burger form.

I also do really good fried chicken - I developed the ultimate fried drumstick for Questlove. Story time again: my yoga teacher told me she saw a tweet about a cooking contest for Questlove and told me I should enter it. I did and got third place, but then was asked to develop the ultimate fried drumstick.

I looked at it very scientifically - you want it crispy, juicy and flavorful. I figured out a batter with cornstarch and baking powder, and then we made a quick brine with sea salt and brown sugar to make it really juicy. There was a Creole seasoning mix and then the double frying technique synonymous with Korean fried chicken was the masterful finishing touch.

What are your favorite aspects of Korean cuisine?

“Korean food is really satisfying. You have a bibimbap rice bowl with all the beautiful vegetables, gochujang sauce, a fried egg and the meat - it's such a hearty and satisfying dish. When you eat Korean food you're never hungry afterwards - you're very satisfied.

Also, for someone who wants to try different things; I love when you go to a new Korean restaurant and they have a million different banchan* - the variety, the heartiness and really strong delicious flavors. Korean food is also a cleaner way of eating, you're not weighed down by tons of fats.”

*Banchan are assorted side dishes always presented at a Korean table, usually one or more kinds of kimchi, sauteed or pickled vegetables, maybe a piece of grilled fish or a soy marinated starch, there is no steadfast rule - they are as numerous as they are delicious.

What Korean dish would you recommend to newbies?

“If someone's never had Korean food - Try japchae or sweet potato noodles. It’s super versatile - you can serve it cold, room temp or warm. It's sweet and savory. It's got soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, a little bit of sugar and you can make it vegetarian or with meat. I mean it’s noodles - everyone loves noodles.”

What’s a spice that you consider to be under-valued?

“Black pepper. The way that I cook is pretty clean, and my food is good because I know how to season it properly. My mom got me a peppermill like a million years ago and I only use freshly ground black pepper when I'm cooking; if you can't smell that really strong aroma of that pepper - that means it’s old and doing nothing for you flavor wise. It enhances so many different flavors and adds just a tiny bit of heat. You can use it in so many things like I'll put it in my pumpkin pie and when I’m poaching fruit.”

What’s a technique or trick you learned along the way that even home cooks could use?

“Squirt bottles! They help with control and presentation - I cook with a lot of different kinds of oils and having them in squirt bottles makes it easily accessible so you don’t have to worry about unscrewing the top or leaking everywhere. I also use them for salad dressings or any sauces, I’ll even put Royal icing in bottles for cookie decorating. Use a squirt bottle - you’ll instantly feel more cheffy.”

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

When I was younger I felt a lot more competitive with other chefs that I worked with and other chefs with similar backgrounds. Yeah, there was a lot of competition and resentment because I was really unhappy. When you are working 80 hours a week for less than minimum wage while being constantly verbally abused, competition and resentment fuel you, it’s all you have.

I graduated from culinary school almost 20 years ago, so at this point I feel very settled, calm and confident about what I've done in my career, and I no longer compare myself to other chefs. Working in the best restaurants shouldn’t define you, the biggest name chefs I’ve worked under were the worst people.

My only concern now is what I am doing and how I can help my cooks become better. A cook the other day took pictures of her glorious chicken stock and that made my day. My goal now is to help/teach as many people as I can through my work and the boards I serve on including the Culinary Literacy Center at the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Drexel University Food Lab.”

What advice would you give to a chef just starting out?

Learn as much as you can, talk to as many people as you can, and try as many things as you can. When I was starting out I didn't take as many opportunities to learn as I could have and, I don't regret that, but I feel like looking back on it. I could have learned a lot more things from a lot more chefs.

You don’t realize it when you're in certain spaces with certain people - you're overworked, you're underpaid and you don't want to stay the extra two hours to learn how to do something. Make time and take those opportunities.”

How did you end up at lunch with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert?

“My biggest piece of advice for people is: take the meeting - you don't know what could happen. Answer the email. Answer the phone call - just don't say no to things without knowing what it is.

A friend of mine saw a Facebook message about someone looking for a Korean translator who loves food. I said fine, give them my number - I don't know what this is, but sure. A woman called me and said she needed a Korean translator for a restaurant in Flushing, Queens. At the time I was living in Philadelphia and thinking Queens was so far away. Then she said it was for an Anthony Bourdain article and Eric Ripert would also be there, and I almost dropped the phone - I was freaking out and screaming in my brain, but I had to be cool.

I'm a researcher nerd at heart. So I talked with my mom, dad and my aunts to beef up on my Korean raw seafood translation. I got really granular and learned Chinese characters, the size of the platters - I learned everything I possibly could in the weeks leading up to the meeting. It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life; I was able to share my culture with two chefs that I greatly admire and they could not have been nicer, so respectful, kind and patient. To this day that was one of the highlights of my career.”

What were some highlights from the 2024 Winter Fancy Food Show you spoke at?

“I love to see how food keeps evolving, and I am really excited for the globalization of cuisines - getting to try more authentic things from more countries and cities and all the different kinds of food. I got to try so many things with yuzu, ube, guava, caviar, truffle, and more!

I feel like it's not just fine dining now. There are so many more home cooks or grandma-style cooking or different spins on traditional foods - there's a whole world out there that keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger in terms of what you can eat and drink and that's really exciting for me. I love that the CPG space has grown more sophisticated so that everyone can have access to higher quality products and feel like they’re having a treat even if it’s just by having a fancy spread on their morning toast.

Food as medicine is something that I'm also really passionate about. What you're eating can have a very strong effect on your life and well-being and food definitely can be medicine.”

We also collaborated with Chef Clara Park on our Korean Flavor Focus - read the Flavor Focus here.