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Yesoon Lee, co-owner and chef of Mandu in Washington, D.C. Photo by Hannah India

Yesoon Lee, co-owner and chef of Mandu in Washington, D.C. Photo by Hannah India

  • Asian American Chefs Shaping D.C.’s Culinary Landscape

    When I moved to Washington, D.C., four years ago for my graduate studies, my sister and I carried two pieces of luggage full of used pots and pans, a rice cooker, clothes, and books to my new studio in Glover Park. As soon as we finished, we looked at each other and said, “We need to eat jajangmyeon!”

    Jajangmyeon
    Jajangmyeon
    Photo by Crystal Rie

    This black bean noodle dish was invented by Chinese migrants in Korea in the early 1900s, and it became a common custom to eat jajangmyeon after moving to a new home in contemporary South Korea. Unfortunately, we could not find a restaurant that sold jajangmyeon, but we still wanted to celebrate my new beginning at a Korean restaurant. I had my first meal in D.C. at Mandu in Dupont Circle. Now, Mandu offers jajangmyeon with options to have black bean sauce (jajang) over rice (bap) or noodle (myeon).

    I shared this story with Yesoon Lee, co-owner and chef at Mandu, during our oral history interview as part of a project titled “Asian American Voices in the Making of Washington, D.C.’s Cultural Landscape.” Last year, with the support of DC Oral History Collaborative, my colleague Dave Walker and I invited five Asian American chefs/restaurateurs to share their lived experiences of opening restaurants in D.C. and introducing their heritage cuisines and flavors to local communities. Unlike journalistic interviews, oral history takes a holistic approach that documents the narrator’s lifelong journey since childhood, which often lasts about two or three hours per interview. Additionally, oral history emphasizes building a relationship between narrators and facilitators by engaging in a conversation rather than a one-sided interview.

    Danny Lee and Crystal Rie oral history interview
    Crystal Rie interviews Danny Lee, son of Yesoon Lee and co-owner and chef of Mandu in Washington, D.C.
    Photo by David Walker

    All five narrators had some shared experiences, yet uniquely individualized stories, echoing the diversity of geography, ethnicity, culture, and religions within the category of Asian American. Yet, I felt a stronger attachment to the journeys of two female chefs—Yesoon Lee and Seng Luangrath—because of our shared identities: first-generation immigrants, Asian, and women.

    Yesoon, like myself, came to the United States as an international student from South Korea. She moved to Illinois to pursue graduate studies in music composition in 1970. Opening a Korean restaurant in the nation’s capital was not a direction she ever thought her career would take. Her “American dream” was, in fact, to get a good education and bring her knowledge and experience back to Korea. However, Yesoon and her husband, a fellow international student, started their new chapters together in the Washington Metropolitan area upon graduation.

    Impressions of the United States
    Oral history interview with Yesoon Lee, co-owner and chef at Mandu

    Read audio transcript

    Crystal: What was your impression of the United States before you came here? What did you think of the U.S. when you were in Korea?

    Yesoon: It was kind of, of course, kind of a dream. Yeah,  America was kind of my dream. I was coming to study. I didn’t expect any  other world, another part of lifestyle or whatever, just came. I thought I would just come to the United States and then study, and then go back to Korea. Yeah, that’s what I thought, but didn’t work like that [laughing].

    Crystal: What made you stay in the United States?

    Yesoon: I met my husband there [laughing], and then we got  married there. We moved. He got a job in D.C., so how we moved to D.C. area. 

    Seng Luangrath fled Laos after the Vietnam War and immigrated to the United States as a refugee. In this video, she shared her tough journey escaping Laos with some of her family members, making her way through three refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, and settling down in America.

    During our interview, we uncovered her special connection with the Columbia Heights neighborhood. When she decided to open her first Lao restaurant, Thip Khao, in 2014, the location was nothing more than a practical decision: nice neighborhood, great space, and reasonable rent. However, it seemed like she was destined to be in Columbia Heights to continue a family lineage that she was not even aware of. Seng recalled the time a Buddhist monk visited the restaurant and told her that the neighborhood had an apartment for Lao refugees in the 1980s. Much to her surprise, the resettlement apartment was where her aunts and uncles made their first home in America.

    Chef Seng Luangrath and husband Boun
    Chef Seng Luangrath and husband Boun
    Photo courtesy of JC Gibbs
    Serendipity in Columbia Heights
    Oral history interview with Seng Luangrath, co-owner and chef at Thip Khao

    Read audio transcript

    Crystal: What was your impression of Columbia Heights?

    Seng: Columbia Heights actually, I had no idea until the monk came for blessing. So before we opened, I came here. I loved the neighborhood, I loved the space, and it is reasonable for the rent. We love Fourteenth Street, but up here is cheaper, but I have no idea about the history of Columbia Heights until the monk came. So after they went out, and we were talking about the neighborhood, they told me the story. I was like, “Wow, I had no idea!”

    So this neighborhood actually, on Park Road, there’s an apartment complex that’s actually a resettle apartment for Lao refugees back in the ’80s. And Action ICC (?) office here. It’s called ICC. It’s like a refugee resettlement center that actually had an office here. They still have the office somewhere here in Columbia Heights, which I have no idea. My husband never told me about it. He knew about it, but he never told me. “Oh my god. There’s so much history here!” So it’s a neighborhood that a lot of my aunts and uncles knew about. So it was like, they all end up, when they first came, all end up living in the apartment for short time before moving to Virginia.

    Both women gravitated toward the restaurant industry as a desperate means to support their families: Yesoon gave up her teaching job and started a Chinese takeout restaurant at Reagan National Airport to “bring bread to the table” after her husband passed away in the late ’90s. Seng “hit rock bottom” after family businesses—flooring and construction for military housing—were going downhill. She used her entire family savings to take over a Thai restaurant in Virginia. As they became established with their restaurant businesses, they found their niches and brought their native cuisines to the District. Yesoon opened Mandu, the only Korean restaurant in D.C. when it opened in 2006, with the huge support and encouragement from her children. In 2011, she expanded to another location in Mt. Vernon Triangle.

    Another culinary pioneer, Seng helped diversify the D.C. food scene by introducing the city’s first Lao restaurant. Thip Khao has consistently been included in the Michelin Bib Gourmand List and Washingtonian’s list of 100 Very Best Restaurants in D.C. Seng was nominated as semifinalist for the 2018 James Beard Awards for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic and has been expanding her restaurant business by opening Sen Khao in McLean and, soon, Hanumanh in the Shaw neighborhood.

    As I listened to the narrators’ stories, we laughed and burst into tears together. I was inspired by their courage and perseverance in serving their native cuisines to the D.C. communities and paving the way for other restaurateurs to bring diverse flavors to the District’s dining scene. I also felt a sense of relief and comfort learning their journeys of making D.C. their new home as I am now following in their footsteps. I hope their stories can inspire and give hope to many others who are settling in new countries, cities, or neighborhoods as well.

    Crystal Hyunjung Rie is a digital archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian and co-organizer of the “Asian American Voices in the Making of Washington, D.C.’s Cultural Landscape” project, along with Dave Walker who edited the audio excerpts here. The full oral history interviews are slated for inclusion in the DC Public Library’s Special Collection and will become accessible to the public in the future.


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