ADINAH DANCYGER: What's up? Where are you?
DANNY BOWIEN: I'm in the office at work.
I know that there was a request for us to have a deeply personal moment. This is very personal, it's where I do some work. I feel like I work a lot more in the kitchen, but right now it's really loud. I feel you know you're getting older when your tolerance for loud music dwindles, it's really loud, so I'm just hiding. I always hide in the basement. Where are you?
ADINAH DANCYGER: Are you in Bushwick? I'm in LA right now. And I'm not in my house, which is why it's not so personalized back here.
DANNY BOWIEN: We both have whiteboards behind us.
ADINAH DANCYGER: I know. I'm not even in the kitchen. I just prepped some stuff, because I realized how I'm just not good at chopping. And if I'm gonna talk to you on the phone and then chop, that could be a nightmare. So I prepped a little bit and realized I have a quarter of all the stuff, but that's okay, because I don't think I can eat four cups of pineapple kimchi, though maybe I could...
DANNY BOWIEN: A cup is enough. But yeah, it's funny because I thought you would be chopping. Especially because your film is called "Chopping Onions."
ADINAH DANCYGER: I know. The one thing that I left to torture myself was to chop the onion. I'm going to do that. This is basically my situation, I don't know if I can flip the camera [Adinah shows a dining room table, the phone propped on books, some ingredients, a cutting board and large knife].
DANNY BOWIEN: You have a humongous knife.
ADINAH DANCYGER: Yeah, this is a really nice knife. And it made me realize like how important it is to have a good knife. But it's not my kitchen, I was just like, I'm just gonna do it all here, like a cooking show. But I might start crying.
DANNY BOWIEN: The reason you cry is because your knife isn't sharp enough, because you're breaking all the cells in the onions. Whenever you have a knife that's not very sharp, the cells break and they release the vapor, it's really the gas which makes you tear up. I don't know if that's true or not. But I find when you have a very sharp knife you cry less? Well, I think if you cut a ton of onions you're going to get teary eyed.
ADINAH DANCYGER: Wow. I feel like I used to not cry from chopping onions because I think it has to do the fact that I can't smell and I grew up without the smell.
DANNY BOWIEN: For real?
ADINAH DANCYGER: Yeah, I can't smell and tie it to objects or memories. So if I was like blindfolded, and you were to put things under my nose, I would probably know if something was super sour or rancid, or something like survival, but not pineapple.
DANNY BOWIEN: I like throwing all of these like random quotes, at least facts that may or may not actually be true, but I feel they say that your sense of appetite is linked so much to smell. Cause I was always wondering, when I'm cooking, I'm never hungry. Maybe it's just I don't like to eat food I cook; I like eating food other people cook.
I really loved your film. I love watching all of the eating scenes and watching the grandmother prep all the food, this relationship. I grew up in Oklahoma. I'm Korean — I was adopted — but my parents are white. So I never had that experience of having the embarrassing lunch at school, but I definitely saw that and it made me aware.
"I really loved your film. I love watching all of the eating scenes and watching the grandmother prep all the food, this relationship. I grew up in Oklahoma. I'm Korean — I was adopted — but my parents are white." - Danny Bowien
My son is seven, right? So, I pack his lunch for school. And it's weird because he used to just eat whatever, but now he asks me for sandwiches. I don't know if that's because other kids at school have sandwiches. I'd make him a lot of kinds of food. His lunch today was grilled fish, rice and grilled sweet potato and I was like "Oh man, maybe I should make him a sandwich. I don't want him to get roasted at school for me." But then you think about it, and later in life that's the most delicious food to eat. I remember the food I'd buy at lunch as a kid, like Doritos and shit like that, that was really popular. I don't really crave that now as an adult, I'd rather eat rice.
Where did you grow up? Give me context. Did you grow up eating Korean food? Was that you as a kid? Did you get lunches packed that had kimchi in them and stuff like that, or did you have like regular lunch?
ADINAH DANCYGER: Well, that's my grandma, my real grandma, and so it's like little Adinah to a degree [in the film]. It was really heavily based off of my childhood, having boxes my grandma would always cook.
I grew up in the city and my parents had grocery stores that were delis, and now they have like more proper bigger supermarket/grocery stores. But they were always working and my grandma picked us up from school and all that stuff. She only knew how to cook Korean food and we lived together as well. She still lives at the same home that I grew up in. I don't think I had kimchi because I really didn't like the taste of it, but I liked sweet and everything that had a bit of sugar in it, I was really down with that, so we'd eat that at home all the time.
When I was at school, it was sort of this funny combination of Korean food but also deli stuff. Whatever deli thing I wanted, like a pack of chips or a lollipop or something. But then I had Bori-Cha [Korean Barley Tea, a nutty tea made with toasted barley and water] which is this tea that everyone made fun of. I went home and was like, "Oh, maybe it isn't good." So that complex started when I was pretty young.
I was in Korean school as well. I went to Korean school on Saturdays and then Hebrew school on Sundays. So it was just this crazy mind-boggling thing. Dinners would be Korean food and then Polish, because my dad is Polish. So food has been this sort of melding and I think when I was younger, I really didn't appreciate it.
Then when I got older, even just in the last couple of years, I feel like I eat Korean food. I just went to K Town alone in LA and it makes me feel so calm. It reminds you of all of these moments you wish you could take back, the shame or the way that you treated your native food as a kid, and you're like eating it, to get back to it. There's something about that I'm finding to be pretty emotional and fun to rediscover it now.
But yeah, I feel like I made that film as an apology, in a way to my grandma and to the culture and to celebrate it in this way. Food has been such a big part of my life. And all these different categories: deli grocery store culture and then home cooking, but I feel like it's really taking me some time to rediscover it. And I feel I don't really know that many Korean dishes or I don't know how to make them. That was also part of growing up; my grandma didn't want to teach me how to make stuff. Grandmas want to pull that power, which I think is really sweet. I'd been making Muguk [Korean beef and radish soup], and my grandma would just be like, "Oh, that's so funny, you're getting into it now." It's coming full circle. But I love it. I mean, I think Korean food is probably the best food ever.
DANNY BOWIEN: It's like Mino [Danny’s son] he likes my kimchi.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I was very used to making people feel comfortable, the fact that I was adopted and Korean with white parents made people very uncomfortable. With Mino, I don't want to influence him into ever liking or not liking something. I think food is a very emotional thing. People have a lot of connection to it. I want him to like something because he likes it, not because it impresses me. But I find him now being like, "Hey dad, I like kimchi." And I'm like, really? Because I didn't have kimchi until I grew up. There were no Korean restaurants in Oklahoma at the time.
So, it's interesting because he likes Korean food and you give him a little kimchi or wash it off first or something to not have it be super spicy. But, it's interesting; he is really into food. I think he wants to be a chef someday. I'm like, "You can do that, but you don't have to do that." You know? Like, it's probably better that you don't, but I think he likes it and he likes Korean food. I try to make him Korean the best that I can, but at the same I didn't grow up learning, I didn't know how to cook Korean food. I don't know how to cook Korean, but I know how to cook food generally speaking.
It's funny because on May 5, I'm turning in my cookbook and it's Mission Vegan and it's literally all Korean inspired. It was going to be just like a continuation of the last Mission cookbook. I really like Korean food a lot and I never got a chance to eat it growing up or learn how to cook it, and I wanted to decode the things I liked about a lot, but also challenge myself in other ways. Being an artist and chef, I feel like there's always this need to make a challenge a little bit more difficult or reinvent, or just figure out why. I'm always asking why, and then also why not. So with the vegan book, I had this pretty profound experience when I was in Korea a long time ago. I got to cook with this monk in this monastery...she only makes vegan Korean temple food. I thought Korean food was something completely different so just being able to explore that.
The writer was like, "So how do you want to frame this? Because you're Korean, but you grew up in Oklahoma, and you don't speak Korean?" I've always been in this very complicated place. For all intents and purposes people are like, "Oh, you're a chef, so you're cooking the food you grew up eating?" I'm like no, if that were the case I'd be cooking McDonald's and Hamburger Helper because that's what I grew up eating in Oklahoma.
I was gonna ask you about the the grandmother. Was she acting? It seemed very natural for her being in the film, like when she was like cooking, and they giving the food to the kid. I was like, is this a professional actor like this? They're really good. It was like, very, very good. So it's cool that it's your grandmother.
ADINAH DANCYGER: I mean with that film, I wrote it for her. When you write something for somebody, you're listening to the environment, you just know them — I know that they can do this, they don't do this. I'm not gonna try to fit them into a box of performing in a certain way; I think the story was just so natural. At that time, I was really interested in making movies that had like no actors, I was really inspired by French and Italian near realism. All these films that really did so well, with non-actors. I want to do that. So then I have to write something that I know.
For so long it was the thing that I was ashamed of, this culture, this part of myself, never really leaning into it. This film was breaking out of that in some way, that I needed to recreate this experience for myself to see it in a new positive way, even though it's pretty sad. But there's this love that I feel to work with my grandma. It just made sense. I also didn't have any money, it was just making it with what I had and friends and stuff like that. But there were definitely some scenes where I was like, "Can you do this"? And she wouldn't want to do it. And I was like okay, well, I'll just have to do it the other way. When you're trying to direct your grandmother, and she’s your grandmother...we learned a lot about each other. I hope to never put her in a film again because I don't know if those relationships can be healthy. You know, to put family in. My mom was actually in it for a minute, but I cut her out and she understood it. Her voice is in it, but I was like she doesn't really need to be in the film.
I think I structure that film to be around the meals, it was sort of this thing where I was like, "Okay, this meal is this emotion, this meal will be this." Just plugging in one experience, like this one memory and trying to find this picture. It was much less polished than it looked in the film, she was just like hacking [at the crabs]. I was mortified...to watch her kill crabs in the sink, I was like, "Oh my God, this is inhumane," and then finding all those memories and putting them in there. Growing up with all these things that I didn't really pay attention to, like watching soaps and these talk shows, and loving that music now as an adult, it's so fascinating. I want to get to know it; it's sort of a long, ongoing, research process with this kind of story. It was definitely the seeds of something bigger. I'm still trying to figure out what that is.
But, yeah, food was the best part of it, it just made sense to me. When you give someone something to do, you're not particularly asking them to act, you're asking them to perform the task. That was really interesting to me: just watching someone get lost in whatever they were doing. A lot of stuff was rewritten just because it felt unnatural. This happens a lot when you're collaborating with people, you have this vision, and then other people are involved. And then the chemistry of that changes the original conception and that's okay, as long as you're okay with it, it breeds some new idea that you didn't think of before. That’s just a more open, easy or more fun way to make stuff with narrative.
I think similarly with recipes. It's like, why not? Why not try whatever feels right and intuitive. So, there's a lot of cool crossovers. I heard a little bit about the book ... I'm really curious to read this vegan book. I didn't even know that Korean food could be vegan until your recipes to be honest. Everything had fish sauce or was meat heavy.
"I feel like I made that film as an apology, in a way to my grandma and to the culture and to celebrate it in this way." - Adinah Dancyger
DANNY BOWIEN: I'm in this weird space where I want to understand and give a lot of respect to the fundamentals of Korean food because I've been making Korean food in some way shape or form since I started cooking, and we've been fermenting vegetables for the last 10 years, it's always been kimchi — it's napa cabbage fermented for a few days. But yeah, it is a weird space to be in because I'm putting my neck out there. I'm not actually vegan, I eat a pretty vegan diet. I was doing these vegan cook zines for a while and they were doing really well and I wanted to democratize food because I feel like in the type of restaurant I'm at with Mission, food is like really spicy and polarizing — like mouth numbing — and I love the emotion you can get off someone by pushing them out of the comfort zone.
But for Mission Vegan it's really catering to everyone in a way. It was pretty challenging in certain instances, like gamjatang is one of my favorite things ever, but it's a pork spine soup. So it's really fun and interesting to try to make a dish like that without using pork and using sesame paste for richness as opposed to meat.
The kimchi section was really easy and that's why I like the recipe that I sent you for the pineapple kimchi. It's a weird thing, because I was talking to my writer who was like, "Are you at all sensitized to people saying, ‘you're not allowed to make this food cause you’re not accurately trained. You're Korean, but you don't speak the language.'” I was like, yeah, but if I were to make the food I was allowed to make, like I said, I wouldn't be allowed to make anything, because I grew up in Oklahoma. But I'm not like, from Oklahoma, you know what I mean? I'm Korean, but that's the biggest thing. My biggest concern is being able to make sure that it's coming from really honest place.
"I was like, yeah, but if I were to make the food I was allowed to make, like I said, I wouldn't be allowed to make anything, because I grew up in Oklahoma. But I'm not like, from Oklahoma, you know what I mean? I'm Korean, but that's the biggest thing. My biggest concern is being able to make sure that it's coming from really honest place." - Danny Bowien
I don't want to make a bunch of Korean people upset as I'm not making [dishes] in a super authentic way, but it feels authentic to me. I feel very excited about it. It sounds so cheesy, but that moment cooking with a Buddhist monk — we had to take a bullet train from Seoul to her monastery because it was really far away — I remember being there and we were connecting in this crazy way. She didn't speak English, I don't speak any Korean. There was a translator there. But we were just eating and vibing and talking and she was making me stuff. And she was like, “I feel like this really deep connection with you.” That moment, I was like, wow, I was the same. It just made sense. I think that was probably like seven years ago. But the pineapple kimchi is very representative. It makes sense to me somehow and I don't know how yet, but it will later, I'll figure it out at some point sometime.
ADINAH DANCYGER: I like young kimchi, I don't know why it just tastes better. We'll give it a shot [Adinah tries the kimchi]. This is really good. This is so good. I just love the sugar in the kimchi, you know? It's like the sweet savory thing. But yeah, it's not too spicy. I didn't overdo the flakes. This is good. So you put this out for how long? Just like a couple days?
DANNY BOWIEN: You can put it into a jar or bowl or whatever just make sure you kind of weigh it down. I'll take a trash bag and then cover it and let it set out for like two days or so, depending on if it's warm outside. I said like two to four days, if you go longer than that it will start to actually turn to alcohol. If that's your vibe, then definitely go for it. But it gets crazy and you'll see — I like two or three days. I like when it starts to just go effervescent. It'll kind of taste like carbonated in a way. It's super, super, super good.
ADINAH DANCYGER: It's so good. I'm obsessed. Anything that has like sugar and spice in it with Korean food.
DANNY BOWIEN: Yeah, I love the video in the in the film when your grandmother was like cooking the fish though. Was that mackerel? What type of fish was that?
ADINAH DANCYGER: It looks like mackerel. We usually cooked mackerel a lot at the house. Rice and fish is all I eat now. I eat so much fish cause I don't eat any other meat. But I just crave it, especially the mackerel. Whenever I go to H-Mart they have like prepared mackerel, and I'll just have that for days. I could eat that forever, it's so, so good. I wish that I lunch boxes made these days because that’s all it would be — it's a perfect meal, it's so well balanced.
Does Mino have a really crazy palette because of you being in the kitchen?
DANNY BOWIEN: It's hard to know. He is very adventurous. I never pushed food on him. I'm never like, “you have to try this.” If I put a lot of pressure on him to like something, I think he would go the opposite way. If you ask him on a day to day, he'll be like, “I want ramen or sushi or a burger.” Those are like the three things he always wants. He also likes Vietnamese food a lot.
I'm actually really happy that he's eating vegetables now. He only liked broccoli, and the one thing I did try to convince him was, “Oh, you should try cauliflower — this is basically just like a white version of broccoli and it's really delicious.” And he started liking that. I wasn't really taught or educated about food as nutrition, I just enjoyed food because it made me really full... and it was like a very sociable experience. I grew up eating vegetables, and like for most people in middle America it came out of a can or it was usually boiled with a bunch of like margarine in it. You had one of those every night, usually it was corn or beans. But I never had fresh asparagus or that kind of stuff until I moved out of Oklahoma when I was in my late teens.
It's the coolest thing in the world to be able to eat with your kid. I can't wait until we can eat Omakase sushi together [a Japanese phrase used when ordering food in restaurants that means 'I'll leave it up to you']. I am excited for the experience of being able to be like, "what do you think of that one?” It's really cool experiencing things together.
But yeah, it’s cool how with food there's all these bonding moments. I remember the same thing being with my dad, going to get doughnuts before school at a standard donut shop and being able to see him enjoy his first cup of coffee of the day. I'd always have some doughnut holes. I'm really appreciative of these moments. I think they're very special... and it's crazy, It's like food can do that, you know? And so, the answer is a very longwinded answer to your question, he's not super picky. But I love how he's just very much like, "no, I don't need that” if I'm like, "try this."
ADINAH DANCYGER: I mean, it's cool that kids know what they like. It's really important to, let them just do that. When I was a kid, and in that phase, we went to the steak house a lot, multiple times a week. It's called Knickerbockers, that was like our family like spot. And every time, I would get angel hair pasta, no sauce, Parmesan cheese, and that was it. I was like, "This is all I can eat." Because everything else in my home was just so colorful. I was like, "I don't want any of this. I just want like, something classic." What's going on in my brain to think that that was safety or something. And I feel so disturbed by that, because there's so much cultural influence subconsciously happening at that level not wanting to eat things that are colorful or odd or whatever it is. It's like, what is safety equivalent to? And then you go break out of that once you start to become more comfortable with yourself. But yeah, I mean, it's just so cool to hear that kids are into food, which is really funny, because I don't remember that being a thing. When I was a kid we would eat pizza.
Food is just a common language. I wish I could take back those years of not like liking those things, but now I have the rest of my time to like try all those weird foods that I didn't want to try before.
"Am I allowed to make things the way that I want to make them? Am I allowed to have this space?” And a lot of times it's so overwhelming because tradition comes with so much context that you can't really hold as an individual, but you're just trying your best to express yourself in the most honest way." - Adinah Dancyger