The Left Handed Cook: Ethnic Food and the New American Identity

 When I learned that Kat Melgaard and Thomas Kim, owners of The Left Handed Cook were Minneapolis transplants from Los Angeles, I knew I we had to chat. If nothing else we could reminisce about bad traffic, sunny days and the impossibility of being an Angelino for life. While this conversation would have been worth a visit to the Midtown Global Market, where their new restaurant is located, what transpired was even better: a discussion of ethnic food and the new American identity.

Similarities and Differences

On the surface, Kat and Thomas grew up in very different worlds. Kat is a Korean adoptee who spent her childhood on farm in the dissolute northwest corner of North Dakota, where her family raised beef cattle and harvested wheat and barley. As a child, she knew little of her Korean heritage, “When I was adopted, back in the early ‘80s, it wasn’t such a big thing for adopted parents to teach their children about their culture. It was more that you should try to assimilate them so they can feel like other kids.”

Thomas, on the other hand, was born to first-generation Korean immigrants and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles (Rancho Cucamonga to be exact). His father, an engineer, and his mother, a small business owner, kept the family’s Korean heritage alive and well in their household, “I kind of had that whole second-generation thing. There was always that background of being Korean, and identifying with that. I think if anything it was because of the fact that my mom, and for the most part my father as well, refused to acclimate into American culture. My mom still doesn’t even speak English.”

The 2009 U.S. Census estimates that there are 33 million second-generation Americans living in the United States, that is, 11% of the population has at least one foreign-born parent.1

Despite their different childhoods, Kat and Thomas are both examples of the growing numbers of Americans who have and must continue to negotiate their transnational identities. What unites second-generation and foreign-adoptees is their assimilation into American culture at a young age. While Kat and Thomas had vastly different understandings of their Korean heritage growing up in North Dakota and California, their self-identification as Americans—as opposed to Koreans, has helped to establish their perspective in life and more importantly in their cuisine. Kat explains her self-identification with American culture as opposed to Korean culture:

“For myself, it would definitely be more American. Obviously, growing up, without any Asians or Koreans, or really seeing Asians on TV, which would have been my only source, definitely American. Even when I got older, I really didn’t have that many Asian friends. It was not until I moved to L.A. and I started working for a Korean company, where I got a little bit more immersed into Korean culture.”

The 2011 U.S. Census estimates that there roughly 1.5 million Koreans living in the United States2 and just over 211,000 living in Los Angeles County alone, smaller only than the Chinese and Filipino communities in Los Angeles County.3 Even though the United Sates has the second largest Korean diaspora in the world, Thomas explains that the Rancho Cucamonga suburbs, located 50 miles away from Los Angeles’s Koreatown, were an escape from this immigrant community, “I think, for me, since growing up in a weird area of California, a lot of my friends are non-Korean, and for the most part, non-Asian. And so it’s been easier for me, I think, to identify more culturally with the American culture.”

TheLeftHandedCookNew American Cuisine

Neither the Left Handed Cook nor Kat and Thomas fit nicely into predefined categories. Kat and Thomas aren’t purely Korean, Asian or even American, and their food is far from traditional. Their story isn’t one of refuge or struggle in a new land—instead they are taking the road less traveled and defining their own identity—what they call New American Country cuisine. Not unpredictably, this cuisine is a fusion of the many cultures, traditions, places and identities that make up Kat and Thomas. As the head chef of The Left Handed Cook, Thomas is responsible for creating this fusion cuisine, “My cooking style is just really letting go of any type of boundaries.  Because a lot of the techniques that we’re using, regardless of culture, the techniques are very peasant and country based; a lot of braising and a lot of reusing of similar ingredients.” On the front end, Kat translates this message of New American Country to the customer, “When people see us, they automatically think, oh they’re Asian, they’re Korean. But really, growing up here, we’re very American. This idea of the new American, that idea is always changing. I think The Left Handed Cook is a good representation of our trends, our age range, and as far as what we find is going to be new, and that broadens the idea of what is American.”

This unique type of fusion food is both a blessing and curse for The Left Handed Cook. On the one hand they get to create menu items like The H & K Poutine, a hyped up Canadian dish with Korean and Mexican flair that includes French Fries topped with Pork Belly, Curry Gravy Onions, Kimchi, Parmesan, Cheddar, Soft Poached Egg & Chipotle Aioli.  On the other hand, Kat admits it is sometimes hard to explain their food to those unfamiliar to fusion cuisine, “A lot of times, people will ask us, what kind of food is this? And it’s even hard for us to describe, because it’s just food that we want to eat, that we enjoy. It’s not just strictly Korean, or Asian, or Chinese, or whatever. And a lot of times, they don’t understand that, they really don’t.”

I think the difficulties of doing fusion is that people want you to stay in a box. So that makes it difficult. But the pros of running it that way, is that we are able to introduce people to new things, like kimchi.  -Thomas

Unfortunately, stereotypes are still alive and well in Minnesota, and for young driven entrepreneurs like Kat and Thomas who look merely “Asian” to many of their customers, venturing beyond stereotypical Asian cuisine has been difficult.  Kat says kimchi, the fermented cabbage dish traditionally from Korean is a particularly difficult sell in Minnesota, “I mean, we still get people that come through, and they’re like, oh, kimchi, no, what is that? Ew! And I’ve asked them, have you tried it before? And they’re like, oh, no! And it doesn’t matter how we would sell it, they would not buy it. Again, we’re not for everybody, we’ve kind of had to embrace that.” Despite these hurdles and misconceptions, Thomas seems hesitantly optimistic about the future of his and other fusion cuisine restaurants in the city, “I think that Minneapolis is starting to get to the point where they’re questioning what the boundaries are of all types of food, culturally and otherwise. And so I think that’s why people are having a hard time placing it. They want to be able to understand it for itself, but they aren’t quite able to.” It should come as no surprise then that their most popular item is their Winner Winner Basket, an assemblage of 21 Spice Fried Chicken Strips and Seasoned Fries.

If The Left Handed Cook is fusion food made and produced by young Americans, to what extent can they—and all second-generation ethnic entrepreneurs for that matter—be cultural ambassadors? Kat and Thomas exchange their mixed opinion:

Kat:  I’m going to be honest, for me personally, I don’t really feel like it. I’ll tell people, I’m Korean, we do a lot of Korean flavors and stuff, but by no means is it traditional Korean. A lot of people want traditional Korean but we’re not traditional. But, on the other hand…
Thomas: I think that what we are able to convey to people that come by here, is not so much the traditional, hardline, cultural Korea. What we embody is the new Koreans that live in America. We are able to convey that aspect of it.
Kat: The idea of what…
Thomas: Growing up in America.
Kat: Growing up in America, yeah.
Thomas: Looking a certain way, but growing up in a certain way. And obviously it does, for a small part, allow us to address a segment of the population that would maybe never get exposure to what we do. So, that’s always a good thing. People will drive from Stillwater for the weekend, and it allows them to experience things outside of their norm.

Traditional ethnic food restaurants are an integral part of the globalized world, exposing Americans and others to the cultural beliefs and practices of a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities they otherwise would have little access to. The Left Handed Cook takes this globalized world one step farther and weaves transnational identities even tighter by embodying the daily lives of second-generation and foreign-adoptee citizens who are constantly negotiating their multiple identities with the America they call home. While The Left Handed Cook may not be your traditional ethnic food restaurant, it still a part of the wider spectrum of ethnic food that is shaping American cuisine, one generation at a time.

References
1U.S. Census Bureau. 2010. “Nation’s Foreign-Born Population Nears 37 Million” Press Release. http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/foreignborn_population/cb10-159.html (accessed March 25, 2013).
2U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. “Selected Population Profile in the United States, American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table S0201.” http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_11_1YR_S0201&prodType=table (accessed March 25, 2013).
3U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates, 2011 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table DP05.” http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_11_1YR_DP05&prodType=table (accessed March 25, 2013).



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