That was the first line of what would become ZenKimchi on February 5th, 2004. It was a mass email to family that I had arrived at my dad’s house in Denver from Atlanta, letting them know I was safe. The next email, “Made It,” described my flight and my first couple of days in Korea.
I haven’t read this in years. Who was that person?
I wish I could recapture that feeling where everything is intense, fresh, and new–like when you first fall in love. Reading a few more entries from my first year, I’m embarrassed for that person. What an over-entitled prick!
Those mass emails turned into a (self-programmed) website which became the blog. Then it split off into a food blog. Then a video blog (now dead). The diary moved to another section while the front page became a news reader. Then there was the attempt at making a social networking site (valiant yet futile). Then the front page became the billboard for the new business.
ZenKimchi was split in so many directions. So I did something I had been scared to do for a long time. I combined all the ZenKimchi sites back into one, even my personal diary blog that I intentionally made hard to find a few years ago. As anyone who has dealt with moving a WordPress blog can relate, it was a monstrous challenge to not only move but combine four blogs into one while still keeping all the functionality. The restaurant reviews still have star ratings and maps–with public voting. The tour info is there. The food event calendar is there. In the process, some things have broken. I’m under the hood right now with my wrench. She runs, but she’ll need some more tweaking for the next month.
Let me tell you that I’m FREAKING OUT that it’s already been ten years. Ten years in Korea. Ten years of keeping a project going. My ADD-ridden history has left a field of great-start-didn’t-finish projects. Oh, yes. I’m also freaking out about turning 40 in a few weeks as well. And to think I freaked out over turning 30!
The intent was to just live here FOR A YEAR! What happened to that plan?? It changed because, and it sounds corny, I had found peace. I felt invigorated, like I was dunked into a bathtub of ice water. Korea was a land of electricized air. I could smell the energy. I later figured out it was the hwangsa. But it still had a great effect. I had just gone through a heartbreaking divorce, a crash of a budding internet career (remember the dot-com bubble?), and a failed attempt to restart everything.
Even though I was having a great time co-producing The Thom Hartmann Program (an up-and-coming political talk radio show) and doing high tech odd jobs (websites for dentists and lesbian rugby leagues), I wasn’t paying the bills. I lived for Friday nights when for 30 minutes I’d watch “A Cook’s Tour,” hosted by this then fairly unknown lanky guy named Tony Bourdain, who slurped noodles in Vietnam on The Food Network. I wanted that. My friend Christina was teaching in Korea and had been beckoning me to join her. I had studied Korean history in college, so I already had an interest there. But Korea was always the last resort. And then it happened. But it was a great thing. I ended up sacrificing and losing a part of me. That still hurts. I think I’ve mostly recovered now. I’m re-married. I have a beautiful daughter. I’m actually sort of back in the internet business and paying the bills with it. And I’m pursuing my love of food.
I’ve told this story many times. You can hear it again. The blog was a means to keep the family at home up to date with what I was doing without me resorting to spamming their email accounts. My internet alias was Zenpickle since the early ’90s. So it made sense to change it to ZenKimchi when I came here. The blog was just daily accounts of everything that fascinated and irritated me as a fresh-off-the-plane newbie. In between posts, I comforted myself with Hite Pitchers and pirated copies of “A Cook’s Tour,” amazed that I was actually in freakin’ Asia.
I then discovered food blogs and read them voraciously. I couldn’t find much about Korean food. There was one short-lived Korean food blog that had died by the time I started reading it. It was mostly journals of what the author ate for lunch. So I thought I’d make my own Korean food blog so I’d have something to read. I wanted to use it as a place to keep track of my recipes, food “discoveries,” and restaurants. So I called it a Food Journal. Always hated the word blog. Sounds like the sound you make when throwing up a whole hard-boiled egg.
I didn’t even have a camera at the time. My girlfriend, EJ, let me use her new camera. I just plugged away, hoping that one of the bigger Korean bloggers, like The Marmot, would give a nod my way. Then in early 2007, I got an email from Julia Moskin of The New York Times. It was pre-Korean food craze in America. The first warning tremor was the Korean fried chicken buzz in New York. Julia called me to ask about fried chicken in Korea and my thoughts on it. The piece came out that week, and the blog went through the roof in traffic.
That was such a thrill! That article still gives us a nice swath of traffic.
Unrelated to the blog that year, I auditioned for a new TV channel in Korea, EBSe, and landed some lead roles in some shows teaching English to ten-year-olds. The shows were embarrassingly cheesy, but they were such a great experience.
The blog started really picking up energy. In summer 2008, EJ and I were going on a day trip to Gangwon-do for whitewater rafting when I got an email and then a call from the production team at “Bizarre Foods,” a popular show on The Travel Channel. They brought us on as consultants for their Seoul episode. We suggested the majority of the foods they used in the show, and the screen populated with friends and friends of friends, including Chef Hunam Kim (formerly of the legendary Star Chef bistro), Dan Gray (Seoul Eats), EJ went on there along with her friend Song-hak to act as food blogging experts. Oh, and I also got my ex-girlfriend Soo-jeong to be the person introducing host Andrew Zimmern to fermented skate–which he said in later interviews was the worst thing he ever ate.
That year was big for Korean food, in my opinion. That was when it started getting big in America. The Kogi taco truck was gaining traction in L.A., which got a great push from the convergence of Twitter and the 2008 financial crisis. People had smartphones and little money, and Kogi took advantage of it by putting galbi and kimchi into taco form and selling it. David Chang was pushing the casual fine dining concept in New York with Korean-inspired dishes figuring their way into his repertoire. There was a serious spike in Google News alerts for Korean food that year in my RSS reader that grew up until last year.
In 2009, EJ and I got married. My family came here for the wedding. It was a weird concept for me to wrap my mind around. Korea and my family were separate worlds in my mind. And they were crossing that chasm by coming here. And they loved it.
I would say 2010 was a big year for us. For one thing, I finally broke free from the shackles of English teaching. I was an early consultant for the Kimchi Chronicles on PBS. And I was flown to New York to give a speech on Buddhist temple cuisine. During that trip, I met some people that I had only known online and some new people that I consider my closest friends today. It was also the only time that strangers actually recognized me and wanted their pictures taken with me. Right after that, a few of us appeared on Running Man, a popular celebrity game show. The biggest event of the year was the birth of our daughter Jian in November. EJ went into labor right when I won second place in a Korean food cooking competition.
The next year was the media year. In February, I was asked to be interviewed on Morning Special, a morning drive-time radio show for people working on their English, an audience I think I remember hearing was in the millions. EJ listened to EBS FM all the time, so she was happy about that. After the interview, the producers sat me down in a room and asked if I’d like to co-host the show. One week later, I was waking up at five in the morning to do live radio Monday through Friday. That lasted six months. That was also the time when I got caught in the middle of a mudslide during the show. The footage I took on my phone got put on History Channel’s “Serial Killer Earth.” Around that time, I was asked to host a TV travel show on Arirang, where I’d go around Korea. So my days started early, I’d do the radio show until ten. The TV crew would pick me up in a van outside the studios, and we’d film all day, where I’d get home around midnight only to get up at five again. That was a seriously intense time. When it started to slow down, I was able to concentrate on my big project–turning ZenKimchi into a viable business.
You see, during my first year in Korea, my friends and I talked about starting food themed walking tours in Seoul. It was something I had been wanting to do all that time, but Korea’s fairly strict visa laws prevented me from pursuing anything like that until EJ and I were married (or until I coughed up $50,000). By fall of 2011, my gig at EBS FM was finished, and I was doing my last two episodes of the Arirang TV show. During a break in filming, I started putting my business plan down on paper. I saw that the Seoul Global Center was holding a two-week business course, and I signed up for that. It was extremely valuable. I can’t say enough good things about it. I auditioned for one of the coveted incubation offices Seoul city was offering for foreign businesses. And yes, it was very much like an audition–like Shark Tank. But I had worked extremely hard and thoroughly on my business plan. The panel asked me some tough questions. A week later, I found that I had been awarded an office in the new Seoul Global Business Center that was being built in the new International Finance Center on Yeouido.
Wow! That was a great office. I only had it for the first six months of 2012, but it was enough time to get some grounding and to plot out the business even further. The staff at the Global Center even helped me register the business. When that was done, I met with Mr. Shim, who was starting a new business called Korea DMC. They supported ZenKimchi by letting us use their tourism license and giving us a place to concentrate on our business, as long as we also helped them with theirs.
And that’s the situation we are still in. The BBQ tours have been popular. And the Dark Side of Seoul tour, our ghost tour, has been a serious hit. In 2012, Sarah Lee and I held one of Korea’s first pop-up restaurants, which may have started a trend with the word “pop-up” entering Konglish. Now there are even “pop-up” sales. I followed it the next year with the Game of Thrones pop-up.
In 2013, my partner Veronica and I took over LinkedSeoul, famous for its Wine Down Wednesdays. The organizer was leaving Korea for Italy and asked us to take it over for him. So we did. You could say it was our first business acquisition. In the meantime, we continue to help whenever a media organization comes into town. We helped organize “Chef on the Road” for National Geographic Channel in summer of 2013. Early this year, we also helped a team from Conde Nast Traveler for a piece that will come out in April. I’m reworking our Press Page to finally have a record of all the media projects we’ve worked on. But it’s been immense.
I also got to hang out with Eric Ripert late last year, which sort of brings this back full circle. While Chef Ripert and I were walking and eating through Gwangjang Market, he started answering some texts on his phone.
“I’m telling Bourdain what I’m doing.”
“Oh, you are? Well, while you’re at it, tell Bourdain that he’s sort of the reason I’m here.”