Deuki Hong: 'There's A Stereotype That Asian American Men Are Weak. ... I Wanted To Push Against That.'

For this Asian American chef, rebelling against negative labels was part of the process to become an effective leader in the kitchen.
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Alex Lau, Getty

Born in South Korea and raised in New Jersey, Deuki Hong is the executive chef and owner of The Sunday Family Hospitality Group in San Francisco. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hong has worked in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, including Centrico, Momofuku and Jean-Georges. His cookbook, “Koreaworld,” co-written with food writer Matt Rodbard, was released in April.

In this edition of Voices in Food, Hong shares in his own words his journey of self-discovery, including rebelling against negative stereotypes of Asian American men, to become a compassionate leader in the kitchen who aims to bring people together over really good food.

I started working in restaurant kitchens when I was 15 years old. The dad of a buddy on my baseball team was Michael Bonadies, who helped create Nobu and many other legendary restaurants. He heard that I was interested in cooking and gave me the opportunity to be in one of his kitchens. My first job was at chef Aarón Sánchez’s restaurant Centrico. I worked there in the evenings until midnight and got up at 7 a.m. the next day for school. But I loved it! The kitchen just felt like a natural place for me to be.

As I continued to come up in the restaurant industry, I thrived on negative reinforcement — the kitchen turned out to be a great mix of mentorship and negative reinforcement. I also was willing to work really hard at something until I got it right. When you want to become a great chef, you have to practice technical elements over and over. You have to work long hours. You have to be able to take really hard criticism. I wasn’t overly confident in my skills, but I was willing to stick it out. There’s a stereotype that Asian American men are weak, and maybe deep down — or not even that deep down — I wanted to push against that. Weak people definitely aren’t cut out for the restaurant industry. I wanted to prove I could make it.

I rebelled against that stereotype in other ways that definitely weren’t good — for anyone. As I rose through the ranks and became an executive chef and owner of restaurants myself, I had to figure out how to make people take me seriously. Again, I didn’t want to appear weak. I also look really young for my age. I overcompensated by yelling and projecting a lot of confidence.

I was “playing chef.” By that I mean that I projected this image of having all the answers and never being wrong. I think it’s what people call “toxic masculinity.” No one knew what I was struggling with internally. I didn’t show any vulnerability.

Then, a turning point came. It was at one of the first restaurants that I owned in San Francisco. One day, five of the chefs just didn’t show up. That sent a huge message to me that something wasn’t right. I had to face my team and own up to the parts of being a leader I wasn’t good at. It forced me to be vulnerable, point out my flaws and delegate to people who were better at those tasks than me. That taught me that being a good leader requires vulnerability.

“I projected this image of having all the answers and never being wrong. I think it’s what people call 'toxic masculinity.' No one knew what I was struggling with internally. I didn’t show any vulnerability.”

- Deuki Hong

That moment was a huge shift for my team. It went from me yelling at everyone to everyone working together. It had a ripple effect, too. Other people came forward and said, “You know, this part of work isn’t my strength, and I’d love to get better at it,” and someone else would show them how to do it. This experience was eye-opening to me and taught me that it’s OK to tell people about the areas you need help in.

I’m still marinating on how the stereotypes that Asian Americans face played into the mistakes I once made when trying to lead. I’ve done a lot of work self-reflecting. Thank you, therapy. Thank you, COVID-19. Part of the overconfidence I used to project didn’t have to do with my cultural background at all; I was just young and still learning.

And I’m still learning about myself. When I was working on my book, “Koreaworld,” I spent two years in Korea. I was born in Korea but I left when I was 1 year old, so I’m really a kid from Jersey. It was a weird feeling, being there. Even though I’ve never lived in Korea, it feels like home. In Korea, I felt very American. But in America, I feel very Korean. I’m in such a unique position being able to have both of those perspectives. Self-discovery is a vulnerable process, but it leads to the quiet strength of understanding who you are. That’s where my confidence comes from now, which is a lot more authentic and useful than the overconfidence I used to fake.

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