Chef Hannah Wong of Haema BK: How Travel Sparked an Unexpected Career
Trying to pick a favorite sauce from our collection is like trying to pick a favorite child: impossible. But we do deeply love one of the newest additions — Haema XO Sauce created by Chef Hannah Wong.
Our president Joanne Kwong recently had the chance to try Hannah's eats at her 1:1 Foods pop-up series (tiger salad, Szechuan chili oil biang biang noodles, and slow-roasted duck, anyone?), which makes us extra excited for the opening of her Brooklyn restaurant. In the meantime, we had the chance to chat with the New Jersey native about her culinary career, travel as inspiration, and the importance of restaurants supporting communities.
Tell me about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Jersey. I'm adopted — I'm ethnically Korean and my adopted family is Chinese. I was adopted as a baby so culturally I feel very Chinese. I speak Cantonese with my family. I have quite a large extended family. A lot of them live in New York, and I grew up visiting them and having dim sum every week. One of my uncles used to work at Golden Unicorn. I have really great food memories from childhood.
When my dad first came to the U.S., his first job was at Wo Hop. Both my parents worked there while they were in college. My dad opened a Chinese restaurant when they moved to New Jersey but decided to leave the business because it was too time-consuming. He worked as a mail delivery carrier until he retired. My mom is also retired and worked for pharmaceuticals for many years.
Was it your dad who got you interested in cooking?
My parents didn't want us to be in the kitchen at all. They wanted us studying or playing an instrument instead. But delicious food was always in my life. My dad used to cook great meals every day. I didn't appreciate them until I was an adult. I would hear about what people would eat as kids and think, Oh my God, I was so lucky.
I didn't think about cooking professionally until much later in life. In college I studied English and biology; clearly cooking wasn't on my radar. I was living in Hong Kong for a year after college, doing a Fulbright teaching fellowship with a group of Americans. I got to do a lot of traveling during that time. I went to mainland China and southeast Asia. That was when I really started falling in love with food culture. Even if you don't speak the language, you get it. It's on the street, so public and so accessible. I’m especially drawn to southeast Asian flavors. I love that combination of acid, heat, sweetness, and herbs. It's how I like to cook.
After I came back from Hong Kong, I worked at Harvard University Press in Cambridge, MA for two years. It was during that time I realized that I wasn't really satisfied with the work. As intellectually stimulating as it was, I wanted to be working with my hands. I couldn't sit still all day.
So what did you decide to do?
I took a part-time job at a restaurant in Somerville. I worked front of house, getting experience with bussing and hosting. I just fell in love with it, the pace and energy.
I applied for culinary school on a whim — I just made the decision one night — and went to Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI, which has a one year associate program if you have your bachelor's degree. Then I moved to New York for an externship at Daniel Boulud's bistro in midtown. I worked there for a year and a half, then at smaller restaurants.
Eventually I ended up at Gwynnett St., which closed in a dramatic way. [Laughs] But it was a kind of a blessing in disguise. It led me to working in Haven’s Kitchen, doing private events. I love working in restaurants, but I think it's important for chefs to have a diversity of skill sets. Line cooking is so specific. Private events and catering are organized in a different way. You're visualizing a kitchen from scratch and executing different menus all the time. At a restaurant, cooking can become a little rote, doing the same thing every day.
That's when I started to think, Maybe I want to open my own restaurant. But before that I felt like I needed one more restaurant on my resume, and so I went to Gramercy Tavern and worked there for a year. I loved the team environment and focus on a holistic hospitality experience.
I did want to stay longer, but I had reached a point where I wasn't growing anymore. I'm very impatient. When I want things to happen, I want them to happen right away. I get frustrated if they don't.
Is that when you started Van Da?
Yes. I met [Van Da owner Yen Ngo] through a friend from college. She owned her own catering company, and I started working with her. That was in 2016. We did that for two years while at the same time figuring out restaurant stuff, working on a concept. In 2018, we found a space, and opened Van Da in March 2019.
I always say it's her baby. It's the food that she feels passionately about, that she wants to bring to people. Some dishes you couldn't find in New York, especially these smaller dishes that originated in central Vietnam. We weren't expecting attention or the press, we opened this restaurant because Yen wanted to showcase how nuanced, dynamic, and wide-ranging Vietnamese food can be.
But toward the end of the year. I kind of felt that as much as I love the food, it wasn't my main interest. I started thinking of opening my own restaurant with my own street food-inspired concept.
So that's when you started transitioning to Haema?
That's right. At the beginning of Covid, in the middle of March, we had planned for that to be my last day at Van Da, which worked out for me. I had been looking for a space for a while and found one in Bed-Stuy. I was in lease negotiations, but then backed out this past summer. I thought it was for the best. I couldn't imagine going through opening a new restaurant during Covid.
So I wasn't working for a few months. I did joint Van Da and Haema pop-ups every weekend. People definitely showed up. I really started getting a sense then of a restaurant community for people. The solidarity of restaurant work and supporting small businesses. It felt increasingly important to have a space that actually supported the community and that didn't just exist there.
I started working at 1:1 Foods [as the culinary director] last year. The founder and I are on the same page, focusing on what the food business can do to support food insecurity. The company started out of this two-fold mission to support local food businesses and provide food for food insecure families. We had our first pop-up last month, and we'll hopefully be doing them more regularly with guest chefs as well.
I've also been working with Heart of Dinner during Covid. I met the founders last year at a joint fundraiser for Apex for Youth at Van Da. I became very close with them, and for several months last year I was helping to prepare meals for them out of Van Da.
Another organization I've been working with is The Level Up Project, a virtual education initiative. They host public workshops twice a year as well as private workshops and programming with local high schools. They're all about providing accessible education in fields of craft and design, fields that often require professional networks and financial resources as prerequisites to success. For lower income and POC people, the barrier to entry is a lot higher. With Level Up workshops, people can opt in for free or you can pay at the tiered price you feel is appropriate.
Switching gears a bit, this past year I think people were often looking for comfort, including with food. What’s your go-to choice for comfort food?
I was making a lot of fried rice in the beginning of quarantine and a lot of congee. The fried rice actually evolved into something that will be on the Haema menu. It's basically surf and turf, fried rice with duck and octopus.
That sounds so delicious! Speaking of delicious, everyone at Pearl River Mart Foods raves about the Haema XO Sauce. How did it come about?
It was very spontaneous. I thought that restaurants would start doing bottled sauces during the shutdown, but I hadn’t seen small batch local XO sauce. There's also inspiration from my family background. I started making it during quarantine, and I thought it would just be a hobby. But it has become a lot more than that.
What would you choose for your last meal on earth?
It would be very carby. Some combo of noodles and pizza and french fries.
What's a food city you've been dreaming of visiting/returning to?
Definitely northern Thailand. Chang Mai. Thai food is my favorite cuisine. I'd also love to go back to Vietnam. Yen and I took trip to northern Vietnam, starting in Hanoi and working our way down south. The food in Vietnam was such revelation. I had been making all these dishes that I never had before, I relied so much on Yen’s palate in the beginning. We were there and got to try a lot of them. It was actually reassuring because our dishes matched up pretty well.
I also want to spend more time in Yunnan [a province in China that borders Southeast Asia]. The food there is really interesting, with lots of fermented and pickled things. It reminds me somewhat of southeast Asian food in that there is always a balance of sweet, spicy, earthy, and sour notes.
What’s something you’re obsessed with right now? That you tell people you have to eat, read, watch, listen to this?
Besides Bling Empire? [Laughs] I'm also excited about going back to Ugly Baby. It reopened recently for dining. It's my favorite restaurant in New York.
I love the name.
It's a Thai thing, calling a newborn baby ugly. It's supposed to keep evil spirits away and bring good luck.
[Photo credit: Dan Ahn]