We live in a world saturated by the pursuit of brand and audience. Social media has turned us all into intimate personal entrepreneurs marketing the product of our curated selves. We present to the world evidence that we lead enviable lives, and that we command a following, more or less loyal, that is supposed to translate into some kind of clout, which is assumed at some future time to be exchangeable, like currency, for something of value.
Eddie Wu, chef and owner of Cook St. Paul, is terrible at this kind of marketing.
“Don’t even call me a chef,” says Chef Wu, furiously doing whatever the opposite is of branding, as he chops a head of romaine on a shaded picnic table behind the Urban Roots building in East Side St. Paul. “I mean that’s like an insult to real chefs. That may be an insult to most line cooks.”
There is another kind of personal branding, though, where you don’t chase audiences with prettified versions of a self you hope they are willing to consume, but instead perform a kind of deep, idiosyncratic public dive into who you inescapably are, and then welcome anyone who would care to tag along on that particular ride.
You could, in other words, just be Eddie Wu all the time. And assume that somehow people will, for example, find their way to a diner on Payne Avenue, where a ninety-nine-point-something-percent white guy named Wu, né Hanson—ex-literature major and former Marine—cooks Korean food and American diner classics, wearing, not a chef’s coat, but a T-shirt that says something different each day, including one that says “I Heart Eve Wu.”
“Oh, yeah, I took her name when we got married,” says Eddie, of Eve. “I mean, I probably knew seven Hansons my age growing up in South St. Paul. Wu was obviously such a cooler name.”
On this particular day, in addition to being volubly in love with Eve Wu, being Eddie Wu means paying a visit to the gardens at Urban Roots, where a row of mature peppers destined to be fermented into a Korean chili sauce called gochujang, await his inspection.
Wu and his restaurant are among the most loyal buyers of Urban Roots’ produce, all of which is grown on urban lots on St. Paul’s East Side by kids between the ages of 14 and 18, who, remarkably, all get paid minimum wage to garden, cook, market to restaurants and co-ops, and supply produce to a 30-member CSA.
We all step through the garden gate, amid a startling cloud of butterflies, and taste test the peppers—a variegated heritage variety called fish peppers, once nearly lost, with deep and fascinating roots in African-American fish and seafood sauces along the Atlantic seaboard. The raw peppers push a few of us into stoic imitations of people who can handle it, before we start walking in aimless little circles, snuffling a bit, taking deep breaths, and saying, “Hooo!”
“Gotta exorcise the demons,” says Eddie, removing his round, English-major glasses, raising an arm, and drying the corner of his eye on his T-shirt sleeve.
He exorcised a lot of demons in the course of learning his craft, working at Sole Cafe on Snelling Avenue as a busboy, dishwasher, server, and, incrementally, cook, (all at the same time) under the unendingly critical eye of Kimberly Firnstahl, a kind of Margaret Thatcher of Twin Cities Korean food, whom he considers a kind of mentor, spiritual mother, conscience, and hilarious pricker of the ego bubbles of white people who think they know what hot food is. He is one of the only white people in his experience who is even allowed to order one of her dishes at full heat.
As we slowly recover from our encounter with fish peppers, we move out of the lush and impeccably groomed garden—still bursting in late September with eggplants, basil, peppers, parsley, and cilantro—into an obviously urban rear lot, very much within earshot of the traffic on East Seventh Street, and it is here that Eddie sets up his outdoor kitchen, and starts chopping romaine, surrounded by a crew of half a dozen 14-to-18-year-olds, who will be both servers and served, and who appear to know pretty much exactly what to do.
What Eddie is making today is bibimbap, or at least his version of it, which actually combines two traditional forms—hot bibimbap and cold bibimbap.
When he first proposed this hybrid, Kimberly Firnstahl looked at him a little pityingly, and shook her head: “Eddie-ya, this will never work.”
It’s currently the second most popular dish at his restaurant after eggs Benedict with pulled short ribs, which the Payne Avenue regulars at the former Serlin’s Cafe would most certainly have vetoed as well, with, perhaps a, “Well… that sounds interesting.”
The point is that Eddie Wu seems to have found a way never to be anything but Eddie Wu, take him or leave him. And that has meant serving Korean food at an American diner not because he has done a Korean food trend analysis and applied it to the East Side, but because he once fell in love with Eve Wu. It has also meant naming his daughter Khan, after Genghis, because he expects either that she will unite great portions of the world, or that 11 percent of humankind will die under her rule. And this afternoon, it has meant, as far as I can tell, that he checked out some peppers and cooked a meal for Urban Roots because he wanted to be here, and because he likes what they do. No part of the day has appeared to involve him lingering until his self-regard had been sufficiently stroked.
I can’t for the life of me detect a difference between how Eddie talks to me, and how he talks to the adolescent crew, whom he is supposedly doing a charitable favor. He orders them around. He gives them shit. He listens. He corrects. And he ignores them at length to talk about things he cares about.
One of those things is Korean food.
“Kimchi isn’t really a dish in Korea, it’s a method,” he says beginning to assemble a bowl of bibimbap by scattering some of his romaine lettuce on the bottom of a bowl. “If it’s fermented and spicy, it’s kimchi. Usually that means napa cabbage, but it doesn’t have to.”
Bibimbap translates literally as “mixed rice.” It is made with a base of rice, some accompanying vegetables (often including kimchi), a protein—tofu or sliced meat—a sunnyside up egg, and gochujang, a fermented pepper paste Eddie will use as the base for a hot sauce made from those peppers in the garden.
The dish is usually served like a noodle bowl without the broth—rice in the center and more or less artfully arranged dollops of vegetables and proteins around the edges. Eddie replaces the traditional raw or cooked vegetables with small mounds of prepared appetizers, called banchans (pronounced PAHN-chahns), that in Korea would be served on their own at the start of the meal to wake the palate.
“They’ve opened some Costco stores in Korea,” Eddie says. “They sell a lot of hot dogs, but they also give away about 100 grams of white onion ‘garnish’ per customer, compared to about six grams per customer in the U.S. They finally figured out, their Korean customers are serving themselves a plateful of white onion banchan to go with their hot dogs.”
He gathers his crew and uses a tongs to place a neat dollop of kimchi near the outer rim of the bowl, then works his way around, placing some daikon slaw, some cucumber pickles, a savory slaw, some sweet and sour cabbage, a baton of fried tofu, some braised beef short rib, a tennis ball–sized sphere of rice, a fried egg on top of that, and then he laces some hot sauce back and forth over the whole arrangement. It’s explosively colorful, and gives waves of vinegary, fermented, red pepper vapors in the unusually humid September air.
“When I first started, I asked a local sushi chef what he thought of my rice,” says Eddie. “He goes, “Umm… so… I make the food for my dog, and that’s the rice I use.’” Eddie laughs. “It was the politest burn I’ve ever heard. So a couple years later, a rice called Het, from Korea, becomes the first Korean rice ever to be named the best rice in the world. I went back to him and said, what do you think of my rice now? And he said, ‘That’s pretty good rice, Eddie.’”
The kids make an assembly line, and the one working next to Eddie gently curses the yellow jackets that have begun to explore the enticements in his bowl.
“Don’t talk so indecorously to the bees,” says Eddie, the former English lit student.
“Don’t use those big words with the kids,” says his sous chef.
They move on to discuss acronyms, and how Wu-Tang Clan was actually a “backronym” since they came up with the name first, and then retroactively populated the letters W-U-T with the accompanying words, “Wild Unnatural Talent.”
“You ever hear of N.W.A?” asks fifteen-year-old Marquise, sliding an egg onto a mound of rice.
“Yes I have,” says Eddie.
“You know what that stands for?”
“Yes I do,” says Eddie, and then calls over to the crew at the wash station that dinner is served.
“What’s it stand for?” asks Marquise, this close to springing his trap.
“It stands for Northwest Airlines,” says Eddie.
And we gather around the picnic tables, and sit down to some talk, and some bibimbap.