TASTEMAKERS: CHRIS OH
A new breed of cool has surfaced and it’s not in an industry you would have expected. The leaders of the new cool bring people together in dialogue, set trends in social media, and create content for our counterparts in the media world. Who has this much clout that you didn’t know about? It isn’t a brand owner or an artist, or anyone in the fashion or entertainment markets. It’s actually a chef.
Long gone are the days of behind the scenes pot-stirring cooks. The recent paradigm shift has transformed them into culinary rock stars. They are young, connected visionaries who see their career both in and out of the restaurant. Take Chris Oh – one of the three behind Seoul Sausage Co, the managing partner of Escala, the co-owner of Good Times BBQ, the winner of three Food Network competition shows, a partner in Johnnie Walker’s “Keep Walking” campaign, and a budding author and clothing designer. His goal is to bridge previously unrelated markets together through new culinary traditions.
Both figuratively and literally, Chris Oh is a Tastemaker.
All it took for Chris to get to this point was a straight up genuine love for food. Sure that’s cliché for any chef, but for Chris, this passion could not be ignored. As a kid, he would watch his mom navigate through their kitchen. And when he and his baby brother would come home from school, he would make meals with whatever he could find in the fridge. Think of it as “Chopped” with ingredients like Kraft cheese slices, top ramen noodles, and hot dogs. After years of being creative and learning from mom, he wanted a formal education. But with only one sentence into a culinary school presentation, his parents shot him down. So he appeased them – went to college, and opened a real estate company and car wash business. His entrepreneurial spirit earned him beaucoup bucks, but still something was lacking. Then five years ago, he took a leap of faith.
He sold his businesses in San Francisco and left his girlfriend and dog to fill a void 382mi south. He landed work in small kitchens by lying on his resume; he said he was making $10/hour at various restaurants up north before coming to town. The Hudson in West Hollywood and Animal in Los Angeles were among the kitchens that fell for it. He learned new skills, honed his creativity, and developed his palette. Although this is what he wanted, the entrepreneurial spirit he left behind was itching.
One night when he was watching one of the late night TV shows, he saw the success of Kogi – the Korean/Latin food truck sensation – and realized that he could do that better. He thought, “people love Korean food and people love sausages so let me put them together.” He tirelessly did the R&D, learned how to make sausages (via YouTube), and used friends for product testing. After so many hosted barbecues with Korean sausages, he earned a spot at the Los Angeles Street Food Festival held at the Rose Bowl. By this time, he had partnered with friends Ted and Yong Kim, and operated as Seoul Sausage Co. Together – with just a grill – they conquered one of the biggest events in LA, boasting the longest lines and up to three-hour waits for their patrons. They created a demand for Korean sausage that quickly spread across the city and social media. So much so that Chris was receiving inquiries everyday with people asking where they could have Seoul Sausage Co. It wasn’t long after that the entire nation followed suit.
Chris learned of auditions for The Great Food Truck Race airing on The Food Network and threw the idea out to Ted and Yong who agreed. There were strict rules to the audition video: they had to be filmed cooking and introducing their food to the audience. So they bought a little video camera, recorded themselves drunk and partying in K-Town, and submitted. All rules were broken, but they still got the call to pack their bags because within a couple of days, Seoul Sausage Co would be on the show. They beat out the competition and came home as winners, ultimately validating Seoul Sausage Co as street food kings and positioning Chris into a new strata of working chefs.
The Seoul Sausage Co restaurant officially opened in LA two months after the victory. Chris expanded the menu to include galbi poutine, Korean fried chicken, and fried balls stuffed with things like kimchi fried rice and ginger mayo. But he’s no longer a fixture in the open kitchen there. He’s now splitting time between a number of other ventures like Escala, where he developed a Columbian menu (that some Columbians say is as good home), and Good Times BBQ where he has given new meaning to a Sunday afternoon kick back. In between, he’s cultivating new projects that have yet to be announced. Even with all of that – he even got the approval of his parents – he’s still not where he wants to be. The end goal is pretty simple: live on the beach and sell Coronas and spam musubis all day. Until then, he’ll continue working on being the “Jay-Z of the food world”.
When you sit with Chris, you’ll understand why he’s a perfect fit to this new standard of cool. Most of the time he’s in flip flops and shorts, with cigarettes and drink in hand, likely talking about the debauchery he experienced the night before. Then he switches topics to food. And it’s eloquent dialogue leaving listeners to believe that this guy is really meant to be in the kitchen. Chris now sits at the center of a cultural revolution and he got there by breaking the rules in every way. That is pretty cool.
So where do the cool guy chefs eat? We asked Chris his Top 5 restaurants in Los Angeles: