Former Momofuku CCDC chef Tae Strain on how to build a lasting culinary career without burning out or losing your own vision
In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Tae Strain.
Tae Strain never dreamt of becoming a chef. Even though he loved cooking as a kid and worked part-time kitchen jobs throughout high school and college, he didn’t see food as a practical career path. But as a directionless 20-something who wanted to avoid going to graduate school after getting a sociology degree, he took a restaurant gig — and never looked back. “Food has always shaped my life,” Strain shares. “I always cooked for my family when I was younger, and I distinctly remember connecting to the feeling of feeding people.”
This feeling is part of the reason Strain has stuck with food, despite some early-career existential crises and urges to pursue psychology or social work instead. His mentors, Stuart Brioza, who he worked for as chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s the Progress, and David Chang, for whom he worked as executive chef at Momofuku CCDC in Washington, D.C., are also to thank for his dedication to the craft.
Brioza inspired Strain by teaching him about produce and showing him an example of a positive, collaborative restaurant culture, while Chang empowered him to connect with his Korean American adoptee identity. Strain is now channeling all these learnings into his Baltimore-based pop-up, Ggoma Supper Club, which explores his experience of feeling caught between two cultures. He hopes to turn the project into a brick-and-mortar operation, and was on the path to opening his first restaurant when the pandemic stopped him in his tracks.
“The industry monopolizes much of your personal life and emotional energy, so when you look back it feels as though you have lost so many chunks of your life,” says the chef about how fast the food industry changes. “The best move for chefs is to focus our energies forward and frame mistakes as motivation to be better.”
Here, Strain reflects on his days as a young chef and how he’s evolved since — and how he continues to do so.
Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
Tae Strain: Currently I operate a very tiny pop-up called Ggoma Supper Club. Once a month, I host a six-course tasting dinner with beverage pairings from local artisans at different locations. We only do one seating of 22 guests on the night of the dinner. This will likely evolve into multiple dates throughout the month, based on current demand. On off weeks, I do private work and try to do as many collaborations with other chefs as possible, both in the Washington, D.C., area and beyond. After I left Momofuku, I wanted to go into something much smaller. Momofuku CCDC was a 160-seat restaurant, serving lunch and dinner seven days a week. Of course, when the pandemic hit, my track had to change. Regardless, I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to pursue something very small and personal.
The most important part of starting the supper club was to continue exploring my food and my identity. Being adopted has given me tremendous insecurity about what my place is within the Korean community, or if I ever even had one. Choosing a Korean name for my pop-up (ggoma means “little one”) had nothing to do with the cuisine — it was about proudly claiming a piece of my identity. Cooking in Western restaurants throughout my career, and growing up in a white suburb and household, I have massive imposter syndrome about whether or not my narrative is valid. I want to feel confident in cooking the food that inspires me, regardless of the region it is from.
How did the pandemic affect your career?
I was close to taking over a space for my first restaurant right before the shutdown. Of course, when quarantine went into effect, the opportunity quickly dissolved. As we began to understand the enormity of the pandemic, my general approach to food had to shift completely. COVID forced chefs to question a traditional cooking trajectory, and rethink what their careers could and should look like. Cooking is such an all-consuming career that we often have tunnel vision on what an end goal should be.
The pandemic gave me time to consider any and all opportunities, especially ones I might not have previously considered. I focused on private chef work, and then ultimately ended up moving out of restaurants to pursue a corporate job (still within food), before transitioning back into private work and pop-ups. Even though it was ultimately not what I wanted, it was still a valuable experience I would not have had if not for the pandemic.
It has been an interesting juxtaposition to go from running a well-known, very large restaurant to private cheffing to working in the corporate culinary world to cooking a very curated tasting menu for a captive audience. It feels right for now, and I love the simplicity of it. I want the supper club to have a sense of time and place, but I am so excited to open a restaurant soon.
What would surprise people about your job — maybe something you didn’t realize going into it either?
It’s taken me a few of the tastings to actually feel like I have a handle on what I am trying to accomplish. I was naive in thinking that just because I was serving a very small audience that I could automatically achieve the quality I wanted. I’m also surprised by how much it has made me long for a brick-and-mortar space. There is something very beautiful about the fleeting nature of a monthly supper club, where the drinks, food, and energy only exist for the night, but it has given me a different appreciation for the consistent nature of cooking dishes each day and being able to refine them.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The biggest challenges were often the greatest satisfactions: long hours, hard work, constant hustle, and the adrenaline of service. There is a novelty to these things that draws you into this career, but they are the same things that cause so many people to leave the industry.
Beyond the physical grind, I will always remember the intimidation factor of kitchens. When I first moved to New York City, I was completely overwhelmed by the skill level of other cooks. I will never forget the feeling of being the worst cook in a kitchen. As a young cook, the mental aspect was infinitely harder than the physical grind.
When was the first time you felt successful?
On a small scale, it was the first night I didn’t go down in flames on the hot line at Public NYC as a young cook. It was such a simple thing, a seemingly meaningless night in the career of a cook. But small victories are everything in our industry. The minute you achieve a goal, no matter how large or small, something clicks and your confidence grows in powerful ways.
Bigger picture, it was my time as chef at Momofuku CCDC. When I first did my tasting for Dave Chang, and ultimately got the job, it was tremendous validation for me as a chef. I came up as a young cook with huge reverence for the group, so to be entrusted not just to run but to essentially rebrand the food at the D.C. restaurant was a huge deal for me.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
I look back at my time in San Francisco at the Progress as the most influential of my career. It changed my perspective on food, and shaped the ideal of who I wanted to be as a chef and leader. I was a bit older (by chef standards) at the time, and I could have very easily settled into what I knew and I had done. But the experiences I had with Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski at the restaurant forced me to be a student again in an incredible way. It was sort of that pivotal fork in the road moment where your career can go in two vastly different directions.
On a purely personal level, it was the first time in my life that I began to embrace and understand my place as an Asian American. As a Korean American adoptee, I have always had a very complex and confusing relationship with my identity. At the Progress, I was surrounded everyday by these incredibly talented, confident, and powerful Asian Americans, and it changed my perspective in such a profound way. This was the most special and unexpected gift. It left such a huge impression on me.
The Progress also gave me a deep appreciation of produce, locality, and ingredients, and fundamentally changed my perspective of what “culture” meant in a restaurant. Energy and culture define a work environment as much as organization and systems. Every single person, regardless of position, feeds off the same energy, which in turn shapes the guest experience. I had never been a part of such a dynamic team and seen that level of solidarity.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
Stuart Brioza from the Progress, State Bird, and Anchovy Bar has been my biggest mentor. No one has taught me more about food, ingredients, and culture than him. His energy was unlike anyone else I had been around, and there was a constant pursuit and cultivation of intangible qualities in the food and restaurant at large. It was especially meaningful because it came at a point in my career when I desperately needed to feel inspired. I felt somewhat lost professionally, and a bit disillusioned with food culture at the time, and meeting Stuart and Nicole helped reframe things for me.
It was also unique because I was slightly older when I first got to San Francisco and had already run multiple kitchens. This can be a challenging dynamic because, in the trajectory of our careers, it is very easy to become a chef and assume the foundation you have is best. We tend to think of the chef-and-mentor relationship as existing earlier in our careers, but I believe this is why my relationship with Stuart became so impactful. We both really challenged ourselves to understand the other person, and we found very honest and special ground.
Dave Chang also had a huge influence on my career. Working for Momofuku at this point in my life allowed me to be more open to critique. I don’t think I had the maturity level when I was a younger cook to really appreciate and absorb everything. Dave has an intensity about him that takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to think differently. I will always appreciate that, no matter how much he had going on, or where in the world he was, I knew he would be there for me and have my back.
More than anything, going to work at Momofuku was a very conscious decision to work for a Korean American who I respected greatly. Early in my career, I never would have considered working for a Korean American chef. I was simply never comfortable with being that close to my own heritage. The Progress informed my cooking tremendously, but I would not have chosen a Korean name for my pop-up if not for Dave and Momofuku.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Understand what you want to say as a chef, and strive to cook food that is honest to you. Cooking is a marathon and there are endless distractions and obstacles that will make you question your goals, your ideals, your style. It is so important to remember why you got into food and what that connection is.
Don’t burn the candle at both ends — you have to understand what your physical and emotional limits are, or you will burn out and lose perspective on the industry. This dialogue is very prevalent now, and it is so important to talk about improving the sustainability of the industry.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Approach all situations with a sense of empathy.
Be vigilant in your pursuit of what is best for you. This requires you to understand and define your boundaries early and often!
Accept that as you mature and evolve, so must your goals. Some should be constant, but many must be moving targets. Set constant short-term and long-term goals, and understand the path necessary to achieve them. I think it’s crucial to find a good balance between the lofty and overarching “dream big” goals, and the very tangible small ones. The overwhelming pressure of failure or inability to succeed is much more manageable if you can consistently accomplish simple tasks. Put another way, chasing the big dreams feels much more achievable when you are able to have many small victories along the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.