Making it in the restaurant industry is tough. The National Restaurant Association estimates that only 20% of restaurants end up making it, and the vast majority of restaurants — about 80% — fail within 5 years of opening. We also know that being a female in the restaurant industry is even tougher. It’s estimated that only 19% of chefs are female. So, what does it take to really make it as a female restaurant chef and owner?
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Esther Choi, chef and owner of Mŏkbar, with locations in Chelsea Market, Midtown Manhattan, and soon both New Jersey and Las Vegas, won her first restaurant space by pitching the concept in an elevator (yes, the literal definition of an elevator pitch!) “I said, I have this phenomenal idea. Hear me out. And I gave my one-minute pitch,” Choi says “Then from there, it took months of grueling competition, many tastings, and writing a business plan. I did end up winning the bid. So, I took a small loan from my parents because I had negative a hundred dollars in my account, and I ended up paying them back within a few weeks.”
Before opening her first location, Choi started out as a chef cooking at well-known New York City institutions like La Esquina and Ilili. “In this profession, you have to have a mindset of being a little bit humble,” Choi says. As a Korean American, she always knew she wanted to get back to her roots, but she’s glad she learned how to cook other cuisines. “Comparative to my fellow (very stubborn), male line cooks and chefs, I was open to learning and I really wanted to absorb everything that I could. Part of it was saying ‘I don’t know, so please teach me.’ People were very open to teaching me the way.”
With four Mŏkbar locations and more on the horizon, Esther Choi has usher in a Korean food revolution, and she’s proud that the cuisine is finally getting the limelight it deserves. “Korean food in particular needed a lot of representation, because no one was really cooking Korean food in a way where it was modern and I feel like it deserved a lot more limelight. The success of Mŏkbar showed that Korean food can be at this next level. So I’m extremely proud of that.”
Listen to the How She Does It Podcast to hear about Esther Choi’s new show, Heat Eaters, and how she balances her life as a chef, restauranteur, and Food Network personality. She also shares her love of spicy food and how to cleanse your palette if you’ve eaten something a little more spicy than you can handle.
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