Chef & Food Creative Suea Is Bringing Catharsis to Dinner

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In 1970s New York, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark co-founded a restaurant with the disarmingly simple name FOOD. A trained architect, Matta-Clark and his collaborators invited guests to curate experimental dinners where attendees “painted” the table with soup and returned home with a souvenir bracelet made from leftover bones.

Today it feels impossible to imagine such a place ever existed in SoHo, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Instead, it is at New York’s private supper clubs that the spirit of creativity, experimentation, and hospitality now lives. One of the hottest supper clubs of the pandemic era was initiated by 28-year-old chef and food-based creative Suea, on the rooftop of her Chinatown apartment, with assistance from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket.

“I was just obsessed with every detail of it,” Suea tells me on a New York-to-London Zoom call (sadly, there was no food involved). “The dinner table, the plates, the cups, the menu design, the graphic design, the floral arrangements, what’s being served first, who’s sitting next to each other. I wanted to be able to curate all that, instead of just being another young person inviting friends over for dinner and being like, ‘Here’s some food.’”

Before cooking, Suea poured all her energy into fashion. In her early 20s, she worked for brand and retailer Opening Ceremony, first on the company’s buying team, then later in marketing and managing photoshoots. Where Matta-Clark’s restaurant brought the raw ingredients of art and architecture into the dining room half a century ago, Suea combines a lifelong passion for eating and cooking with the curatorial logic intrinsic to the era of platforms and content. “I think I’ve always been obsessed with branding,” she says. “I just love a strong brand.”

As it happens, architecture had an indirect influence on her, too. “My family immigrated to the US when I was five, and in a lot of ways, I had a very typical Korean-American upbringing — get good grades, take piano lessons, church on Sundays. I also grew up with a single mom, so the expectations were pretty high. But my dad is an architect and my mom studied art history. Compared to my other Asian friends, they were much more open in other ways. For family vacation I begged them one summer, ‘Let’s go on a cruise!’ And my dad was like, ‘No, we’re going to museums and looking at buildings.’”

It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that food photographers use non-food materials such as wall filler or glue as stand-ins for ice cream and milk (which would quickly putrefy in a hot studio). Suea throws this process into reverse, creating edible icons foraged from the world of design. After developing a minor obsession with modernist furniture, she sculpted blocks of butter in the shape of Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort chair. “My dad’s not really into food, but when he saw the chairs he was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’”

“When people look at my Instagram I’m sure they’re like, ‘Okay, she’s a cute food girl. We get it.’ But I think the real truth is I just like cooking, and eating, a lot. The chair originally came out of thinking you could put that on a dinner table and serve it. It’s not supposed to be this untouchable thing.”

The food Suea cooks is both spectacular and nourishing — a difficult balance to strike. Her dinner service caters to both friends and professional clients, offering floral, mossy, glistening landscapes made up from multi-colored orbs; fusion finger food; and condiments shaped using bespoke silicone molds. Her Instagram is a counter-current to minimal and over-produced food photography, a culinary throwback to the sweaty, personal, early days of the platform itself.

“On the one hand I know social media can be toxic,” she says, “but it’s also just a fantasy landscape. At the end of the day, it’s human instinct to take a picture of your food if it’s interesting or cute. Everyone does it. Even grandpas and grandmas. Especially grandpas and grandmas!”

Cooking is chemistry. It’s hard work. The degree to which society over-emphasizes the caring aspects of cookery can sometimes disguise the labor necessary to run the at-home laboratory we call a kitchen — not to mention make us feel guilty when we don’t enjoy it. But that doesn’t mean food needs to be over-serious. Many of the best results in both cookery and science emerge from hanging out and having fun — and in South Korea, despite a wealth of new high-end restaurants, the heart of the food culture remains humble.

“I think Korean café culture has had an impact on how I approach hospitality and my dinner table,” Suea says. “It’s really unique. Since most Koreans live with their parents until they’re older or married, Korean cities are filled to the brim with so many fun activities and places outside the home. Cafés are really like the heart of Seoul, in my opinion. People spend hours chatting at a café after a meal. It’s a relaxed atmosphere. I feel like New York literally can’t afford that vibe.” She laughs. “New Yorkers can’t afford to relax!”

In an age of food anxiety — from paranoia over pesticides to the subsidies that determine what we eat — any flicker of novelty is slurped up in a cathartic rush. People often use the word “devour” to describe a love of books, movies, and all the other stuff served up by the “feed.” After catering to hypebeasts for years at her fashion job, Suea is poised to satisfy a hunger felt more widely.

While you might not be able to savor a Suea creation yourself (not yet, anyway), what follows are two dinner service favorites to recreate at home. And if you know already it’s not going to happen, there’s no shame here. You can always just eat the photos.

Recipe 1. Korean Mille-Feuille Nabe

Suea: This dish’s name comes from the French world “mille-feuille,” meaning “a thousand layers” (usually referring to a puff pastry’s flakiness), and the Japanese word “nabe” for napa cabbage. It’s a Japanese hotpot made with layers of pork belly and napa cabbage, but I’ve been making mine with a Korean twist, with some flavors and toppings from my favorite Korean stews. I made this for, and enjoy it with, friends very often. It’s fun to share and do tableside (with a portable gas grill) and create all kinds of toppings, cut out into cute shapes for extra fun.

The layers

  1. 1 medium-large napa cabbage (Get purple napa if you can. Check your local farmers’ market.)
  2. 1 lb thinly sliced pork (pork butt, shoulder, loin, belly)
  3. 1 large bunch of perilla leaves (If you can’t get perilla, use any other soft-ish green like Swiss chard.)
  4. 1 bunch Korean chives or bok choy (optional)
  5. 1 pack of mushrooms, Japanese or wild (I prefer shimeji, but enoki could work, too.)
  6. 1 pack of Spam (optional)
  7. 1 pack of dried or fresh ramen noodles (optional)

Broth

  1. 5 cups beef or pork broth (Homemade is best. Store-bought is fine: packaged Japanese ramen broth is better, packaged Korean “gomtang” broth is great.)
  2. 3 tbsp doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste)
  3. 1 tbsp gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
  4. 2 tbsp gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes)
  5. 1 tbsp grated garlic
  6. 2 tbsp ground roasted perilla seeds (optional)
  7. 2 tbsp ground roasted sesame seeds (optional)

Dipping sauce

  1. 4 tbsp roasted ground sesame (Roasted is better if you can find it. It has a darker color than regular tahini and is available at Asian grocery stores.)
  2. 4 tbsp chili oil (oil and chili crisp pieces combined)
  3. 1 tsp grated garlic
  4. 1 tbsp gochugaru (If you like it spicy.)
  5. A splash of rice vinegar (optional)
  6. Crushed sesame and/or perilla seeds (optional)

Steps:

1. Rinse all the vegetables well and cut the napa root. Separate into individual leaves.

2. Assemble the layers: Lay down the largest napa leaf, then the largest perilla leaf on top, then a slice of the pork belly. Make sure you cover the entire surface. It’s usually 1 napa leaf, 2 perilla leaves, and 2 slices of pork. Go in size order if you can, and repeat until you have a tall stack that isn’t falling over. Set aside and make more until you run out of ingredients.

3. Take the stack and slice them into 2- to 3-inch pieces. When you place these sideways, you’ll see the beautiful layers.

4. Now for the broth: Pour the broth into a pan and, using a small strainer, break apart the doenjang in the broth so you don’t get the big bean chunks (this step is optional). Let simmer and add garlic and a bit of salt and pepper to taste — but not too much salt if you’re using Spam.

5. Assemble in a donabe or the prettiest pot you have. Place the washed and cut chives or bok choy (if using) on the bottom to create an even base for the layered moment, then gently place the layered vegetables sideways in a circle formation. Pack it in tightly, but if you have leftovers, just keep them in the fridge, because you can keep adding them in as people eat.

6. Add the separated mushrooms so they’re poking out. Add the cut Spam, gochugaru, gochujang, and ground seeds in little piles on top.

7. Bring your pot to the portable grill (if using) and pour the broth mixture in slowly. Let it simmer over low-medium heat. Once it starts to boil, continue to simmer for 10 minutes to make sure all the pork is fully cooked.

8. Take small portions at a time for each person, dip in the sauce, and enjoy. As the layers get eaten, add more broth if needed. Add in more noodles, chili oil, and the extra layered vegetables if you have any. Keep replenishing until everyone is full.

Recipe 2. Salt-Baked Potatoes with Chili Oil Chimichurri

Suea: Salt-baking is an ancient method of cooking that looks incredibly cool but is deceivingly simple. You just need a lot of salt. I recommend buying a box (or two) of Diamond kosher salt or any other not-too-fine salt that is also not too fancy. I’ve dyed my salts for aesthetics with charcoal powder, ube powder, and chlorophyll. If you want to enhance the flavor, you should use loads of herbs and aromatics, because it still won’t have an overpowering effect on whatever’s inside. Fish is amazing with this method and chicken is captivating, but my favorite is baby potatoes, preferably from the farmers’ market.

Salt-Baked Potatoes

  1. 1 lb baby potatoes*
  2. 1 lb or half a box of Diamond kosher salt*
  3. Aromatics and/or natural color*
  4. A few splashes of water*
  5. A brush* (optional)

Chili Oil Chimichurri

  1. ½ cup chili oil (Homemade is best and super easy, but if not, get it at an Asian grocery store.)*
  2. 1 tbsp minced garlic
  3. 1 tsp sugar
  4. ¼ cup rice vinegar
  5. 5 scallions, finely chopped
  6. ½ bunch of cilantro with stems, finely chopped
  7. Salt and black pepper to taste
  8. Chili flakes (Optional, but I use gochugaru.)

Steps:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).

2. Clean your potatoes very well, but leave the skin on.

3. Make your salt mix by combining the salt with whatever custom additions you’re using and add a few heavy splashes of water until you get a wet-sand consistency that feels buildable. Don’t overthink this — if it’s too wet, add more salt.

4. Get an oven-safe pan (cast iron!) and lay down the foundation of your salt mixture. Gently press your potatoes into the salt, but make sure the potatoes don’t touch the pan directly. Mound the rest of your salt mixture on top. You can repeat this so that there are layers of potatoes inside a salt “mountain.” I wouldn’t do more than 3 to 4 layers, unless you feel supremely confident that it won’t tip over. A fun suggestion: Create different batches of salt so that the layers are different colors or flavors. You don’t have to do vertical layers, either. It can be tie-dye, half and half, a pattern — have fun with it!

5. Depending on the size of your potatoes, baking them for 20 minutes is usually perfect. If they’re bigger, lean toward 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

6. To serve, bring the pan to the table and crack open the salt (which should be dried out at this point) with a knife, in front of or with your guests. Using your hands, you can start to dig away and pry open the salt layers to reveal the potatoes — just be mindful of the heat. This is super fun and feels like an archaeological excavation. Grab a wooden pastry brush and gently brush off the excess salt, and serve with the sauce. I sometimes like to press a fork into the soft potatoes to crush them a bit before serving with the sauce.

7. Enjoy! The salt can be discarded, or saved and used again if it’s 100 percent dry.

* Notes

  1. Potatoes: Fingerlings are also fine, but adjust the cooking time based on potato size.
  2. Salt: Other salt is fine. Don’t use anything too fancy or fine.
  3. Aromatics and Natural Color: You could drop a few pieces of chopped beets in water for 10 minutes and use that water. You can add activated charcoal powder, or add a lot of aromatics and herbs such as lemon zest, chopped herbs, or dried chili powder — but use nothing too sacred, because you really won’t taste much of it.
  4. The Brush: A wooden pastry brush is best, not one of the rubber or silicone ones.
  5. Chili Oil: You can use chili crisp, too, but add in a neutral oil if necessary.