Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Before opening Anju, you always had a vision of creating a more upscale Korean experience. Can you describe your inspiration, and what lead you to head in a more modern direction?
The inspiration came from looking at Japanese restaurants and wondering why there were no Korean restaurants that had the same look, feel or ambiance. Most Korean restaurants that I knew were mom and pops operations that more often than not looked like a cafeteria. I wanted to make Korean food sexy, mainstream and served in a beautiful environment. Somewhere you'd take a date you wanted to impress.
How do you feel Anju stands out among similar Korean concepts?
Anju stands out because my perspective on Korean food comes from a Korean born and raised in Canada. I grew up eating kimchi stew and Korean barbecue alongside pizza and poutine. The way I think about Korean food comes from a unique place, which helps us think about Korean food differently and with a fresh perspective.
Describe the techniques, modern and otherwise, that go into making your dishes. What is your flavor process?
Typically, we use very simple cooking techniques as I'm not a trained chef; however, we do use our sous vide quite a bit. My flavor process is to either start with a Korean dish and think about how to modernize it or start with a non-Korean dish and think about how to add Korean flavors. Regardless of where I start, I always look for balance. Acid balances out richness, sweet balances out bitterness, fatty balances out spice and so on.
What role do spices and seasonings play in developing the Korean aspects, and the modern aspects, of your dishes?
Spices are very important in the Korean and modern aspects of my food. Korean food itself is all about big, bold flavors; spice, fat, smoke, fermentation, the main thing being spice. If you don't like spicy food, you may have a tough time in Korea.
What were some of your favorite Korean dishes or ingredients to play with?
I love Korean BBQ. Playing around with different cuts of proteins and how they can be used in Korean style BBQ is always fun!
Describe the challenges you’ve faced, if any, in bringing modern Korean cuisine to Calgary. How does a Canadian food culture influence your processes?
One of the biggest challenges I've faced is the acceptance of Anju in the Korean community here in Calgary. Koreans are very passionate about their food and culture. So, when they come across something that isn't quite how they remember it, they instantly dismiss it. It's slowly changing; I do see more and more Korean people coming to Anju these days.
The Canadian food culture is just as important as my Korean heritage. It's how I'm able to make Korean food relatable and understandable to the North American perspective.
What ingredients or flavors can we see making their way to the center-of-the-plate at Anju in the future?
My next vision of my Korean food is to make it a little more luxurious. I want to introduce ingredients like foie gras and fresh truffle. I also want to start to serve more seafood.
Korea is a tiny peninsula where fresh seafood is readily available everywhere. It's a side of Korea that I don't think a lot of people have seen.