Deuki Hong came to Portland to do an event for his book, Koreatown. While on the West Coast, Hong, who had been the chef at New York’s Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, decided to come down to San Francisco to take a break and to check out some restaurants. He had dinner with Andrew Chau, who along with Bin Chen runs the bicoastal chain of bubble tea shops, Boba Guys. Chau asked Hong what was next, and Hong, half-kidding, replied that he just wanted to sell fried chicken out a window. He got an unexpected reply.
“If you’re serious,” Chau said, “you can do that.”
He told Hong Boba Guys had an unused kitchen in the back of its Fillmore Street location that Hong was welcome to use.
“Mind you, we had just met that day, and then a couple months later I was here,” Hong says. “It was a lot of trust on both ends. He didn’t know me, but we just connected and he trusted me to put something in the back, and I trusted him enough to move across the country.”
So Hong, who before working at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, cooked under David Chang at Momofuku Noodle Bar, and worked on the line at the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges, started his pop-up, the well-regarded Sunday Bird.
He doesn’t necessarily plan his next step, Hong says, but he wants to be open to opportunities. So when Chau texted him the Asian Art Museum was looking for a chef for its café, he decided to try out, and he and Chau and Chen will open Sunday at the Museum sometime this month.
At the museum on a recent afternoon, Hong was with Janet Lee, recently of Saison, who will be the café’s general manager. Hong was busily trying to get the place ready to open, getting numerous calls, including one from his general contractor, which he felt compelled to take. Working at the café will give him a chance to grow as a chef, Hong says. He mentions that other museums, like SFMOMA’s In Situ and Untitled at the Whitney, have taken museum food, which has the reputation for being a little staid, and brought it up a notch. Hong, who did a tasting for the museum’s board using food carts, says Sunday at the Museum will be more relaxed — but with the hospitality of a high-end restaurant.
The Asian Art Museum is about to break ground on a $90-million expansion, and director Jay Xu sees the café and what Hong and the Boba Guys are doing with the café as part of their new role at the Civic Center.
“It’s where City Hall and the Tenderloin and the Mid-Market area, which is changing so fast, all come together,” Xu says. “His cooking offers something appealing and essential to our diverse neighbors and to every visitor. It can be fusion, it can be international, it can be traditional — just like the artworks at the museum.”
“That’s my goal as a chef – expanding culture,” Hong says. “The Asian Art Museum tends to be the generation before us, and me and the Boba Guys impact a younger generation.”
Along with a beverage menu (including tea flights) put together by Chau and Chen, Hong says the café will offer a range of Asian food, including garlic noodles, rice noodle rolls and Burmese tea leaf salad. He looks forward to expanding beyond the Korean food he’s known for.
“I know I’m in a privileged spot. If I don’t want to put kim chee fried rice on the menu, I don’t have to, and if I want to put milk buns, I can,” Hong says. “At the end of the day, I just want to make it delicious.”
Sunday at the Museum, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, 415-581-3632 or asianart.org/regular/sunday-at-the-museum-cafe