Genie Kwon is a busy lady. She juggles pastry chef duties at both BOKA and GT Fish & Oyster. Chef Kwon is also one of 20 notable chefs and mixologists participating in Chefs’ Playground to benefit the Academy of Global Citizenship. At the event, the chefs are presenting dishes inspired by their childhood and school-time favorites. I got the chance to talk to Chef Kwon about her favorite foods from childhood, what we can expect her to serve at Chefs’ Playground, and why you always need to order dessert at restaurants.
How did you get involved with Chefs’ Playground?
A good friend of mine, Andrew Kaplan, and Lee Wolen (the Executive Chef at BOKA) are very closely involved with the event. Lee and I know many of the other chefs participating in Chefs’ Playground from working with them, so when they asked Lee, it made sense for me to join him as well. We signed on to support the school and get involved with the community. With BOKA having been open for a few months now, we are able to get involved with these projects.
What was your favorite food as a child?
When I was a kid I was a junk food junkie eating the prepackaged foods from the grocery store. I think it was Hostess that made it – it was cake encrusted with marshmallow – Sno Balls? Now if I ate one I think I would taste how artificial they are. As I have gotten older, I am making better choices and eating healthier and more organic.
I wanted to make something like that for Chefs’ Playground. I loved marshmallows and things with different textures. I try to incorporate that in my food, but obviously all of the elements are made in house without coloring or preservatives, making it healthier and more fun.
What was your favorite dessert when you were going up? Other than Sno Balls of course.
When I was growing up it was chocolate or those prepackaged Hostess cakes. I ate so much candy growing up, and if I did that today, I would get sick to my stomach. I loved those glazed doughnuts from the grocery store – all those things that kids weren’t allowed to have growing up. My mom had a sweet tooth too, so she would always cave in.
I still love dessert, but I try to balance things more in terms of making sure that they are not too sweet. I guess you can say my favorite thing to eat is marshmallows. There is so much you can do with them. I went to my friend’s cabin in Indiana and we were making s’mores – it is something that never gets old.
How has your palate changed as you have gotten older?
I don’t eat things that are super sweet. But still, as a pastry chef, I don’t incorporate much savory into dessert – a little with herbs and spices. More towards a balance of sweet, but not too sweet and adding lots of textural elements too, and adding in familiar flavors. Nostalgic but with a twist. Those are the desserts that I have been the most successful with and the ones that are the most popular. Like in (the film) Ratatouille, when the critic gets that smile when the meal brings back a childhood memory. Something that is different and unique, and that is the guideline for Chefs’ Playground.
What will you be serving at Chefs’ Playground on Thursday?
I wanted to do something healthy and not too sweet. I am doing a coconut macaroon that is encrusted with pineapple marshmallow and coconut. Definitely the same concept as the old school Sno Balls.
I always have trouble saving room for dessert when I am dining at restaurants. Do you have any advice for people who have trouble saving room for dessert?
I ALWAYS have room for dessert and that is a problem I have never had. I used to work for a woman in Boston; she had a bakery and her motto is to eat dessert first. I totally understand it, but it isn’t realistic in a dinner setting. The best thing about dessert is that you can always share it. You can just have one bite. The thing I find when creating dessert is to try to get your point across and as many flavors in one bite. Dessert is the lasting impression of a meal; it rounds out the entire dining experience. A lot of people turn down dessert at the end of the meal. At BOKA, we want to provide the full experience, so we serve mignardise (a small bite of dessert) at the end of the meal, so even if people don’t get dessert they do get a lasting impression of something sweet. Right now the mignardise is either a chocolate or a marshmallow that is a riff on a fancy rice krispie treat.
About 60% of people end up ordering dessert at BOKA. I am not sure what the normal ratio is, but for me, that is a lot of people. I love it when a 6 top comes in and 6 people get dessert – that is always that ideal situation. Not everyone has room for dessert, and that is when the mignardise are a nice touch to have.
You worked with Lee Wolen at Eleven Madison Park and The Peninsula. How much collaboration takes place between you and your menus?
I always run ideas by him. He works with me and the sous chefs – we all collaborate on menu ideas. I will make the components and we will try them all together; if something needs to be tweaked, we tweak it.
It is nice to have worked with him before. Most people (at BOKA) have worked together before and understand the flavor profiles that Lee wants to execute. It makes things easier to know the expectation that we have in terms of what we want to provide the guests that come in to eat.
Any tips or secrets to maintaining a long term working relationship/collaboration?
Open communication. It is funny because we just shot a little short film about staff meals. We call it family meal just because it is the only opportunity to have before the show starts, before the action starts, to enjoy each other’s company, and have a meal together. We are a family; we spend more time together than our actual families. It is a whole other relationship in itself. Having that background and understanding each other definitely helps. Having that personal relationship first, there is a respect that comes from that. We are friends. Even when we disagree, it isn’t ill-willed in any way – there are no bad intentions. We are working together because, fundamentally, we want to provide people with the best experience that we can give them. It isn’t super, super fine dining, but it is definitely elevated. The philosophy is treating people like they are in your home. Things evolve, and we try to get better every day. The feedback we have gotten so far (for BOKA) has been really great, and it has been easy and natural to maintain the working relationship.
I read that you serve desserts with coffee and alcohol, even though you gave up coffee and are allergic to alcohol. Does that mean you need someone else to taste test?
I do taste things. I might have one celebratory drink throughout the course of an entire dinner. I did start drinking coffee again, but my body isn’t used to caffeine and it isn’t a good thing for me to have. I won’t be having it again, but I do incorporate that into my desserts and I do taste them. It is always something I like to put on the menu because I like to indulge once in a while. I do taste every component – it is the only way to figure out if the dessert works. Not drinking coffee and alcohol hasn’t scared me away from trying everything.
GT Fish & Oyster is located at 531 North Wells Street, in River North
BOKA is located at 1729 North Halsted Street, in Lincoln Park
Photos via: Eric Kleinberg – the first dessert is the Chicago Mix (caramel semifreddo, popcorn, corn bread, cheddar tuile) from GT Fish & Oyster, the second and third dessert photos are from BOKA’s menu.