Chef Patrice Cunningham Credit: Courtesy of Patrice Cunningham

A Korean cooking contest planned for later this month in Tysons Corner was upended over the long weekend. A false and offensive statement on promotional materials for the K-Food Cook-Off claiming there’s “a lack of Korean restaurants in the DMV area” generated criticism on social media. Organizers attributed the language to Gogi Yogi managing partner Daniel Kramer. Even though organizers later retracted it, the message prompted a former chef of the Shaw Korean barbecue restaurant to speak out about her experience working there.

Critics on social media also questioned why there was only one Korean or Korean American on the contest’s judging panel. Half of the judges, including Kramer, have now quit the event.

The 2021 K-Food Cook-Off, scheduled for Sept. 26, challenges culinary students and Korean food enthusiasts to cook a dish incorporating kimchi in 45 minutes. It evolved from the Hansik Chef Contest that was created in 2012 to promote Korean food and ingredients in America. A version of the competition, which is supported by the Korean Embassy, has been held in the D.C. area since 2017. Gimga Group, headed by Mihae Kim Stefani, handles marketing and events, including the contest, for the Korean Food Promotion Institute.

The K-Food Cook-Off published a social media post introducing Kramer as a judge last month. It contained his picture and the following statement: “Daniel lived near Koreatown in Los Angeles and has fond memories of eating out at the restaurants in the area. He saw there was a lack in Korean Restaurants in the DMV area so he created Gogi Yogi.” Similar posts introduced each judge

Korean and Korean American communities have expanded across the D.C. and Baltimore metro areas since the late 1970s. The 1980s saw an increase in Korean restaurants and grocers as a result. One of the region’s first centers of Korean business is still going strong in Annandale. When Korean families sought more space, they moved further out to Centreville. The next wave of Korean eateries followed. Diners can also find Korean restaurant and business hubs in Rockville and Ellicott City, Maryland.

Korean barbecue restaurants were among the first to launch because they were the easiest to introduce to the broader public. As Korean food grew more popular across the region and across the U.S., it became less risky for chefs and restaurateurs to open restaurants introducing diners to other facets of Korean cuisine. In Annandale alone, Lighthouse Tofu got people hooked on ​​soondubu (soft tofu soup), Siroo showed people the beauty of house made dduk (rice cakes), and Shilla Bakery & Cafe offered a foray into Korean pastries. 

“There are so many restaurants, just like hidden gems, stretching all the way from Baltimore way down to Richmond and it goes even further,” says Peter Franklin Chang, a Korean American who co-founded No Kings Collective, an arts collective, and Please Bring Chips, an events and catering business. “But specifically in our DMV region there are so many amazing Korean restaurants.” One of his favorites is Da Rae Won in Beltsville. He chatted up a table of fellow diners there once and they told him they traveled from New Jersey for the hand-pulled noodles. 

So, no, there isn’t a dearth of Korean cuisine locally. Even D.C. proper is catching up: Among the Korean restaurants currently operating in the District are Mandu, Anju, BUL, KoChix, CHIKO, SEOULSPICE, Iron Age, Bom, Manna Korean BBQ and Dosirak, TaKorean, Bangbop, and Gogi Yogi. 

In response to the initial backlash to the statement introducing Kramer as a judge, K-Food deleted the post and replaced it with another one: “Mr. Kramer did not write nor approved that statement and it does not reflect his admiration and respect for Korean cuisine, culture and community. We apologize to everyone who was offended by the choice of words. Mr. Kramer has withdrawn from judging this year’s event.” 

Kramer did not comment publicly about the K-Food Cook-Off over the weekend. He directed City Paper to K-Food’s retraction post when asked if he said that there is a lack of Korean restaurants in the DMV. He also issued this statement:

“When Gogi Yogi opened in 2019, it aspired to add to the vibrant and bountiful Korean cuisine throughout the greater DC-area as the first tabletop Korean barbeque in Washington, D.C. The name is a playful pun and translation to ‘meet here’; and that principle is precisely what our restaurant is based upon. We believe in the diversity, equity, and inclusion of every single team member and guest, and all are welcome at the grill tables.” 

But before K-Food shared its retraction post, former Gogi Yogi chef Patrice Cunningham spoke out online. She commented on a K-Food Instagram post that’s since been deleted. In it, she asked why she wasn’t the one asked to serve as a judge since she was the one who created the menu at Gogi Yogi. Then, Cunningham turned her attention to Kramer.

“Please remove me from your website as your chef and the blurb about my mother,” she wrote. “Since you unceremoniously laid me off at the start of the pandemic and never followed up with me about returning when you reopened you do not deserve to have me on any of your platforms. Especially your profile pic on Yelp being a picture of me.” 

Until this weekend, the Gogi Yogi website read, “The menu was designed by Patrice Cunningham, a Korean/African American Chef born and raised in Washington DC who grew up cooking Korean and American food with her mother.” It then pulls quotes from a 2019 Eater article

“[Kramer] doesn’t deserve any of that,” Cunningham says. “It needs to be removed. I don’t need to be attached to this place as it continues to exist without me.” 

It appears Kramer obliged. Gogi Yogi removed Cunningham’s name from its website and on Yelp, replaced her photo with the restaurant’s logo. Kramer did not respond to questions about why it took so long to remove Cunningham’s information and whether he reached out to her to talk about it. Keeping a chef’s name up after their involvement in a restaurant ends can potentially do reputational harm and confuse diners.

Take one recent Gogi Yogi Yelp review for example. A customer who self identifies as Korean American says they sought out the restaurant because of Cunningham. “When I read this chef’s story—I was sure she would do this right,” the review reads. “But I was beyond disappointed and, frankly, offended by the food I received.” After panning specific dishes it finishes with, “Look, I get non-POC restaurateurs and hipster customers have been Columbusing all of our cuisines for a very long time. But to use this chef’s personal story to Columbus our cuisine once again, and make a mockery of it is just gross.” 

Cunningham says she didn’t speak out before because she was trying to put the Gogi Yogi chapter behind her. She’s currently growing her kimchi business, Tae-Gu Kimchi, which uses her mother’s recipe. “I never addressed it because I decided to stop caring,” she says. But then she saw Kramer was a K-Food Cook-Off  judge and she read the statement about a perceived lack of Korean food in the region. “I immediately got all of those awful feelings again about my experience there,” she says. 

Initially Cunningham says she was excited to join Gogi Yogi because she had been hosting Korean barbecue pop-ups throughout the area. (She later delivered kits during the pandemic.) “That’s how I met Daniel,” she says. “We decided it was something we wanted to do together.” She says she was disappointed he wasn’t willing to entertain giving her an ownership stake, but she needed the job so she took it. 

“It was very much uncomfortable,” she says. “Getting to know Daniel as a person and as an owner and manager, I felt like there was a lot of butting of the heads throughout the whole experience. There were a lot of times where I felt like I wasn’t being respected or heard or given the opportunity to really be a part of the project in a way that I wanted.” 

She says it was scary to come forward and post on Instagram. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, not even him. I don’t want to hurt the staff. I don’t want to hurt a small business. But, I think he has gotten away with a lot of behaviors that are just not OK.” 

Asked about Cunningham’s role at the restaurant, Kramer said he cannot comment on personnel issues beyond the following: “We have the utmost respect for the strength and diversity of our team – one that has led us through the restaurant industry’s most difficult period on record.” 

Even though she’s aware of the retraction K-Food issued, Cunningham still thinks the statement about the lack of Korean restaurants in the DMV “sounds like a Daniel thing to say.” The press release announcing Gogi Yogi’s opening and the news stories that followed, however, specifically talk about bringing tabletop Korean barbecue to D.C. proper and do not mention the greater DMV area.

“I guess we’ll never know,” Cunningham continues. “I am both happy and sad about all of this. It’s not a good feeling, especially to relive some of the bad moments that I had. However, I do feel like it has brought me some closure. The opportunity to share my food with the city was the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me in my career. It’s unfortunate that it was not appreciated or properly valued. I don’t want to be attached to something like that.” 

The statement somehow materialized and it made its way to social media without anyone catching that it was inaccurate. Kim Stefani, of Gimga Group, is taking responsibility. She says she knows full well how dense and diverse Korean food options are in the area, having lived here for 50 years. In that time, she says, she’s helped numerous Korean entrepreneurs, including restaurateurs. 

“It was an oversight on my part,” she says. “The person who wrote it is not Korean American and adapted what was originally written, and I did not catch it before it went out. The post went live a couple weeks ago and it was not until this weekend that it started receiving negative comments. Our team responded immediately and reached out to Mr. Kramer. We also reached out to Ms. Cunningham.” 

She says her colleague was looking at interviews and articles and the Gogi Yogi website, which point out that Kramer thought Korean barbecue was missing within the District. “Our team made a poor choice of words to translate this as a ‘lack of’ and we have retracted the post and explained that it’s not Mr. Kramer’s word. Because we did not hear back from Mr. Kramer to approve the post on time, we used outdated information from his website.” 

K-Food was also criticized over the weekend for deleting comments from concerned community members. Kim Stefani says her team “deleted hateful and racist comments.” A slew of both existing and deleted comments pertained to the judging panel.

Only one of the original six judges, Robin Rhee, is Korean or Korean American. The others are White, except for Kevin Tien, the Vietnamese American chef behind Moon Rabbit who co-founded Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate. Tien also stepped down from his judging role over the weekend. “I just want to do what’s right,” Tien says. “Representation matters and I want to support my friends and AAPI community.” Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger also pulled out as a judge, but did not supply City Paper with a reason. 

Chang from No Kings Collective and Please Bring Chips says he and his network of friends had questions after seeing the lineup of judges. They weren’t the only ones. “Everyone started posting about it,” he says. “I was like, ‘Blood’s in the water so you might as well jump in.’ … “We chat about representation and how a lot of restaurants, especially with Asian cuisine, it’s never really Asian owners or it’s a restaurant group or a person who visited a place and now wants to start a restaurant with this cuisine.” 

Another Korean American member of the local hospitality industry echoes Chang. “I remember when Gogi Yogi first opened, Daniel’s rhetoric about the restaurant was about living in Los Angeles,” Eddie Kim says. “He grew up where there’s a Koreatown and he ate Korean food sometimes. It harkens to the stereotype we used to hear from chefs. ‘Oh I spent two weeks in Thailand and I fell in love with the food and so I took a crash course and now I’m cooking it.’” 

Raw conversations about who gets to profit off whose cuisines and cultures and how to properly show deference and respect to those whom you’re inspired by or borrowing from have been taking place across the country. “When I posted online I was not trying to gate keep,” Kim continues. “There’s no barometer about what’s acceptable. It’s impossible to put a time limit of how long you’re able to study a culture or food before you’re allowed to participate in it. But with the statements we all read, it opens up wounds and picks off scabs that we were hoping would start going away.” 

He says he was disappointed “not so much by the colors of the faces” of the judging panel, but by the interests they represent. “It’s very corporate,” he says. Judge Xavier Deshayes is the executive chef of Washington and Lee University and judge Bradley Nairne is the executive chef at the host venue, Hyatt Regency Tysons Corner.

“Even the lone Korean representative is kind of representing his own company as an importer of Korean goods,” Kim says. “We don’t see the more grassroots faces of the community. We’ve been here for decades and decades. There’s a rich history of immigration, specifically in the D.C. area. Where are they?”

Chang, too, is disappointed the Korean Embassy would be behind the event as it was originally planned. “It’s problematic because that’s our own community not properly going out and representing our values and interests.”

Kim Stefani says while she “appreciates everyone’s comments and input,” she “strenuously disagrees” with the suggestion to have only Korean judges. “Food brings people together and that is also our intent. Not all Japanese restaurants are owned by Japanese, nor are all Italian restaurants owned and operated by Italians. Contestants are not required to prepare an authentic Korean dish, rather to be creative with Korean ingredients.” 

Most comments City Paper combed through did not call for an all-Korean panel.

“If this is about racial diversity, why are there no Black, LatinX, Indiegeous [sic], or multiracial chefs?” Liz Kleinrock asked on Instagram. (Past contests have featured a more racially diverse judging panel.) 

“If the event is supposed to celebrate Korean cuisine then Koreans should be included. Reassess this plan,” Samantha, a blogger in Northern Virginia, suggested. 

“This is supposed to celebrate Korean culture and community but you continue to actively silence the Korean community who live here and have lackluster representation of Koreans. This is a PR nightmare ya’ll better get it together before your event is protested,” wrote a woman named Grace

Kim Stefani says she hasn’t decided yet how or if they will fill the judging seats Hollinger, Tien, and Kramer vacated. 

“I believe her focus for the event was intended to have diversity, but she may have not thought through what that actually means,” Cunningham says. “I told her that it’s hard to know sometimes what is OK and what’s not OK given the issues we are facing around race. We can only learn from our mistakes and grow. She invited me to the event, which I appreciated.”

Chang has thought about what could be learned from this debacle. “It really just boils down to being more thoughtful and understanding,” he says. “Do the research. Figure it out before you say something that could possibly offend a community or culture that’s not yours.”