East Meets Midwest: Gourmet Food Truck is a Driving Force in Columbus, Ohio’s Food Scene
Laura Lee’s gourmet food truck, called “Ajumama,” has gained popularity for serving authentic Korean fare with a creative American-twist. While Korean tacos have become popular dishes at food trucks around the U.S., Laura focuses on combining familiar Midwestern dishes with traditional Korean dishes that are probably unknown to most non-Koreans. Seoul Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Laura Lee, who is a classically trained chef, about her unique approach to Korean cuisine and the pros and cons of running a food truck.
SJ: Can you tell us a little bit about you and what you do?
LEE :I’ve been a professional chef for over 10 years. I’m classically trained. I also have a Bachelor’s in Hospitality Management. I had been living out in San Diego working for my old executive chef as a sous chef and I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing. So, I decided to move back to Columbus, Ohio, and I had this idea, mostly for the name Ajumama, which is a combination of Ajumma (Korean for ma’am) and Mama, and doing traditional Korean as well as some fusion Korean – but not what everybody thinks of as fusion Korean. Everybody automatically goes to the Kogi model with the Korean tacos...there’s a reason those flavors work really well together. The styles of eating go really well together. But growing up half-Korean, half-American in the Midwest, I had other ideas. I wanted to explore what I call the deeper cuts of Korean cuisine past bulgogi and kimchi and the things that everybody knows. So almost three years ago, we put it into practice with the truck and we’ve been very successful. We’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback, particularly here in Columbus where people are kind of very Midwest ¬– very meat and potatoes.
SJ: Do you speak Korean?
LEE: I don’t. I understand enough by context, but when I was little my dad was afraid that I’d end up with an accent so he didn’t teach it to me, and unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to sit down and focus on it.
SJ: Can you tell me about your background?
LEE: My mom is American from North Carolina. My dad is from Gwangju, south Jeolla-do.
SJ: Wow, that’s quite the contrast.
LEE: That is a clash. But we say that we’re all Southern (laughs).
SJ: Were ribs their area of commonality? (laughs)
LEE: You know, it’s funny. My dad was chief pediatric resident in a hospital in Ohio. My mom used to be a nurse, so they met in a delivery room. And when he asked her out, he said “Do you like Chinese food?” She said, “Oh, I really don’t like Chinese food.” He said, “Oh, good! We’re going to go get Korean food. You’ll like that.” So, that’s my background. My dad is a pediatrician. My mom later ran his office for a number of years. I grew up in Northeastern Ohio with that Midwestern background to food. All three of us love food. My dad’s idea of fun things to do on a vacation is to try new restaurants. I always grew up loving it. In my teens, I got a little bit more into cooking and I decided I wanted to go to culinary school. I did, and so I’ve got a classical French background. I’ve actually worked in a restaurant that was very well known for taking the French and southwestern influences together. It’s in Arizona. It’s called Vincent on Camelback. I worked there while in culinary school. After I graduated, I moved back to Ohio to do my bachelor’s in hospitality management from Penn State University.
SJ: Which culinary school was it?
LEE: The Art Institute of Phoenix. When I moved back, I wound up taking a couple of years out of cooking and I worked in the room side of a Marriott Hotel—Renaissance Hotel here in Columbus. After a couple of years, I really wanted to get back into cooking so I moved back into the restaurant when they re-launched the concept that was there...That’s where I’ve been ever since—cooking.
SJ: Now tell me about your cooking.
LEE: So what we do is we try and mix traditional Korean dishes...a lot of them, people may not have heard of, as well as taking mid-western dishes and finding common ground and mixing those with Korean ingredients. One of the dishes we are most well known for is bulgogi cheese steak. There’re a lot of people who do a bulgogi cheese steak. I do mine sort of a south Philly style. So we do marinated beef, onions, and shishito, or as the Koreans call them, bbalgan gochu – peppers − and we top it with cheese sauce ¬real Philly style. But we fold my house-made kimchi into it. I make all of my kimchi myself in-house. We also do another item that is called tteok and cheese, where we take rice cakes and cook it in a cheddar sauce. It comes out like macaroni and cheese. We don’t do the traditional tacos. We don’t do the burritos. We go for things where you can put Korean food with other influences and still have it retain the essence of being Korean but in a new way of presenting it.
SJ: How do you do that?
LEE: A lot of it is just sitting and going, “Okay, where are some commonalities between this dish and this dish?” So, one thing that’s probably going on the menu within the next month or so is sloppy jjajang joes. So, if you are familiar with jjajangmyun, the black bean sauce noodle dish, it’s usually noodles and roughly ground pork or seafood ¬– real soft doughy noodles, potatoes, carrots, onions, all of that. In looking at it, I say, “What are the main components?” There’s the black bean sauce. There are the carrots, potatoes, pickled daikon, onions and then you have these real soft noodles. Where are some commonalities with some other dishes I know? I kind of fell on sloppy joes which we do slider-size. We do a soft white bread, carrots and onions. Actually, we’re doing it with brown chicken, because it gives us a nice option for people who like chicken… and the black bean sauce. Then we are topping it with crispy fried potatoes so we can get some nice crunch. And then a little salad with shredded daikon and some white onion. So, you’re getting all of those elements that are part of jjajangmyun, without it actually being jjajangmyun, but in a form that people will recognize. They’ll go, “Oh, I know what a sloppy joe is. Okay, this flavor is different but it’s still really good,” and it still hits that familiarity.
SJ: This is a cool concept. So, everything goes on a food truck?
LEE: Yes, we do everything from a food truck. We do have a commissary that we work with, but everything we do is in-house. I make my own kimchi. We do our own bulgogi marinade.
SJ: Is that where you say you differentiate? You make your own kimchi and bulgogi sauce?
LEE: I think particularly from a lot of trucks. Because in food trucks, a lot of people make it easier so that they can get a lot more volume. We don’t focus as much on volume as we do on the quality as well as the uniqueness of what we do. We run a lot of specials—a lot of things we do for certain menus. Generally three to four times within the season, we’ll run our version of Korean fried chicken which is different from a lot of other people’s. We also do a bacon-wrapped grilled tteokbokki (cooked Korean rice cake) that people really love. There’s a whole list of items that we do that are specials and you’re not going to find them anywhere else because they’re our own creations, and some of that means we wind up making things ourselves. We can’t just run to the store and buy it. I’m also really particular about what goes in, so nothing we use has any MSG in it, which winds up meaning that I make a lot of my own stuff. We also—kind of on the classic side—we offer pajeon (Korean pancake) as one of our regular lunchtime items. A lot of pajeon mixes already have MSG in them. We make our own pajeon mix from scratch so that there’s no MSG in that. Also, from the traditional side, we make hotteok, the yeast cakes with cinnamon and walnuts. But then we also do some fun stuff with hotteok. We stuff it with different items and different fillings and kinda go wild with it. We don’t buy pre-bought mixes so that means that we don’t do a lot of volume, so its hard for us. But we have a great quality product.
SJ: It’s very complex, so why would you put that on a truck?
LEE: The great thing about a truck is that it doesn’t cost as much as a restaurant. The other thing is that with a truck it allows us to go to different demographics, different neighborhoods, and different areas of the city and really tailor our audience so that when we do eventually look at a brick and mortar restaurant, we know exactly where we would do the best in. It’s not, “Oh, we’re going to pick this side of town because maybe the building is the cheapest and its up-and-coming.” If it’s not a good fit for us demographic-wise, we’re not going to choose that. It allows us that freedom, as well as the freedom to rotate our menu.
SJ: So from a business standpoint, you’re doing all this research. Shouldn’t you be selling that research?
LEE: You certainly could. But research is very specific to what you do. So, for me...I know exactly in what neighborhoods I do well, what locations I do well at. For example, if we did a festival, what festivals we do well at. For everybody else, it’s different. I’ve got friends who have pita trucks and they do great at certain locations and crummy at other locations. I’ve got friends who do slider burgers and I know they’re going to do great at this location… It’s very dependent on the type of cuisine you’re doing and serving...what your results are from the market.
SJ: Why are you in that particular market? Is that because that’s where you landed or is it because it’s a good market?
LEE: Well, Columbus is home. I lived here for about 10 years since I graduated from college, before I moved out to San Diego. And the thing that struck me when I was in San Diego was, people were very much into food because it was the thing to be into, but it didn’t feel like they genuinely enjoyed it. I’ll give you an example. In Columbus, we have the pretty famous queen of ice cream, Jenny’s Splendid Ice Cream. I’ve been a huge admirer for years and years and years, even when I went to culinary school. She first got started in the Columbus market. What she’s always done are very unique flavors: coconut and curry and chocolate. She does one that’s a perennial summer favorite, and it’s sweet corn with blackberry kind of jam strung through it. When I was working out in San Diego, I was sous chef and I was also responsible for doing all the pastries on top of everything else. So I was making ice creams in house and we had gotten some great sweet corn and raspberries. And I was like, “You know what? I’m going to make sweet corn and blackberry ice cream.” So I made it and then I made a dark chocolate peppermint with cocoa nibs and homemade marshmallows and coconut rum and a couple of others that I didn’t think were that crazy. But they just, you know, they were along those lines. And I had the servers come back and go, “Can’t we get any normal ice cream, please? Like vanilla and chocolate?” This is normal in Columbus. We wouldn’t think twice about it. Columbus is considered the test market for a lot of national chain restaurants. They come here and test to see if they’ll make it all over the rest of the country.
SJ: Why is that?
LEE: There have been a couple of articles on it and I think some of it is because we are very quintessentially Midwest. But Columbus has a pretty big melting pot of people that come here for Ohio State University as well as the fact that it’s the capital. So we get a lot of people from all over the state and from all over the world. And for some reason, it’s just been determined that Columbus is the test market. But to have cuisine which is so unique that it even scares people on the West Coast... to me that said, “This is where I need to be.” I felt strongly enough about it—and it is home. It’s someplace I feel comfortable and I thought, “Well, if it works here, it might need to be a little more specialized, but it’ll work in other places.”
SJ: Do you have a bigger, grander plan?
LEE: The eventual plan is to go into brick and mortar. Something along the lines of 50-seat gastro pub, cocktails, the whole nine yards. It’s a matter of finding the right piece of real estate for the right price at the right time. But until then, my goal is to continue to push that boundary, to continue to introduce people to different elements of cuisine that they might not be familiar with, and like I said, some of the elements of Korean cuisine that aren’t the most common, that aren’t kimchi, that aren’t bulgogi.
SJ: Tell me about some of the drawbacks of a food truck.
LEE: It’s a little different for you out in L.A. You don’t have winter. We have winter, so that means you either have to be very, very brave and go out during the winter, or you have to hustle the rest of the year and then take the winter off, which is what we’ve done the last few years. It’s hard on your employees to be out in that kind of weather. It’s hard on the trucks to be out in that kind of weather. So, we say, “There’s business for food trucks here in the winter. There’s just not business for all of us here in the winter.” So that’s really one of the major drawbacks. We have a season, and we have to capitalize on that season. We just have to go for it.
SJ: Can you go into a restaurant during the off-season and then go back out with your food truck?
LEE: I got a lot of fellow food truck people that have done that with pop-ups. And some of it has worked really well for them. Again, it depends on where that pop-up is—if what you’re doing is a good match for it. I have one friend who set up a pop-up. It didn’t work out and was not a good fit. But I have another friend who took over the exact same spot for the winter, and they did well because it was a completely different type of cuisine. There are some other options as well. We do private parties or drop off our catering during the winters, so we can still be out there and generate some revenue, but it’s kind of a down time for us because we do work so hard the rest of the year. So we take a little vacation and have a little time for ourselves. The other drawback is you have to be so well-organized. Because there’s no “Oh you know there’s just some more in the back.” There is no back. Sometimes with a truck, people don’t have extra storage at the commissary or extra storage someplace else. Your entire inventory is on that truck. You also have to be on top of things like, “Do we have water? Do we have propane to get through this shift? Do we have enough resources?”
SJ: In the winter, could you drive your truck to another state that is warmer?
LEE: I could. And that is always an option. Some states are a little easier than others from a licensing standpoint. The bad part is in the Midwest, you’ve got to drive pretty far south to get to a place unaffected by the snow—at least Georgia, or the deep south through Florida—to get to some place where you are not going to freeze through the winter. That’s an option, and if people want to do that, they can. For some people it’s harder because truck regulations vary from city to city, from state to state. Mine is built to California and Florida specs so I could take it. It’s just they are not the easiest things to drive. So we haven’t chosen to go that route.
SJ: Did you grow up with Korean food in your home?
LEE: A little bit. When I was little, my grandparents would come and visit and my grandmother would cook. My mom was usually the one who cooked the rest of the time and she actually learned how to make things from my grandmother. In the first year, my mom would help me on the truck and people would say, “Oh, you know, I can’t believe you know how to make Korean food,” or, “You know how to make kimchi!” and my mom was like, “I’ve been doing this for 30 plus years,” from when her mother came over and taught her how to make these things. It’s a funny dynamic, but I didn’t grow up with a lot of it. But there was enough of it that I loved it and enjoyed it. As I grew older, I was able to explore more of it. For a few years, we were going back and forth to Korea at least once a year to visit my grandparents. When my grandmother passed and my grandfather was older, we got to spend a couple of weeks with the rest of my family. Knowing that I’m a chef, they would take me to different places so I could experience it. And then, on the last few trips, I actually took some cooking classes at O’ngo Communications, some in-depth Korean cooking classes and some tours from them so that I could just learn a little bit more. I also watch a lot of Korean cooking videos. Even though I only understand about half of it, I still watch it. I can kind of get a feel for it. Again, its kind of using flavor profiles from dishes that I had or read about and putting it together with other flavor profiles that I know .
SJ: Was your food truck welcomed in Columbus, Ohio right away?
LEE: It was. I was really shocked by the response that we got. And we were really lucky to get a lot of great press and support from people in the community here. I’ve been very blessed to have friends who say, “You know, this is the point of food trucks. They are supposed to be unique. You shouldn’t always be copies of other trucks from other cities. The uniqueness is supposed to be what the true spirit is about and…Ajumama does this.” That means a lot to me. That’s why we continue to push, try to be unique, not copy, and put our own spin on things.
SJ: What are some of the key spices and ingredients that you would say best describe Korean cooking?
LEE: Lots of garlic, Korean chili pepper, and doenjang, the Korean fermented soy bean paste. It’s something that’s very unique. The Japanese have miso. But flavors compared, miso’s very gentle whereas doenjang is very assertive and very much like cheese. It’s had that kind of funk, but it’s the kind of funk that when you put it with other things...it’s delicious. Those are kind of my big three. Obviously, there are onions and green onions, you don’t use as much ginger, and then the chili pepper itself...those are kind of my big three.
SJ: In general, do you think the American palate is receptive of Korean cuisine and spices?
LEE: I think so. When people ask me if it’s spicy, I tell them it’s spicy but it’s certainly nothing like Jamaican spicy¬—you know, the really, really hot chili peppers. Its not Indian spicy. Probably most of the time, it’s like a medium wing. Instead of hot wings, it’s medium wings. It’s got some zing to ‘em. There are a few dishes that are pretty hot. But for the most part, the Korean chili pepper maxes out at a certain threshold. Koreans like things spicy but for some reason. It’s kind of a preconceived notion that all Korean food is spicy. But it’s not. Anything that’s got a core Korean royal cuisine background is not spicy at all. And so it’s about getting people more familiar with those dishes that they may not have heard of but they are going to love. I think that’s really important. Getting them over that hump and say “Not all of its spicy. Not all of it has kimchi. Not all of it is going to blow your head off.” There might be a few dishes, but there’re a few dishes like that in Mexican cuisine. There’re a few dishes like that in a lot of the cuisines that use peppers. There’s going to be regular dishes and there’s going to be dishes that will blow your face off.
SJ: How often are you actually in the truck?
LEE: I’m in the truck every day. Every day the truck is out, I’m in the truck. Part of the challenge of quality over quantity is that I am there everyday. I do have one other person that works for me. I usually don’t cook every single day. Some of it is because I am the face of who we are and I enjoy interacting with our customers and introducing them to what we do. For me that’s very important. Usually during the week we do a lot of lunches and during the weekends, we’ll do fuller days and dinners—really, a lot of it depends on the schedule. Here in Columbus, they just added a parking stipulation that you can’t be longer than 25 feet and I’m 27 and a half feet. So we can’t do public parking. We can only do private parking, which is how I have been for the last couple of years. So we work strictly on where we’re scheduled. I know exactly what’s going on the schedule. I can tailor it to fit my needs or pack it as full as I want. A lot of it’s up to me, which is nice, compared to a real restaurant where you have to be open every single day and these are your hours. For me, if I find out we’re going on the Fourth of July when a lot of restaurants slow down, I don’t schedule—and if I don’t schedule, I don’t have to buy food; I don’t have to pay labor. I’m just paying for my rent of the commissary, but I can minimize my costs, which helps me keep things a little bit tighter.
SJ: Can you tell us about the commissary?
LEE:. So, food trucks actually don’t have to have a commissary. I know in L.A., you do, but we don’t have to have a commissary. Carts have to have a commissary, but trucks here are considered self-sufficient. But to really be able to run a good volume that most trucks need to make a profit, you’ve got to have some place to park, you’ve got to have some place for additional storage that is approved by the Health Department. So, we work with a commissary here called Food Fort. The great thing is that the scene in Columbus has gotten big enough that we now have some other ones, but another major one is called The Commissary that does food truck parking. They host classes and pop-up dinners. They are doing a lot of great things. It’s exciting to see the need for that here in Columbus.
SJ: What kind of food do you like to eat personally?
LEE: Anything I don’t have to cook. It’s kind of a toss-up. I love food. Some of my current favorites right now are… Ethiopian food. I don’t get enough of that in my life. We have a large Somali population as well as Ethiopian, so we do get a lot of places that have African food. It’s just that I don’t seem to have a lot of time to go enjoy them, and it’s one of those things where you kind of need a group of people to help you eat as well. I have a really good friend that has another restaurant here in Columbus who does what you call the modern American, taking influences from different places and putting it into one great big menu and so I love anything that he makes for me. The Southern girl at heart loves barbecue—really good barbecue, and I’m one of those people. I can’t pick. Its just whatever mood I’m in, whatever kind of strikes me as, “Oh, that sounds really good.” Some days I wind up eating Shin ramen. Some days it’s, “Hey, let’s go get barbecue from this place,” or, “Let’s go get Mexican over on the west side of Columbus where all the Hispanics live,” and others days it’s, “Let’s go get some really good Italian.” I like it all as long as it’s good.
SJ: You seem like an interculturalist. Does that come out in your cooking?
LEE: It does. We primarily focus on blending Korean with other influences, but there’ve been times when I’ve jokingly put something on and people were like, “You know how to make this?” I was like, “I worked as a pastry chef for five years. I can make crème brûlée. I can make cakes.” I’ve done all of those things and there’re times I want to pull in different influences and we do. One of the fun things that we kind of jokingly do every year is our 420 menu. So it’s all of the ideas that are maybe a little too random, but I hang on to it. Last year, we did a hotteok stuffed with peanut butter, bananas, marshmallow fluff and bacon, which went over great. People loved it.
SJ: The 420 menu? Does that mean it’s for people who are stoned?
LEE: There’s always that implication. The 420 menu kind of represents the combination of things that maybe are a little way too far out there, but that we’ve just wanted to throw together and see if people like it. The cheese steak originally started out as a 420 special. It migrated to the regular menu. The jjajang sliders this year were on our 420 menu and it’s a way of allowing me even with the food truck to break from my regular menu. These are all specials and depending on feedback that I get, they kind of get mulled around and re-worked and usually wind up on the menu. These are items that are kind of like the munchie menu.
SJ: Is it true that you do Muay Thai?
LEE: I do. Actually, one of my really good friends, who’s full-blooded Korean, is the one who talked me into starting it. So it’s all Esther’s fault. But in my bare spare time, I do Muay Thai.
SJ: What single kitchen utensil could you not live without?
LEE: Other than a chef’s knife? Benriner slicers. The Japanese mandolins. That’s my next one.
SJ: Is there a food fact about yourself that no one knows about?
LEE: I don’t like beets. A friend of mine is the only one who has gotten me to eat them because of her beet ravioli. For some reason, they just always taste dirty to me.
SJ: Do you have any inspirational figures in the culinary world?
LEE : I mentioned her earlier—Jeni Britton Bauer from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. When I was first going to culinary school and she was first starting, I loved the way she took things that most people wouldn’t think to put together. And she put them together and she made them work. So that has always been a part of what I like doing. And the creative process of cooking is, you know, putting two things that may not be together but have a common ground, and finding that common ground and making them work. I mean obviously I owe a lot to Roy Choi and David Chang for bringing more Korean cuisine to the forefront and bringing it into other forms that people may not have been familiar with, and just taking it to a level that at some point, I would love to be at. So, those guys obviously are awesome.
SJ: What about David Chang of Momofuku?
LEE: David Chang’s attention to detail...I love the fact that he doesn’t try to complicate things but at the same time they’re very complicated. I want it to be complex, but I don’t want somebody spending 15 minutes putting it on a plate. I want there to be some of that natural beauty, but complexity involved. Deceptive complexity, I guess is the best way to put it.
SJ: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
LEE: One of my favorites is Radically Simple by Rozanne Gold.
SJ: Are you writing a cookbook?
LEE: No. My staff jokes that we have recipes written in what’s called Laura’s shorthand. Whenever you get hired, I have to explain the shorthand, which, once I do, it completely makes sense. Coming from someone who does a lot of pastries...everything’s in grams and everything has an abbreviation. So you just put it on the scale and weigh it out—that’s all you have to do. But for people who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a little bit of a learning curve. But it’s what works for me.
SJ: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start his or her own food truck?
LEE: What I really suggest, because there are a lot of people out there who haven’t come from a restaurant industry background, is to take some time and work in the back of the house—and work in the front of the house. For me, I have to be able to do both because there’re times when I need to step in and be able to cook, and there’re times when I need to be the face and I need to deliver the service to people and if you haven’t ever had that experience, especially in a busy operation, you don’t know what you’re in for. Because it is magnified when you’re on that truck.
SJ: Tell us about the front-of-the-house skills.
LEE: Dealing with customers, dealing with questions about the menu, payment… unfortunately, you don’t get that luxury of going, “Let me buy you a drink,” or, “Let me buy you a cocktail.” Instead it’s, “Here’s a can of Coke,” because this is the best I can do and this is what I have. Also, explaining things to people. With the menu that’s maybe a little bit different, there are times when we have events and people look at it and go, “I don’t understand any of this.” And that’s part of the reason we have something that’s a cheese steak. We have a kimchi hot dog. We have things that are recognizable so that we can start that discussion with them. And once you start talking...“Oh okay, I get that.” Part of what I have to do is be able to sell the menu so that I can sell the food. As a chef, in the heart of me, I just want to hide in the back and cook—but I don’t get that luxury. I need to be able to sell and talk to people. Like any other restaurant, whoever is working as the host, they kind of set the pace for how the tickets come in and how the business flows. I do that as well. As tickets come in, if we’re getting a little too busy, I’ll slow it down, start talking to people, kinda dragging out their orders so that I’m still attending to them but I’m not completely overwhelming the kitchen with ticket after ticket.