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Angel Barreto On Cooking Korean While Black

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Angel Barreto left a promising career in DC politics to enroll at the L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. His use of Korean elements in the menu at the Source by Wolfgang Puck got him noticed in 2017 by the Fried Rice Collective, a local restaurant group who tapped him to be the chef at Chiko, their first fast-casual restaurant. A winner of the Rising Culinary Star of the Year award at the 2020 RAMMY Awards, Barreto now serves as executive chef of Anju, the group’s contemporary Korean gastropub, which opened in August 2019.

We had never offered takeout at Anju before the pandemic. Takeout was a bit of a hard pivot—dishes that we thought might work for to-go didn’t quite work. It was more than we expected. As a team, we sat down and said, “How can we be more proficient in this? How can we be better and make this more seamless for guests?” I know I say this all the time, but I’m very fortunate to work with a fantastic team. We reconfigured our downstairs area, and I changed some things in the kitchen—but it was all very much a team effort.

Because of the pandemic, we’ve learned that a lot of people want comfort food, which is fortunate for us because the majority of the food that we do at Anju is comfort food. Anju, in Korean, means food to be consumed with alcohol. Traditionally, anju food is bar snacks and drinks like chimek—chicken and beer. That was our bar atmosphere when we first opened in 2019.

People want very simple dishes that bring you warmth and happiness. They want kimchi-jjigae. They want dumplings. They want fried chicken. Especially with so much uncertainty in the world, that’s what people are most drawn to eating. For people who can’t join us here, that’s why we started doing the chef sets and weekly specials.

The goal of Anju has always been to push the culture and the food of Korea through a different lens. Like kimchi, for example. Kimchi is something we always do here, day in and day out. We’re currently working on a white kimchi with hibiscus. And vegan kimchi, too. I’m also making doenjang, which is a special Korean fermented paste. But I’m making it with ancho chilies and persimmons. We’re trying to keep things fresh and interesting—how can we make a Korean dish special yet different? Not just for the sake of being different, but flavor-wise, it has to make sense to me.

Fried chicken at Anju. Photo: Courtesy Anju.

One of our specials last year was Delmonico pork steak. We marinated it in doenjang, black pepper, and mirin, and served it with a daikon and carrot slaw, pear mostarda, and bao buns. Bao buns and pork, essentially. Something very simple, but very comforting, that people can relate to and understand. Even for brunch, I wanted to do a slight twist on a McDonald’s value meal. We offered cheddar and gochu pepper biscuits, an egg omelet, soondae—which is Korean blood sausage—mini hash browns, and orange juice. It’s very much relatable in that wheelhouse of food that we eat in the United States, but it’s still based on Korean food. That’s always been our idea.

The entire transition during the pandemic has been to make sure we offer value to our guests while still being creative and pushing ourselves. Right now, we’re taking it one day at a time. We’re not thinking so far in advance. We tried to do that in March of 2020. We had all these plans—I had a brand-new menu and had just done a photoshoot for the spring when COVID happened. All those plans got squashed.

The government’s response so far to help those in the restaurant industry has been absolutely lackadaisical. It’s so disheartening, considering we’re one of the top-five contributors to our economy. For us to be treated like we’re less than, it’s deplorable. Everyone’s always focused on stocks and NASDAQ, but restaurants are the backbone of society. For big milestones in your life, restaurants have always been there for you. So for the response that we got and the money that we got, it’s terrible.

Some states have done a bit better than others—DC has done okay. We were able to take advantage of the winterization grant that DC offered to get heating elements for the outside. But there’s always more that can be done. I wish there would be more outreach and more funding—rent protection and rent forgiveness for restaurants that aren’t able to pay. It’s more pertinent to have that restaurant in there instead of kicking them out. You’re not going to find a tenant within three months, especially during COVID. Who’s going to fill that space and do what that restaurant did?

Now every Friday, all the managers sit down, and we talk about the direction going forward and what we’re going to do. So it’s week by week. Because you never really know—some days are busy, and some days are slow. There’s no rhyme or reason to anything during the pandemic.

I’m not going to lie—some days, I’ve had anguish and pain. And I have cried. When you’re dealing with the George Floyd protests and everything going on in society—it’s very heavy. As a minority, as someone who has a niece who’s two years old, it was very scary initially. I talked to many friends and workers in the industry about how this all weighs on you—you feel like society doesn’t care about you sometimes.

Prayer has been my solitude and my resounding way to lock myself in during the pandemic. I practice what’s called Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism. It’s a sect of Buddhism from Japan. I pray twice a day—first, when I wake up in the morning. I never pray for winning money or getting things. I pray for the people around me. I pray for happiness. I pray to have a good day. That’s how I get my day started. Then, I go through my day and have things happen, you know, maybe have an issue or two. When I get home, I self-reflect on everything. I think about how I can change the day, my next day. It’s always a cycle of self-reflection.

We say in Nichiren Shōshū, “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō”—it means the law of cause and effect. It is the thing that drives everything in our life. It’s the butterfly effect. If you go about your day with an open heart and a positive mind, and you have a great day, that’s the reason why. It’s what I have relied on heavily to have fortitude during this time.

The biggest surprise for guests when they see me in the restaurant—they’re like, “Oh, you’re the chef? Wow, I didn’t know you had a Black chef here!” Sometimes people don’t mean to come across that way, but it happens. And I’ve just learned to take that because I’m in a very precarious position. My mom is Black, and my dad is Puerto Rican. I can’t think of any other chef in the United States that cooks Korean food that looks like me. It’s a very unique category, especially with Korean food—it’s a very small culture and tight-knit community. People always wonder, “How are you cooking Korean food? Why are you cooking Korean food?”

Sometimes people can be a little bit weird about it. I remember when I was first setting up the accounts for the restaurant at H Mart, I got a bit of pushback trying to get some Korean products. At one point, they wouldn’t sell me something because they were wondering why I wanted it, and what I was going to do with it. I couldn’t believe it. But I just used the opportunity to educate people—just because I’m from this race, and this is my background, I’m not tied into it. The weird thing I always feel is if you’re a caucasian chef, you’re never questioned.

I was a military child. Both my parents were stationed in Korea. When I was younger, my mom would always tell me stories about Korea—she was stationed in Dongducheon. She loved the food and the culture, and it kind of just stuck with her. Growing up on military bases, there’s a heavy Korean influence on the food. And, it’s not just in Korea—it travels around to other bases. You can go to Fort Jackson in South Carolina and find Korean food and items there just based on military personnel traveling back and forth.

In 2018, I won a cooking competition at the Korean embassy in DC that afforded me the opportunity to go back to Korea. I used that as an opportunity to think about what I wanted to do for Anju. I brought back plateware, chopsticks, and all sorts of things I thought would be great for the restaurant. My mind was abuzz—I would take an hour-long Uber by myself across the city to try different places and just eat everything. I just felt like a kid exploring.

People still don’t know who I am. To be nominated for a James Beard award—I think that’s as huge an honor as a chef can get. I grew up in this industry in my 20s—I’m in my 30s now—and I never thought that my name would be up there. I was always in a supporting role for all these other chefs and people. I remember I had an event at Maydan, and I was talking to Paola Velez—we were nominated in the same category—and I told her, “This is going to be your year. I feel it in my bones. I’m honored to be nominated, but this is will be for you.” She’s a great friend of mine, and I was just super-excited for an Afro-Latina—someone who looks like me—to be nominated. That means a lot to kids who think the ceiling is only so high. Even when Anju was named Washingtonian magazine’s number-one restaurant in Washington DC, there was never ever a chef on that list that looked like me. The majority of the winners were white male chefs.

And I think that says a lot about where our culture and society have gone. Now, a chef that looks like me, who has no direct cultural background but who can cook good food, can achieve this recognition and get to that point. I just always wanted to have a space to cook the food and do what I do. I never ever came into Anju thinking about awards.

The RAMMY awards were the same thing—I thought, wow, this is fantastic. I almost didn’t go to the ceremony because the week that it was announced, my uncle passed away. I was more concerned about my family and my mom. But she was very adamant about me going. She told me that it was beyond me, that it was beyond being just an award. My mom always told me to never pigeonhole yourself because of who you are or where you come from. I knew I loved Korean food and fell in love with the flavors, and that was it for me.

Sometimes you just do something because it’s out of passion and love for what you do. Besides my sous chef James Park and the owner Danny Lee, no one who cooks at Anju grew up cooking Korean food. Everyone learns to cook this food. I think many people need to realize that—especially if you eat and consume food in DC—the majority of the cooks in the kitchen are Latino. They’re cooking your pasta, they’re cooking your Ethiopian food. They’re not from these cultural backgrounds of the restaurants. They’re learning to cook the food out of reverence, and they love what they do. I don’t always want it to be about me because, at Anju, we’re a team. We’re a family here. It’s beyond me.