Photography by Ye Rin Mok
For Saehee Cho, a talented writer, cook, food stylist, and poet, work isn’t bound by monetary value but rather given up to a firm devotion to unpredictability. This can mean that within a day, Saehee might be picking up fresh produce from an independent farmer hours from LA while planning a catering gig whilst whipping up a cake for friends only to end the evening with an experimental pasta recipe for a new menu item at her pop-up wine bar (whose profits go to Rescue.org). Full of energy and optimism, we’ve only known Saehee to be this way—as a tire-less, radiant, and giving woman who seamlessly brings community together around her favorite subject: food.
Over the last 2 pandemic years, Saehee has adapted her catering business into a grocery delivery co-op and then into cooking for the community at Soon wine bar (currently under iteration while she travels). We can't wait for her next endeavor as it will inevitably be delicious and meaningful. A few weeks ago, just as she returns from trips to Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Italy, we catch up with Saehee about living consciously at 37.
Can you describe the path that led to the work you do now?
I’ve been cooking since I could hold a pan but it wasn’t until my twenties that I even considered the possibility of working in food. I started cooking professionally at Calarts in 2009 when I started bringing cakes and baked goods to writing workshops to break-up the intense 3 hour class blocks. This snowballed into being hired to cater for Calarts and from there I slowly started to build up Soon through catering, food styling, and photography.
During the pandemic I transitioned Soon into a community-driven, non-profit food collective supporting local farms and sustainable food practices. One day I hope this version of Soon has a brick-and-mortar location supporting the food family that has been so generous to me.
But for the most part, Soon is how I hub my many on-going food projects. I love that my work is a little difficult to explain, that it keeps changing shape on me. The work manifests differently all of the time but the conviction that food is political and that food awareness generates community, remains consistent through all aspects of my work.
Can you tell us why you cook?
I cook because it is the most tangible, intuitive way I know how to show care. I do it because it’s what my mother did, because it’s what her mother did and as a result, for me, food has become a way of communicating love across generations, language, and culture.
I also cook because when you cook for your community, when you cook with intention, it becomes a kind of alchemy and that care is also a kind of nutrition.
It’s also just fun. And I love that there’s no end point to this skill – there will always be something to learn, something I haven’t tried, something that will surprise me. It’s a gift to have chosen a path that keeps adding new bricks.
What have you been reading lately?
I just read Kim Fu’s collection of short stories “Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century” and I finished it in one sitting, cover to cover. It’s a gorgeous, strange, and tender collection that moves casually from the fantastical to the real and by the end Kim Fu builds an incredible layered world where teenage girls can grow wings from their ankles, the Sandman can become a lover, and you can age back and forth by turning the handle on a toy. It also doesn’t hurt that Kim Fu is a young writer coming up in a generation of AAPI writers giving themselves permission to write their heritage and culture into their work without being asked to be ambassadors for that culture. Much respect to Amy Tan, but this was no “Joy Luck Club”.
What brings you comfort? or What’s your comfort activity?
Predictably the two things that bring me the most comfort (and pleasure) are writing and cooking, in that order. I think it means something that even after a long day of cooking for others, I’m usually eager to go home and cook for myself, even if I’m not hungry. It’s a kind of self-care to give to myself what I give to the people around me.
Writing lives in a whole other realm of comfort. It’s how I make sense of the world. Writing feels to me like plucking nonsense from the sky and then ordering it in a legible way. I often don’t know how I feel about a thing until I articulate it in writing and so the act feels synonymous with thinking for me.
Tell us about your relationship to your iphone sling :)
The iPhone sling is genuinely the accessory I wear everyday. My hands are usually occupied with some kind of food situation and I’m always carrying one too many things so having a crossbody bag that neatly stores everything without adding bulk is perfect for my needs.
I’d also likely misplace my phone daily if it wasn’t attached to my body via the iPhone sling so I have Building Block to thank for saving me beaucoup bucks on replacement phones.
I also love veg tan leather–it’s durable, patinas beautifully, shapes and molds to the owner. I’m notoriously rough on my things, partially because I want all my objects to fulfill their potential, partially because I’m hardly still and generally on the go. I’ve spilled coffee, oil, and nearly every variety of condiment on my sling and somehow it just looks better the more I put it through.
Practical and aesthetic notes aside, honestly the thing I love the most about my iPhone sling is that it’s made by Kim & Nancy and their wonderful team. I feel incredibly lucky to have friends who make beautiful things and at this point in my life I’m not interested in accruing more stuff. I only want to surround myself with objects and things that have inherent meaning because they’re made by people I love, respect, and have a genuine connection with. I feel stronger moving through the world wearing the good intentions of friends.
What about your life now, would be most unexpected to your younger self?
My younger self could not have expected much about my current life because every year still seems to surprise me and that’s how I like it. The two constants in my life have been writing and food and between those two mediums there is so much rich potential for an unpredictable life. I think in my twenties I would have seen this as meandering, even chaotic. But every year has taught me that the things that bring me joy aren’t at their core about stability, accrual, or even accomplishment though all of those things are great. I’ve intentionally sought out a horizontal life, one that puts value in the present and plurality of experience over one that builds vertically in one direction. I will never be rich. My lifestyle will likely continue to give my family anxiety. And I probably won’t have the traditionally sanctioned pillars of “a good life’. But for me, navigating life through and for the endeavors that truly mean something to me brings an intrinsic value to my daily living that I’m simply not willing to give up.
How do you feel, at your age, right now?
I’m 37 and I love it. The measure of age to me is much more about experience and general health than it is about a number. To me, a person’s age is really just a reference point for cultural context but beyond that I think it becomes more and more arbitrary. I do think that age and time have taught me a few valuable things though. I’ve learned that nothing stays still and that fighting that truth is a losing battle. I’ve learned that pain is a teacher and that time brings clarity. I’ve learned that while life is fast, personal change is slow, and that patience is necessary. But I think most importantly I’ve learned that I know very little and that humility, openness, and sensitivity are the tools I want to carry me through life.
Saehee owns an iPhone Sling in Vegetable Tanned leather. Follow Saehee and her travels + ever-evolving food practice here and listen to an inspiring interview about food as activism here on KCRW's Good Food. We love you Saehee!