July 13—Kio Griffith

by Kio Griffith

While part-timing as a busboy decades ago, I wanted to create a photographic series of the workers’ meal provided by the eatery by cooking up all unused ingredients for the day to prevent “waste” — this could entail things like the hard core of a head of cabbage, the lower quality ends of a rack of ribs, stem roots, remnants of a broth, etc.  

On occasions, this was also an opportunity for the newly trained cooks to try out their acquired skills and invent dishes. I’m not aware of any accurate Western translation of this practice which in Japanese is  “makanai” (also known as staff meal or a family meal in reference to the establishment). In essence, a socializing part of the workday, a crit group, an experimental cooking hour and working behind the scenes.  Through this series of documentation, I will be exploring the interaction of food, environment and the people who create it behind the scenes. 

For each iteration of this series, I plan to feature a favorite eatery that has changed the way I experience about food. 
For this exhibition, I approached Monica Lee who is the owner of Beverly Soon Tofu in Koreantown, where I’ve been a regular customer since it’s opening in 1986 and found it to be a true delight for my longings of finding an identifiable cuisine that is not an Americanized version of Asian food.  Now, this is not so much an issue anymore these days with such diverse food culture from everywhere in the world—one could imagine that you could find a specific regional cuisine of Myanmar, Algiers, Borneo or even New Guinea. 

New and innovative in the 80s, the home cooking and health-conscious aspects of Monica Lee’s soon tofu restaurant was the ideal reference which spoke directly to my heart and appetite — I found familiarity in her approach of cooking that I missed from being away from home. She tells me that her grandfather was a major influence; a director of an agricultural university where many Japanese students took residency to learn how to grow vegetables, make compost, maintain healthy soil, breeding fisheries and cure meat. This cooking tradition is ubiquitous and finely integrated into many Asian recipes. When taste, good sense and nuance flow easily through diverse culture, the capacity to learn, enjoy and share good comfort can cross over many boundaries. And as simple as it is, it begins with one important ingredient. For Monica, this was tofu. Though unpopular back in 1986, tofu has permeated western food culture and is now a staple food source. The variety of tofu  served now is much more authentic and diverse, from milky to firm, used accordingly with the appropriate recipe. Monica custom orders tofu from a specialized wholesaler to a specific medium grade, where the consistency becomes a fine spongy catalyst. 

At the end of the makanai photo session, Monica pointed to a chair in the back telling me that Anthony Bourdain also had visited her for the first episode of his Parts Unknown. What a coincidence and honor.

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