Despite now being one of the Seattle restaurant industry’s most respectful and respected members as the multi-James Beard Award-nominated chef at Joule, Rachel Yang still remembers the day as a young cook that a hot-tempered older chef made her cry.
New to kitchens, she was tasked with cleaning four cases of organic lettuces so fresh they arrived at the kitchen dusted in dirt as though just plucked from the ground. Even after three hours elbow deep in a prep sink rinsing the greens and then drying each fragile leaf, the older chef found a tiny bug and furiously began to yell.
All that work, “to be totally dismissed and told you have no idea what you are doing and you are worthless because you have to throw it away,” Yang says. “I remember so vividly what it means to not know how to do things and then be treated like I’m worthless.”
Now, years later, she and her husband Seif Chirchi are finalists for outstanding chefs in this year’s James Beard Awards for their menu at Joule, the Pacific Northwest meets Korean restaurant that exemplifies Yang’s fusion of her upbringing and American culinary education.
Outside of the nominations, Yang and Chirchi have become local restaurant industry leaders, having nurtured many of Seattle’s next generation of chefs. During the pandemic, they converted their restaurants into community kitchens that offered free meals for food service workers, and Yang has been a vocal critic of female harassment in the kitchen. Often working with a lot of cooks straight out of culinary school or with little experience, her respectful and inclusive kitchen environment is almost a reactionary response to her own industry experiences.
The road to the top
Yang credits her stalwart composure to her upbringing in Korea, where the rigorous education system pushed her for excellence, and not unlike kitchens, acclimated her to long days, with tutoring and after-school activities regularly keeping her busy until 10 pm every school night.
Her academic dedication would pay off when she earned a degree in urban studies and visual arts from Brown University, but soon after graduation she traded the Ivy League for chef whites and enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. She honed her skills in temples of fine dining, including at Per Se and later at Alain Ducasse at Essex House, where she met her future husband and collaborator Chirchi.
At the time a restaurant was a distant dream, let alone the title of chef. “Being a female cook, I didn’t even think I could be an executive chef,” Yang says.
As a chef with restaurants as deeply personal as her own, something she chronicled through recipes in her cookbook My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines, Yang uses her kitchen and experience to mentor her cooks to find their own connection to food and their own style. Given how tough working in the restaurant industry can be, “the only thing that will keep you going is making the food you cook personal to you,” she says.
While classically trained and boasting an impressive French fine-dining pedigree, it was only through the fusion of classic techniques with flavors from her home country of Korea that her food achieved a personal and creative harmony for her.
Many of the cooks that have left her kitchens have taken this personal connection to food and turned it into a restaurant of their own, like Paolo Campbell, chef and owner of the new, noteworthy Filipino fried chicken restaurant Chicken Supply, which marries his cooking style and heritage.
“It’s 100 percent him, which is what I’m most proud of,” Yang says. “Paolo’s such a fun, easy-going guy, who works hard and his concept perfectly represents who he is.”
Walk into Joule or Revel, Yang’s more casual sibling restaurant, and you’ll often find Yang or her husband on the line, side by side with their cooks, instructing. With an eye for detail and dedication, the couple has cemented their status as formidable chefs in Seattle, and perhaps soon, outstanding ones nationally. No yelling or throwing necessary.
Alana Al-Hatlani is a baker by morning and a food writer by night, based in Seattle.