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Katianna and John Hong of Yangban Society standing in their restaurant.
Katianna and John Hong of Yangban Society.
Stan Lee

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Why Yangban Society’s Chefs Chose Casual LA Dining Over the Michelin Chase

Katianna and John Hong worked at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley before planting roots in Los Angeles

Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

Yangban Society in the Arts District was one of Los Angeles’s most anticipated 2022 openings, going into the former Bon Temps space and debuting at the beginning of this year. In the five months since, owners and chefs Katianna and John Hong have made some adjustments, learning to cater to the Los Angeles dining audience, as well as adapting menus and flavors.

After meeting at Melisse in Santa Monica, the Hongs made their careers cooking at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, where Katianna became the chef de cuisine. Then Katianna helped open the less formal but still ambitious Charter Oak as executive chef while John took her place at Meadowood as chef de cuisine. In late 2020, the Hongs announced their move to Los Angeles to plant roots and open a counter-service, deli-style restaurant in the Arts District. It may be hard for some Angelenos to understand the gravity of this move, but the bottom line is: LA’s dining scene gained two very big Northern California names. Opening a casual establishment as longtime fine dining veterans was going to come with its own set of challenges, but the pair always wanted to have a neighborhood spot that more reflected their own Korean American sensibilities.

Eater spoke with the Hongs to unpack the first few months of the restaurant’s operation to get a deeper understanding of how the chefs have cemented their place within the greater Arts District scene.

On the first five months of operation:

Katianna: All in all, the first five months have gone well. It’s pretty humbling how the community has embraced Yangban. We have been evolving with small tweaks and changes, and we’re continuing to do so. We always planned on Yangban being community-driven and collaborative, and hopefully a place for the neighborhood and the people. It’s a place that’s fluid and flexible to the likes and dislikes. We started the Yangban-style dinner menu, we’re working on a cool catering program. They’re all things we planned on and expected. It’s kind of a fun time to figure out what LA likes. We work on that and adjust.

John: This is how we envisioned cooking after Meadowood and Charter Oak. For us this approach was organic. Our career arc has been guiding us to this moment — to explore our heritage. We’re exploring what it really is for us to communicate within this cultural restaurant.

Outside Yangban Society in Arts District.
Outside Yangban Society in Arts District.
Wonho Frank Lee

Katianna: It’s an exploration into value. When you go to a more fine dining restaurant with the service and the garnishes, people equate that with value. While I agree with that, John and I feel there are other ways to cook and present food that is just as valuable but not as in your face as that. It’s a way to find value in beautifully simple things that are accessible to everyone.

On the new Yangban-style dinner menu and the nature of chef’s choice:

Katianna: The Yangban-style dinner menu (a nightly selection of dishes served at $50 per person) was really fun for us because these are things that are authentic to us — natural feeling and not forced. It felt natural when we had our family members or partners in to just sit down and send them a bunch of stuff. When they enjoyed that, we thought, why don’t we allow other people to experience this as well? It’s been fun for us because we started it as a way to eliminate choices and just let people sit back and relax. Now it’s a fun way to explore R&D and seasonal menu items. It’s a fun way for it to be like a chef’s tasting menu.

On figuring out the things that didn’t work:

Katianna: I wouldn’t necessarily say that things didn’t work. We got a lot of good feedback on our beef ribs. We ended up switching from back ribs to short ribs because everyone likes a good Korean short rib. It wasn’t because of a lack of popularity. It’s been interesting to test different things and see how it goes. Any chef finds it rewarding to see people’s responses and see what resonates with them.

John: We took off the kimchi pozole from the menu. It’s not that we weren’t happy with it, but had to be garnished in the kitchen. We figured, let’s be functional instead of serving it in a soup cup from the front. The original version had garnishes of jalapenos, scallions, and vinegar. When you get kimchi pozole, you want it big and bubbly and hot, not in a small soup cup. We can’t wait to revisit it. We’re gonna collaborate [with an artist] on a custom bowl for the matzo ball soup and kimchi pozole.

On the occasional frustrations of being a chef in Los Angeles:

Katianna: I wouldn’t say any of these changes have come from a place of frustration. We’re chefs and business owners who are always looking to make things better. That’s the nature of collaboration. We love hearing input. We don’t take everything to heart necessarily. We come from a background at Meadowood that’s creative and collaborative. We like to roundtable everything. We believe you’re better with more inputs than just one. For example, I didn’t know orange wine was so popular. Everyone wants orange wine. Everyone has responded well to the house-made makgeolli. We didn’t think it would be so well received.

On finding a place to call home in Los Angeles:

John: Living in LA, cooking in LA, being chefs in LA. We’ve always seen this as a second home. Kat’s brother and cousins; my nieces and brother-in-law; they all live here. We may not have made our name in LA, but we find ourselves connected to the city. Our daughter is being raised here in the middle of Koreatown. Maybe it’s that we’re from NorCal but we’re always been a part of LA.

Katianna: When we first moved up north, I never imagined spending nine years there. I always said I’ll be back. The job ended up lasting longer than expected.

John: Cooks are naturally nomadic. For us to put roots down, raise a child here, and eventually buy a home in K-Town — for us, we thought, this is it. We firmly intend to be a part of this city.

Katianna: Maybe diners are different in NorCal versus SoCal. For me, it’s a fun challenge because it’s another way of learning and exploring. I don’t see it as a negative.

On how Yangban will continue to develop as a Korean American restaurant:

John: We are letting go of things we can’t control. Yangban for us is a newborn baby. It’s growing and creating its own personality based on the surroundings, employees, and guests. We really want to grow this restaurant organically.

Kat: I get when people are like, “It’s not Korean American.” We’re OK that it’s American.

John: Last time we spoke, we talked about what it means to be Korean American and how many lenses of Korean American there are. We’re picking things that are specific to us. It’s reassuring when something we do reminds me of something from my childhood, like matzo ball soup or sujebi. Sometimes I can’t put my finger on it. That’s the style of cooking we’re doing here. We’ve never cooked like this. I don’t think anyone has cooked like this. When you do something on the fly, it creates uncertainty, and it may confuse our guests. We’re working on it and we’re growing it organically. We’re proud, but we’re also in a world that’s searching for authenticity. This is everyone we imagined this to be. We’re not hiding behind luxury ingredients, techniques, or [fine porcelain]. We’re keeping things bare-boned, and that’s kind of our vision.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Counter at Yangban Society with Korean table markers.
Counter at Yangban Society with Korean table markers.
Wonho Frank Lee

Yangban Society

712 South Santa Fe Avenue, , CA 90021 (213) 866-1987 Visit Website
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