Her mother prepared some amazing dishes for Soo Young, but the recipes were never passed from generation to generation. That didn't stop Young from creating her own recipes.
"My mother was an amazing cook. For a woman in suburban Korea in the Sixties, she was incredibly adventurous. We were eating things like stuffed cabbage when we were 5 years old. She's absolutely amazing," said Soo Young, who has taken her own route into the kitchen. Soo Young is the co-owner and executive chef at Vis á Vis.
"She, for some reason, never taught me how to cook. I think she wanted to be not indispensable. I begged her to teach me all these Korean dishes before I left for college, but I never did learn them. My sister never did learn how to cook."
The recessed space in the Bon Air Shopping Center next to Peet's Coffee and Tea could be easily overlooked by busy shoppers, but Young's friends and loyal customers take time out to stop in and say hi.
"Some of our best friends are people we've met at the restaurant. It's a nice social setting for us," Young said.
"We live four blocks away. … I was really thrilled when this became available. I can walk to work."
Young describes her cuisine as "minimally processed, seasonally fresh food for foodies" although what appears on the plate is viewed by some of her customers as artwork. The dinner entrees include Alaskan halibut cheeks crusted with cashews, Kobe steak with a mushroom bread pudding, duck breast and fish tacos.
"The thing about my recipes is they're mostly in my head," Young said. "Almost everything I do in the kitchen I do by taste. … It's why we have a very unusual pairing of tastes.
"My food has a real point of view. I've always been a real picky eater and having been a research scientist I tend to cogitate over certain ingredients. It's like the squash blossoms. I sort of sat on the idea for a while and experimented and it worked."
Young wanted to learn to cook at an early age. Although she didn't learn her mother's specialties, Young did learn her way around the kitchen. Her experience as a research scientist in college in Chicago proved to be as useful as any training from a culinary academy.
"Cooking to me is material science," said Young, who got to know her ingredients inside and out studying fish during her time as a researcher.
"I worked with fish: marlin, sailfish, swordfish. You don't pick a research topic because it's your passion. It's assigned to you and it's something either you're fascinated by or you're not. I was completely fascinated by structural biology," she continued. "What the research experience taught me … sometimes I'll look at a piece of meat or a vegetable and think of it as a piece of material that needs to be handled a certain way. Does it need to be seared? Does it need to be poached? Does it need a lot of salt? Does it need to be brined?"
Young arrived in Greenbrae from Petaluma, where she owned the 18-seat Sooze Wine Bar. Her partner operated Cafe Z in Montclair before they combined forces to lease the Vis á Vis space.
"Greenbrae is so amazing. We have wonderful weather and we're close to the weather," Young said. "We have these farmers markets and we have access to all this great food. … Central Marin is so food savvy."
Vis a Vis Clam Chowder
- 10 pounds clams soaked several hours in salted water and rinsed
- 1 qt water
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1 large onion in 1/4 inch dice
- 4 celery stalks cut into 1/3-inch dice
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 3 pounds potatoes in 1/2 inch dice
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup white wine
- Bring 1 cup water to boil and steam clams until almost all shells are open (just a few minutes - do not overcook clams!).
- Shuck clams, reserving a few in shell for garnish.
- Discard unopened clams and reserve broth.
- Melt the butter and soften onion, celery; add bay leaves, garlic and pepper. Stir briefly.
- Add the potatoes and the reserved clam broth. The broth should just barely cover the potatoes; if it doesn't, add enough water to cover them. Boil 10 minutes, or until potatoes are soft. Smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot if necessary for consistency.
- Add cream, parsley and clams, adjust for salt and heat just to bring to a light boil.
- Serve with a few reserved in-shell clams and a sprinkling of parsley.
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