Chef Chris Cho uses his unique combination of Korean culinary knowledge and casual Philly vibes to introduce newbies to this delicious cuisine.

By Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme
May 07, 2021
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The TikTok algorithm introduced me to Chef Chris Cho's videos back in the middle of 2020, right at the time when I was absolutely sick of grocery shopping and cooking and eating. Cho's videos arrived like a jolt of caffeine to my food-weary system. His style — a combination of classic, approachable Korean dishes adapted for what he calls the "broke boy" approach — was the perfect way to break out of my rut.

It turns out, this Internet phenomenon is from Philly, the same city where I live. The longer I watched, the more obvious it was. Cho often refers to things as "jawns," a super specific regional term that people in Philly use to refer to basically anything: people, food, activities. In Cho's case, it's a way for him to combine two of the things he loves most.

"I rep Philly and Korean food — that's my identity," Cho told me over the phone when I called him to discuss his recent Internet stardom. "I've always wanted to do more stuff online but I never really had the chance to because we run two restaurants here in Philly, and it's a lot. But when the pandemic hit, I basically gave all the shifts to the kitchen guys, and I had a lot more time on my hands, so it gave me the time to start making all these recipes online."

Chef Chris Lee
Credit: James Lee

Since spring of 2020, Cho's following on TikTok has ballooned to over a million followers, with his Instagram following growing to over 300 thousand. His videos capture his background in a perfectly casual, super-approachable way. But Cho's knowledge is deeper than his quick videos might indicate. He was born in Korea, then moved to Philadelphia when he was a kid. He comes from a family of professional cooks: his parents have owned restaurants throughout his life, including the long-running Philadelphia staple Seorabol and Seorabol Center City — a downtown version of that restaurant that Cho himself opened a few years ago.

His Instagram and TikTok pages are now my go-to resource for all kinds of recipes, from Korean dishes like tteokguk, a rice cake soup made with instant soup mix and frozen dumplings to dishes inspired by exactly what Cho wants to eat, like a kimchi carbonara, a mish-mash of the beloved Italian pasta dish, bumped up a notch with the addition of spicy fermented kimchi.

Even though his videos are super-approachable, it's obvious Cho has a ton of cooking knowledge. Watching him slice onions, infuse scallions and garlic into cooking oil, and deftly explain ratios and break down how, exactly, to cook a perfect pot of rice have helped me quickly gain confidence in a style of cooking that I wasn't very familiar with.

Cho says he specifically creates his recipes with that in mind — many of his followers aren't Korean and don't have much background in Korean cooking. Often, he'll share several versions of a single recipe: one longer and more "authentic" and one version more aimed at what he calls the Broke Boyz — people who want to save time and money, and maybe don't want to go through the trouble of buying a steamer or making their own beef stock.

"People love fried rice, like the dumpling fried rice and the ramen fried rice — everyone loves those. But some of the really authentic Korean recipes have gone viral as well," Cho said. "It's really about meeting people where they're at."

Cho's videos really do have a universal appeal, whether he's teaching me how to cook an unfamiliar dish, or doing a Korean spin on a viral TikTok challenge (like his Korean take on the four-layer quesadilla hack), it always feels casual, fun, and makes me very, very hungry. He says he creates his videos with this in mind.

"I have three demographics that I have in my head," Cho told me. "One is Korean or Asian kids who are like, wow, there's somebody who looks like me, who is authentic instead of being the model minority. Two is people who just love Korean food, or K-pop or Korean culture, and I'm like a translator for the culture. And the third is just urban kids who are like oh I get that, I can get down with that."

More than anything though, watching Cho's videos feels like hanging out with a very fun, very knowledgeable Korean friend who is ready to break down all kinds of Korean cooking — from Instant noodles to seafood pancakes, and basically anything in between, with a healthy dose of pranking his wife tossed in for good measure.

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