James Beard Award–winning Philadelphia chef Peter Serpico came to the foods of his native South Korea as an adult. “I didn’t grow up with Korean food at all,” he says. “My adoptive parents wanted me to be ‘American,’ and my mom’s go-to dish was macaroni and cheese. When I was growing up, food was just fuel.” His Korean wife’s family introduced him to their cuisine, and now that the pair have a daughter, Serpico wants to make sure that their child has different associations with food. “I want her to grow up with meals as a time to connect,” he says.

Serpico brings this ethos and what he calls the “kinda Korean” spirit of his latest restaurant venture to his debut cookbook, Learning Korean (Norton, May), a collection of 100 recipes that celebrate Korean home cooking. PW spoke with Serpico about following—and not following—recipes, and cooking for and eating with children.

What does home cooking mean to you?

Home cooking is about nourishment—things that are easy to get on the table. The techniques are simple, and the grocery list is simple. I try to incorporate vegetables into every meal, being careful how much fat and salt I use. I cook for my six-year-old daughter; I make her breakfast and dinner, and I pack her school lunch. My wife is a med-surg nurse who works the overnight shift, and I make her meals as well. I never follow any recipes; I’m just trying to make it happen every day.

What are your family’s favorite dishes?

My daughter loves kimbap. It’s got preserved vegetables in it and rice with sesame oil, wrapped in seaweed. That’s the one thing that she always asks for. It’s perfect for a school lunch because they’re not allowed to heat anything up. That’s our go-to room temperature dish. I like cooking ssam for my family. It’s quick and simple: cleaning lettuce, cooking meat from the freezer, opening the ssamjang, and cutting up vegetables. We usually have rice already cooked and warmed in our rice cooker. The whole family enjoys eating it, myself included.

Which recipes in your book are you most excited to share?

My favorites are the no-cook chili crunch and the countertop kimchi. The no-cook chili crunch is easily manipulated into whatever spice level your family likes. With the countertop kimchi, I want people to make it to their family’s taste and be able to pass their recipe down to their kids.

How do you hope readers use your book?

The book aims to make Korean food way more accessible. I don’t want readers to think that they need to drive to their local Asian supermarket and buy a specialty cut of meat. You don’t need crosscut short ribs to make galbi: with skirt steak and the galbi marinade, it still eats like Korean food. I want this to be a cooking book and not just a cookbook. I developed a lot of the recipes when my daughter was younger. She didn’t like ginger and she didn’t like spice; we eased back on things. I want readers to make small changes in the book itself with a pen: “I’m going to use more gochugaru for my family because we like spice.” It’s a starting point for readers to feel comfortable with Korean food, and then make it their own.

Return to main feature.