Saehee Cho May 2021

Where are you from and what did you grow up eating?

I’m from Orange County, Laguna Hills. But I spent maybe all of my summers growing up, in Korea, in Seoul with my grandmother – so I ate a pretty consistent diet of Korean food and whatever my grandmother fed me which was amazing, the best food ever. In Orange County I grew up in a diverse neighborhood with a lot of Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Korean kids so I ate a lot of different Asian foods growing up. We had this running joke that whenever we went to our white friend’s houses they would never feed us enough because Asian families eat so much that we would go home and need a second dinner. And of course growing up in Southern California I ate a lot of Mexican food; my sister and I ate a lot of Del Taco embarrassingly which I think is quintessentially Orange County actually.

So what is Soon Mini?

Well currently it is a not for profit business that is serving East Los Angeles primarily but generally all of Los Angeles and it has two major legs which are direct to consumer local farm produce and small businesses making small specialty goods. A lot of that came from line cooks who lost their jobs in the beginning of the pandemic and it kind of pushed people to create their own cottage license businesses. Like I have this friend Laura who was a cook at Kensho and then obviously the restaurant shut down last March and she found it really empowering to have the time and freedom. She is starting her own baking business and also an agency for other bakers; she was just lit on fire from this change in the food industry.

I mean yeah I was furloughed from my job as a private chef at an artist’s studio and started making pasta as my solution to the lack of work and it has been really fun. I’m not making a lot of money from it but it has been fun to make new things each week and I really love sharing my pasta with people, it’s special.

It is special. And of course we all need money to live, well hopefully we don’t eventually need money.

Yeah that would be cool.

Part of Soon Mini is to create as many cashless systems as possible.

Yeah I was surprised to read about that on your Mini Mart app, that you’re not operating as a profit model at all.

It’s not and I think it has to continue that way, and in order to do that the next leg of it that it has to turn into an employee owned Co-op, so every person that has touched Soon Mini gets an equal vote. Every vendor, every customer, everyone gets to choose what direction we move in, any charity we want to donate to, it has to be unanimous, which is tactically difficult, it is gonna be tedious and hard. But it’s the gesture of assuming it’s a democratic system that is important, that everyone’s vote is equal. To be able to sustain this endeavor this way I end up taking on catering and food styling jobs as a side hustle. That being said, the pandemic has made it so that there generally aren’t many places to spend money other than pretty essential things. I’m paying for food, gas and rent. I think it’s helping people reevaluate what is luxury.

And also what’s necessary.

Yeah! So they’re saving their dollars for what really matters. And also I don’t think there’s this crazy desire to earn all this money right now, at least for the people in my world. We’re not really looking out for how to make things better for ourselves, but how to make a better foundation for everyone. Usually the reason that not-for-profit doesn’t work is because only a few individuals are taking on that burden. But when you change that volume, when you amplify that by 200 people, it is much easier for the non-profit model to exist because it’s based in mutual aid at that point and skill sharing. A lot of people think starting a co-op is a naïve idea.

Hmm really?

Yeah if you think about it there really aren’t a lot of co-ops in California despite the bounty. Berkeley and Davis are two very specific co-op areas. But I think the reason these things don’t work is because people don’t buy in and invest in them. The truth is the co-op model has existed forever, it’s an indigenous model of skill sharing. Most small communities are able to sustain them because they are small. So the idea is to keep the co-op as small as possible which means that I sort of have to rid myself of capitalistic ambitions, it’s not about meeting a $200,000 mark every year, it’s about doing as much tangible good within a small community and then creating other small communities. Soon Mini can be a jumping off point or a point of inspiration for other small communities.

Wow that’s so inspiring and it’s something I thought about in the early days of the pandemic. Like there are so many now empty spaces and so much need for this kind of community project, I’ve been feeling like someone would start a co-op. Like have you heard about Future City Pantry?

Yeah I’ve been communicating and sharing research with Chantael!

I volunteered with her once and was very happy to find out about her project because it was exactly what I has thought about.

I mean that model exists and I’m sure other ones that we don’t even know about and the cool thing is that none of this has to be competitive; it can be just generative. It’s great that she exists and that we are sharing resources, the more the better. If it was a basic brick and mortar retail however, then yeah we’re talking about distribution, territory, and a concrete amount of money that only a few of us get. But if the ambition is freed from trying to make as much money as possible, it’s a totally different ball game. Of course there are still the tangible questions of how to make a living and I am still very much figuring out that part.

Have you had time to do both? Freelance and Soon Mini?

Sort of, like this week is a good example. I got a catering gig for Monday and I have to take it in order to continue Soon Mini, but that also means I can’t do Soon Mini things while I am catering. So theses are the kind of considerations I have to make on a weekly basis; I can’t be good at Soon Mini things if I am struggling to pay rent. And I think because the customer knows that, they become much more forgiving, it becomes a more empathetic system. Like I would love it if would could go to a grocery store and know that the cashier has a shitty day and that’s why they’re not all smiley.

Oh yes. It really breaks my heart how many layers there are between cashiers and people at the grocery store these days, you can’t even talk to each other, you can’t even see their facial expressions.

And yet they’re risking their lives every day to be there.

Literally. So I want to know some stories that have happened with Soon Mini over the last year, any special occurrence or funny thing that you want to share.

It has been non-stop, there’s good and bad of course. I think one of the best things that has happened is that my dear friend Nancy moved in with me. We went to UCSD and Cal Arts for grad school together. She actually had a dream where she thought she had to move in with me and within a few weeks of that dream she did. And she has become my right hand person with Soon Mini and it has been wonderful.

Wait that is really crazy!

She’s completely changed Soon Mini in terms of streamlining and organizing things. She’s also been someone who I workshop problems with, as well as a back-up delivery driver, and then also a sounding board for my co-op visions. And that’s just one example of how everyone comes to Soon Mini; everyone has been amazing volunteers and a joy to work with. I don’t think there has one been one person who has complained about the work. One of the principles of Soon Mini is that we don’t want to reflect the exploitative systems of other jobs we’ve had in the past. Some businesses expect their workers to quit within a short period of time, so quickly draining them of everything they have, then the works moves on, and they feel completely exploited. What we have to change is the idea that the employer is #1 and can dictate everything. I don’t assume that anyone who works for Soon Mini owes me their time. Everything is a gift. I always check in with my volunteers, even if they’ve helped every week since the beginning, to see if they’re available and have extra time to help instead of assuming. I think that assumption is dangerous and where things get slippery and that creates this feeling of being owed something. Because I now have a large network of volunteers, I am able to work with people’s shifting schedules and their mental health limits. So by checking in with everyone, I know everyone wants to be here helping. It really fosters a positive environment for everyone.

The first gathering between Soon Mini vendors since the pandemic began

It seems like a fun thing to wake up to every morning.

It’s a rollercoaster. The other thing is that, if you are allowing a lot of inconsistencies within your business, at some point someone will have to deal with it and that will be me. It has taught be so much patience. So things that six months ago would keep me up at night and totally freak me out, are now examples for how I figured it out and was totally fine in the end. Like Laura who I mentioned earlier, bakes for Soon Mini, sometimes can’t deliver her pastries on Mondays even though that is when things are due. And it really just comes back to, no one will die because they didn’t get their pie this week – everyone will be fine, it’s just a matter of how it’s explained to the customer. It’s a shift of how we value labor. In the United States we’ve been conditioned to think hospitality means the customer is always right and I don’t think that’s true.

Oh god yeah, it’s just not.

It’s not right? And it devalues labor. It makes it so you have no agency over your creative work. I think a lot of chefs and bakers are at a point where we feel like food can be art, food is creative energy. So to have someone who doesn’t know your work, doesn’t know the context of where you’re coming from try to change your creative vision because it’s not to their liking, is kind of absurd. It’s these small steps towards shifting where value lies and I think we have to shift it towards labor.

Wow I’m just so inspired. I want to know more about your writing career and also if you can name one food related text that you love?

Oh easy, have you read MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf? I mean the first time I read her in college I realized food writing could be beautiful and not boring Bon Apetit writing that is trying to sell something. I think she was trying to give a sensorial feeling about food and the experience of eating. I think it was the essay On Eating Alone that felt so validating because I love to go to a nice restaurant alone or cook some tedious special dish and it’s just for me, I feel like that’s really meditative.

I also love that essay and have that book on my bedside table and I love that you have a literary supplement with your newsletter.

Honestly it takes the longest to figure that part of the newslestter out and is also the most fun. It’s sort of mysterious to me how I never know what I’m gonna write or include until the morning of. Like this morning I started writing at 6 am and it takes a stupid amount of time.

They’re really nice newsletters, I always read them.

I used to get the Cookbook newsletters and loved that they always included a poem. And because I’m a poet and have studied poetry, I’ve wasted way too much time trying to figure out how to separate those parts of myself. And then in the beginning I was trying to figure out how to find only poems that were food related but then I wanted to just include what I was already reading. I now feel like I don’t need to justify these two parts of myself, they just are. I actually started working in food very much as a response to writing. In grad school we had these three hour long lectures and workshops, so I would bring a cake to school every day – we only had class three days a week. After I did that for a while Cal Arts hired me as their caterer for the graduate program.

That’s really cool.

Oh my god when I think about those days. I lived in a tiny fourth floor apartment in Thai Town with no elevator; I shuttled things up and down the stairs. I think they paid me $3000 for 15 catering events so obviously I didn’t make any money. But I would make like 30 dishes per event, insane spreads. To this day I don’t know how I did it.

You were probably excited also.

I was so excited, so I just went all out. When you think about the cliché of poetry reading snacks – carrots, crunchy grocery store snacks and cheap red wine – it was fun to all of sudden offer things like poached pear and avocado pound cake. It was delight.

Do you have any notebooks from that time with menus or notes?

I do because I would sketch everything out. I would do an aerial view drawing of the table with the dishes sketched out.

Oh wow that’s really cool.

My boyfriend at the time made sure I saved those notebooks. I need to dig those up at some point.

So who is your favorite poet? I’m sure a lot of people ask you that.

Actually people don’t usually ask me that. I would say my two consistently favorite poets throughout my life are Anne Carson and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Anne Carson’s interpretation of the ancient poet Sappho was a really special and inspiring text for me – the way she treats the missing text with gaping parentheses was amazing. And then Theresa Hak Kyung Cha has a really crazy story. She’s a Korea-American writer who only wrote one book, Dictée, which I read and college and which changed my life. But she was murdered two weeks after that publication. For any Asian American, especially Korean-Americans, she is a legendary figure because she was a contemporary artist, a contemporary of Yoko Ono and part of the fluxus art movement. But she’s kind of mythic and then she died in this crazy mythic way – sometimes I think some people are destined for that. Isn’t that terrible?

What kinds of things did she write about?

So she wrote about her mother and herself and also Joan of Arc. It’s about these pivotal historical figures that are kind of interlaced into her own history and it’s written in three different languages so certain parts are untranslatable, so it simultaneously invites and rejects the reader. There is no necessary chronology to it, but it’s the story of five women. 

Ok so my last question is sort of silly; I love seeing your late night pasta videos on Instagram. Can you tell me how that started and which meal has been your favorite?

Late night pasta isn’t terribly different from me being hungry after eating at white friends’ houses as a kid. I really crave something warm and starchy late at nights and my work schedule has shifted my eating pattern so that I eat dinner quite late. Pasta is easy to make as a single person and you can pretty much put anything into it and it comes out good if you know what you’re doing. I have two favorite go-tos, I’ll do a canned fish like a sardine with a tomato sauce and a little olives and red pepper. And then my other trick is uncasing some sausage and topping it with a funky cheese like a tallegio.

Photos provided by Saehee