Marja, who is half Korean and half African-American, co-hosts the show with her celebrity chef husband Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose New York restaurant empire includes Spice Market, Mercer Kitchen, Jojo and Prime Steakhouse. But in the show, the three star Michelin chef takes a back seat to his wife as the two eat, explore and cook their way through Korea with family and friends.
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“I like to refer to Korean food as the soul food of Asia because it really is reminiscent of a lot of the cooking and stewing techniques we use in African-American soul food,” said Marja. “It’s always heavily seasoned. It’s cheap cuts of meat. It’s got a lot of similarities. Food is also a nice segue to learn anybody’s culture because there is always a story behind it.”
And Marja’s story is about as fascinating as they come.
Born in Korea in 1976 to a Korean mother and an African-American GI father, Marja was denied a birth certificate due to the Korean government’s hostile attitude toward mixed race children.
“To be mixed, especially part Black, in Korea you were really considered undesirable,” says Marja. “A single mother in Korea at that time couldn’t vouch for her child on a document. Especially if you were half Black. Koreans have been stomped on and enslaved by centuries by the Japanese and Chinese and Mongolians, so it’s important for them to keep their bloodlines.”
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Orphaned at age 3, Marja was adopted by an African-American family and raised in North Virginia. Her Korean heritage remained a mystery to her until she was 19, when she located her birth mother, who had been living in Brooklyn, New York.
“The show incorporates the story of finding my Korean roots. My biological family is in the show. I have aunts and uncles in Korea. My grandmother is there. It’s a record of my journey.”
Marja’s neighbor and close friend, “X-Men” star Hugh Jackman, pops up in a cooking segment on the show, and actress Heather Graham also makes an appearance.
“Hugh and his wife have two adopted children. Their son is Black and White, and his daughter is Mexican and White. We bonded over that and he’s always had a respect for different cultures,” said Marja. “And when I told him I got the offer to do the show I told him about it and he said ‘I’ll be in that.’ It was so great, because I never would have asked him.”
The 13-part series travels throughout Korea and takes the viewer to lush locations such as the rocky coast of JeJe island, where human mermaids free-dive for seafood, and to Chodang to watch the preparation of tofu, and to Busan, Korea’s second largest city, for an episode on rice, a Korean dish staple.
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“Korean food and Soul food factor into my everyday life. Every day I either want one or the other. My mac and cheese recipe is in one of his restaurants. But every once in a while I crave a Wendy’s bacon double cheeseburger.”
For more on Marja’s journey and “Kimchi Chronicles,” click here.