May 22, 2013 11:19:16 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
When Seonkyoung Longest came to the United States in 2009 from her native South Korea, her world was a happy place. She had met and married her Prince Charming -- Jacob Longest of the United States Air Force -- and was about to begin the next chapter in a new land. What she didn't realize was that her fairy tale was about to meet reality.
The former professional illustrator and competitive belly dancer brought with her a wealth of creativity and an exuberance for living -- and, for a while, life was idyllic. But eventually, new culture, no family, no friends and no driver's license began to weigh heavily.
Jacob, who is currently stationed at Columbus Air Force Base, was coming home every day for lunch, but it wasn't enough. "I had a really hard time first year," said Seonkyoung. "I couldn't even enjoy watching TV as much as I did in Korea because I could not understand (the language) as well."
Enter the Food Network channel. Seonkyoung didn't have to comprehend every word to follow the actions of Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Emeril or Bobby Flay. The more she watched, the more inspired she became and soon was trying to replicate some of their dishes in her own kitchen.
"I started to cook every day, try something new that I saw on TV," she explained. "I never follow exact recipe -- not because I thought I could make it better but because we were on a budget so I had to substitute a lot for less expensive ingredients."
As confidence blossomed, she reveled in giving each recipe a personal twist. "I finally create a totally new recipe all by myself. Happiness was there with me, so I cooked more, more, more and more," she beamed.
Before long, Seonkyoung was eager to share her new-found passion for cooking.
"Because I made Jacob happy with my food and it felt so good I wanted to do more with more people."
She began with a small camera in a room in her home and has now produced about 90 cooking videos for YouTube. That room is now her "studio," equipped with special lighting to show off the food she makes for her three YouTube shows: "Asian at Home," introducing a traditional Asian dish each segment; "Chop Chop," featuring quick-fix Asian dishes and plenty of shortcuts; and "Seonkyoung's Kitchen," highlighting non-Asian cuisine.
"Cooking saved my life. It really did," declared the 29-year-old who recently emerged from about 40,000 hopefuls to make the Top 100 finalists for MasterChef Season 4, which premieres tonight on Fox. She's the only Mississippian to do so. On the show, Chef Gordon Ramsey, restaurateur Joe Bastianich and acclaimed chef Graham Elliot will put contestants through the culinary ringer to find America's rising stars. It's been a remarkable fast track for Seonkyoung, who began cooking in earnest about three years ago.
Jacob has been her No. 1 fan, encouraging her every step of the way.
"I've had food I thought was good, until I had this," he said, referring to Seonkyoung's cooking and a representative feast of savory, nutty Bulgogi lettuce wrap (a Korean barbecue lettuce wrap), a light-as-air Berry Lady Cake, Korean salmon rolls and crab sushi.
"And don't let the Korean part fool you; she makes the best shrimp and grits ever," the master sergeant grinned.
"My grits are literally top notch, so creamy. I use chicken stock instead of water," his wife said, revealing one of her steps, which she learned from Columbus chef Marty Wages.
Cooking has become a creative passion for Seonkyoung, just as her artwork and professional dancing were. And it's one she's eager to pursue, wherever it may take her. Jacob will be there, still cheering her on.
"Whatever she cooks," he said, "seems like she somehow makes it a little better."
And that two-hour premiere of MasterChef tonight on Fox? You'll want to tune in.
ON THE WEB:
BERRY LADY CAKE
1/2 cup and 3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
350g eggs (6 1arge or 5 extra-large) room temperature, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water, room temp
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon hot water
3 tablespoons honey
2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons convection sugar, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 /3 cup sliced strawberries for layering
1 pound mixture of fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries for topping, wash and keep it whole
BULGOGI LETTUCE WRAP
l/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons rice wine or dry red wine
l tablespoon toasted sesame oil, plus 2 tablespoons more for sir frying
Fresh ground black pepper
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
l/2 medium size onion, small diced
l l/2 pound good quality lean ground beef
l/2 cup shiitake mushrooms, small diced
3 green onions, chopped
Toasted sesame seeds
KOREAN SALMON ROLLS
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons Korean black vinegar or aged balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon Sriracha
1/2 mini gourmet cucumber, cut into long thin strips
1 mini yellow sweet pepper, cut into long thin strips
1 mini red sweet pepper, cut into long thin strips
1 medium purple cabbage leaf, cut into long thin strips
1 avocado, cut into long thin strips
8 ounces smoked salmon
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.