December 18, 2013 10:00:51 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Five years ago, Seonkyoung Longest of South Korea sat in her new house in north Columbus, feeling the isolation inherent in leaving behind her homeland, her family and her native language. Before long, she discovered an outlet in the Food Network. It was the one channel the newly-married U.S. Air Force spouse could follow and enjoy on American television, in spite of the language barrier. The shows not only improved her English, they fueled a passion for cooking.
Longest's culinary trajectory since then has defied odds. In Sunday night's finale of "Restaurant Express," she emerged as a rising star of the culinary world on the very channel that changed her life. The young chef was crowned the winner of the new Food Network competition program hosted by Chef Robert Irvine.
The reward? The position of executive chef of a brand new restaurant at the M Resort in Las Vegas. Jayde Fuzion opened its doors last night, with Seonkyoung's stamp all over the menu featuring freshly prepared Japanese, Chinese and Korean small plates made with her "signature Mississippi flair."
"This is overwhelming, but in a good way," she posted on her Facebook page, a primary means of communication during the intense preparation for the opening. Congratulations from friends and supporters not only in the Golden Triangle, but from all over the country have flooded her page since Sunday evening. "Guys, all of you, you make me feel so special and proud. I am so happy and grateful ... we have been working so hard to open the restaurant," she responded.
Pursuing a passion
A bubbling, energetic personality and zeal for food quality early on led Longest to post cooking videos online, through her "Happy Cooking with Seonkyoung Longest" site and on YouTube. She soon had a following and took a big step, applying to compete on "MasterChef" Season 4, which premiered this past May. She made the cut into the top 40 home cooks, out of 40,000 original aspirants.
Then came "Restaurant Express." With the loving support of her biggest fan -- her husband, Master Sgt. Jacob Longest of the 14th Medical Operations Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base -- Seonkyoung has been based in Las Vegas since Nov. 1. Through seven grueling weeks of travel on the "Express" bus and culinary showdowns with fellow contestants, she stayed in frequent touch by phone, social media and Face Time.
In an all-or-nothing competition finale with two co-finalists, the Columbus cook impressed judges and M Resort executives with her Asian menu and focus in the kitchen. When her name was called as the ultimate winner in Sunday's climactic episode, she had a moment of disbelief.
"I think when I heard my name I didn't realize that it was my name. I was kind of blank in my head," she said in a Food Network interview following the win. Her immediate thought was, "I cannot believe it; I cannot believe it"
The most difficult challenge, she said, was "probably the very first week's challenge, because I really didn't know what to expect ... and I've never had a time limit." The "food truck challenge" was a tough one, too. "We cooked three times a day. It was mentally and physically the hardest one."
Jennifer Brady of Columbus is a Seonkyoung fan, for more reasons than one. When a contingent from the Republic of Korea visited Columbus through Rotary International in the spring of 2011, hosts -- including Brady -- were surprised to learn none of the guests spoke English. Seonkyoung not only served as interpreter during their stay but also cooked a meal of authentic dishes for the visitors at Marleen and Vagn Hansen's Cartney-Hunt House.
"She really saved us," said Brady. "I was not surprised at all that she won. The way she cooks and prepares food, the quality and the beauty of the presentation ... I've been following her on Facebook and had a chance to have some of her cooking myself. She is definitely deserving of this."
The leap from making cooking videos for YouTube from her home in Columbus to heading up a fine dining establishment in Vegas would challenge anyone. Longest gives high praise to "Restaurant Express" host Chef Robert Irvine for boosting her confidence and level of knowledge.
"The competition was like a boot camp to open a restaurant, to learn everything in a short time with a hard-core mentor (Chef Robert) being really hard on us," she told Food Network.
As of this writing Tuesday afternoon, Seonkyoung was just hours away from the exciting grand opening of Jayde Fuzion.
"The restaurant looks beautiful," she posted. "I just cannot be thankful more than right now. ... What a journey I had, and looking forward to what's waiting for me. Thank you guys for all your support and love. ... You are all very special and lovely to me."
Find Seonkyoung's cooking videos on YouTube, follow her on Facebook and find many of her recipes at seonkyounglongest.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.