Why Yangban Society Chefs Left Michelin Stars Behind to Pursue Casual Dining in LA

The Yangban Society in the Arts District was one of Los Angeles’ most anticipated openings of 2022, entering the former Bon Temps space and debuting earlier this year. Over the next five months, owners and chefs Katianna and John Hong made some adjustments, learning to cater to the Los Angeles foodie crowd as well as adapting menus and flavors.

After meeting at the Melisse in Santa Monica, the Hongs made their careers cooking at the three-Michelin-starred Meadowood restaurant in St. Helena, where Katianna became the head chef. Katianna then helped open the less formal but still ambitious Charter Oak as executive chef, while John took his place at Meadowood as head chef. In late 2020, the Hongs announced their move to Los Angeles to plant roots and open a quick-service deli-style restaurant in the Arts District. It might be hard for some Los Angeles residents to grasp the gravity of this shift, but the bottom line is: LA’s food scene has gained two big names from Northern California. Opening a casual establishment like longtime veterans of fine dining would come with its own set of challenges, but the duo had always wanted to have a neighborhood spot that more reflected their own Korean-American sensibilities.

Eater caught up with the Hongs to unravel the restaurant’s first few months of operation to gain a deeper understanding of how the chefs cemented their place in the Arts District scene.

In the first five months of operation:

Katianna: All in all, the first five months went well. It’s very humbling how the community has embraced Yangban. We have evolved with small tweaks and changes, and we continue to do so. We always planned for Yangban to be community-driven and collaborative, and we hoped it would be a place for the neighborhood and the people. It’s a place that’s fluid and flexible to likes and dislikes. We started the Yangban style dinner menu, we are working on a cool catering program. It’s all the things we planned and hoped for. It’s a fun time to find out what LA likes. We work on that and adjust.

John: This is how we envisioned cooking after Meadowood and Charter Oak. For us, this approach was organic. Our career arc has led us to this point – to explore our heritage. We’re exploring what it’s really like for us to communicate in this cultural restaurant.

Outside the Yangban Society in the Arts District.
Wonho Frank Lee

Katianna: It’s an exploration of value. When you go to a more upscale restaurant with the service and trimmings, people equate that with value. While I agree with that, John and I feel that there are other ways to cook and present food that are just as valuable but not as apparent. It’s a way to find value in beautifully simple things that are accessible to everyone.

On the new Yangban-style dinner menu and the nature of the chef’s choice:

Katianna: The Yangban-style dinner menu (an evening selection of dishes served at $50 per person) was a lot of fun for us because these are things that are authentic to us – feeling natural and not forced. It felt natural when we had our family members or partners to sit down and send a bunch of stuff. When they liked it, we thought, why don’t we let other people experience this too? It’s been fun for us because we started out as a way to eliminate choices and just let people sit back and relax. Now it’s a fun way to explore R&D and seasonal menu items. It’s a fun way to be like a chef’s tasting menu.

To find out the things that didn’t work:

Katianna: I wouldn’t necessarily say things didn’t work out. We’ve received a lot of good feedback about our beef ribs. We ended up switching from ribs to short ribs because everyone likes a good Korean prime rib. It wasn’t for lack of popularity. It’s been interesting to test different things and see how it goes. Any chef finds it rewarding to see people’s responses and see what resonates with them.

John: We took the kimchi pozole off the menu. It’s not that we weren’t happy about it, but we had to be staffed in the kitchen. We thought, let’s be functional instead of serving it in a cup of soup straight ahead. The original version had garnishes of jalapenos, chives and vinegar. When you eat kimchi pozole, you want it big, bubbly and hot, not in a small cup of soup. We can’t wait to revisit it. we will collaborate [with an artist] in a custom bowl for matzo ball soup and kimchi pozole.

On the occasional frustrations of being a chef in Los Angeles:

Katianna: I wouldn’t say any of these changes came from a place of frustration. We are chefs and entrepreneurs who are always looking to improve things. That’s the nature of collaboration. We love to hear the input. We don’t necessarily take everything seriously. We come from a Meadowood background that is creative and collaborative. We like everything round table. We believe you are better off with more entries than just one. For example, I didn’t know orange wine was so popular. Everyone wants orange wine. All responded well to the homemade makgeolli. We didn’t think it would be so well received.

On finding a place to call home in Los Angeles:

John: Living in LA, cooking in LA, being chefs in LA. We always saw it as a second home. Kat’s brother and cousins; my nieces and brother-in-law; they all live here. We may not have made a name for ourselves in LA, but we find ourselves connected to the city. Our daughter is being raised here in the middle of Koreatown. Maybe we’re from NorCal, but we’ve always been part of LA.

Katianna: When we moved up north, I never imagined spending nine years there. I always said I would come back. The job ended up taking longer than expected.

John: Cooks are naturally nomads. For us to put down roots, raise a child here and eventually buy a house in K-Town – for us, we think, that’s it. We have the firm intention of being part of this city.

Katianna: Perhaps diners are different in NorCal and SoCal. For me, it’s a fun challenge because it’s another way to learn and explore. I don’t see it as a negative.

On how Yangban will continue to develop as a Korean-American restaurant:

John: We are giving up things we cannot control. Yangban for us is a newborn baby. She is growing up and creating her own personality based on the environment, staff and guests. We really want to grow this restaurant organically.

Kat: I understand when people are like, “It’s not Korean American.” We’re fine if it’s American.

John: The last time we spoke, we talked about what it means to be Korean-American and how many Korean-American lenses there are. We are choosing things that are specific to us. It’s comforting when something we do reminds me of something from my childhood, like matzo ball soup or sujebi. Sometimes I can’t put my finger on it. That’s the style of cooking we’re doing here. We never cook like this. I don’t think anyone cooked like that. When you do something on the spot, it creates uncertainty and can confuse our guests. We’re working on it and we’re growing organically. We are proud, but we are also in a world that seeks authenticity. This is everyone we imagined it would be. We don’t hide behind luxury ingredients, techniques or [fine porcelain]. We’re keeping things simple, and that’s our vision.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Counter at Yangban Society with Korean table markers.

Counter at Yangban Society with Korean table markers.
Wonho Frank Lee

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