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How Elizabeth Hong went from serving banchan for her allowance to Mozza executive chef

How Elizabeth Hong went from serving banchan for her allowance to Mozza executive chef
Osteria Mozza executive chef Liz Hong began at the Melrose Avenue restaurant as a culinary school extern. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The first time Elizabeth Hong worked in a restaurant that wasn't her mother's — we'll get to her mother's restaurant in a second — was during culinary school, when she externed at Osteria Mozza, the Italian restaurant co-owned by Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in Hancock Park. She returned to work there after graduation, this time as a full-time cook. That was around 2007. Hong is now the executive chef at Osteria Mozza and its sibling restaurant next door, Pizzeria Mozza.

Hong didn't intend to become a cook. Her mother Jenee Kim, though, loved cooking and Hong remembers Kim cooking constantly. They lived in Philadelphia, then in Seoul, where Hong went to middle school and her mother enrolled in culinary school. Hong remembers her mom "practicing the craziest knife cuts at home."

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Kim and her family settled in Los Angeles and, in 2003, Kim opened Park's BBQ, the highly regarded Korean barbecue restaurant in Koreatown. By that time, Hong was a high school teen who, by her own account, gave her mother a headache. Her mother wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer, but Hong was rebellious and avoided class. "I wasn't the best student," Hong says.

After high school, Hong enrolled in community college. She hated that too. Meanwhile, she earned her allowance at Park's. She scooped banchan, worked the register, but she didn't have any particular career in mind. Her mother suggested she attend culinary school. Hong refused. Her mother persisted. Hong finally relented.

So Hong enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. She completed her coursework and needed an externship to graduate. After a tip from a friend, a bit of research and recognizing Batali from "Iron Chef," Hong applied to Osteria Mozza.

Hong, who is 31, has been at Mozza for as long as she has been cooking professionally: First she worked at the Osteria's mozzarella bar, then moved to the Pizzeria, where she became sous chef, then chef de cuisine.

Nancy Silverton had a sense of Hong's talents early on. Not only did Hong have a solid palate, Silverton says, but "I could also see a consistency under pressure she had in plating a dish, which is key in the restaurant business, especially a busy one like ours."

Hong helped Silverton develop and test recipes for Silverton's upcoming cookbook, "Mozza at Home," which Knopf will publish this fall. Silverton was impressed by how Hong interpreted her vision; she still marvels at how Hong McGyvered a way for home cooks to duplicate the char produced by the restaurant's wood-burning oven (spoiler alert: "Liz came up with cooking the vegetables on a sheet pan on the floor of the oven!" Silverton says).

When longtime Mozza chef de cuisine Matt Molina, who won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific in 2012, left the restaurant last year, Silverton had no doubts Hong should succeed him. "She's a force," Silverton says.

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For the Record
May 6, 12:53 p.m.:
An earlier version of this post said that Matt Molina was chef de cuisine at Mozza. He was executive chef.
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Osteria Mozza executive chef Liz Hong.
Osteria Mozza executive chef Liz Hong. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Hong, after all, is running two of the city's busiest and most famed restaurants. The Osteria in particular, Hong says, has "probably one of the most difficult hot lines in Los Angeles. There are five guys on the line, almost 30 pastas on the menu, 400 covers on a Saturday night."

Hong is adamant that everything on the menu — not just classics like the Osteria's egg raviolo — be well executed and memorable. In creating new dishes, her philosophy is to simplify ("everything on the dish needs to have purpose," she says) and, when she's stuck, to ask for advice. Recently, she was stymied by beets.

"I roasted them and made a dressing," Hong says. "Then I walked over to the mozzarella bar, where Nancy was working."

Silverton picks up the story. "What I loved is that Liz roasted the beets and brought them to me before she did the next step. Most people would have peeled them."

The unpeeled beets triggered a memory: On a recent trip to Israel, she and Hong had a beet carpaccio made with charred, unpeeled beets. And so Silverton sliced Hong's roasted, unpeeled beets. "I made a mosaic of rounds, then drizzled them with extra virgin olive oil and flaky salt," she says. She tasted. She added a chicory salad, mustard vinaigrette, Greek yogurt ("most people pair beets with goat cheese; few remember how delicious it is with yogurt") and lemon zest. The roasted beets are now on Osteria's menu.

And that's how it goes. Hong starts something and Silverton or someone in the Mozza brain trust finishes it, or vice versa. "I learn so much from Nancy. Not just how to cook or be a chef, but also how to be a good person," Hong says. "Nancy's never too scared or too proud to learn a better way to do something."

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These values resonate strongly with Hong and are partly the reason why, even in this age of the gig economy, she hasn't been interested in working anywhere other than Mozza. And she doesn't need that allowance money anymore.

Osteria Mozza, 6602 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 297-0100, osteriamozza.com

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