Artist Michelle Jane Lee has never worked in a professional kitchen and is not vegan. But this summer she began showing her paintings outside of traditional gallery spaces: She began hosting pop-ups where she presents her new work and serves a 10-course plant-based Korean tasting menu.
A recent showing in an apartment in Lincoln Heights was accompanied by a dish of fried rice made with eight-month-old kimchi and served alongside a thick, dramatic brush stroke of red pepper paste. Nurungji, a scorched rice cracker, was marked with a neon dot of scallion oil. Lee’s partner, Elizabeth Hatke, who assists as a server at her pop-up dinners, described the dish as “the most painterly” of the night’s courses.
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Lee, 37, grew up mostly in Seoul, Korea, attended the Art Institute of Chicago and established a successful art career in Los Angeles. Recently, she began exploring her cultural identity through painting and cooking.
Inspired by Hatke, who is vegan, Lee has been creating plant-based versions of the food she grew up eating. The result is her bimonthly pop-up dinner series, Sung, named after her mom.
On a recent Saturday night, Lee, clad in a black chef’s apron in lieu of her usual paint-covered one, showed her latest paintings, “Landslide,” to eight guests seated at her dining room table. She noted that the bright blue and red represented the colors of the Korean flag.
“If you’re American, you think of that as the American flag,” she said of the color combination. “But then it hit me one day: This is also the Korean flag and it’s all about perspective and I can claim either. But how do I see it in myself?”
Lee described how the conflicting ideas in the art (bold textures juxtaposed with small detailed markings) would also be reflected in the food.
“The flavors are going to be super Korean-authentic, but the plating techniques might be a little bit Western,” she said.
The first course was a rainbow of crudités served with a dollop of ssamjang and drizzled with homemade lemon olive oil. An opaque cube of gelatinous braised radish arrived bathing in a small bowl of shiitake broth.
She says that cooking — like painting — has helped her reckon with her cultural identity.
“I am often seen to be not very Korean because of the way I look, dress, even because my interests differ from traditional Korean values,” she says. “So similar to the paintings, the dishes are me putting these two supposedly contradicting elements together in one plate and saying, ‘This is me. These can live together because they are living together in me and it’s authentic and real.’”
Lee sources ingredients from the Santa Monica farmers market and from Fruitland, an organic produce market owned and operated by Ha’s Farm in a strip mall on Western Avenue in Koreatown.
On a visit to Fruitland earlier in the week in search of Asian pears, she pointed out her mom’s favorite rice cake shop next door, and, inside the market, greeted the owner in Korean and swooned over house-made sesame oil.
Making all-vegan Korean food meant having to create a vegan version of fish sauce, a staple ingredient in Korean cooking, using soy sauce, water, dried seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, charred onions and scallions.
“We get the ocean flavor from all the different seaweed,” she said. The sauce is used to make her own kimchi.
“I felt like I was the right person to try this,” she said of making vegan Korean food. “Having grown up in Korea and then here, having known what real Korean food is all my life, I know what that flavor is supposed to be. As an artist, I always start from a feeling and aim to conjure up emotions for those who experience my work. This translates to my dishes.”
Cost: $100 per ticket, includes wine; exploretock.com/sung/