Minnesota Spoon: Bibimbap, Urban Roots, and Eddie Wu

Eddie Wu looked through some of the pepper crops at Urban Roots before stopping for a taste test // Photo by Wing Ta

Eddie Wu looks through some of the pepper crops at Urban Roots before stopping for a taste test // Photo by Wing Ta

We live in a world saturated by the pursuit of brand and audience. Social media has turned us all into intimate personal entrepreneurs marketing the product of our curated selves. We present to the world evidence that we lead enviable lives, and that we command a following, more or less loyal, that is supposed to translate into some kind of clout, which is assumed at some future time to be exchangeable, like currency, for something of value.

Eddie Wu, chef and owner of Cook St. Paul, is terrible at this kind of marketing.

“Don’t even call me a chef,” says Chef Wu, furiously doing whatever the opposite is of branding, as he chops a head of romaine on a shaded picnic table behind the Urban Roots building in East Side St. Paul. “I mean that’s like an insult to real chefs. That may be an insult to most line cooks.”

There is another kind of personal branding, though, where you don’t chase audiences with prettified versions of a self you hope they are willing to consume, but instead perform a kind of deep, idiosyncratic public dive into who you inescapably are, and then welcome anyone who would care to tag along on that particular ride.

You could, in other words, just be Eddie Wu all the time. And assume that somehow people will, for example, find their way to a diner on Payne Avenue, where a ninety-nine-point-something-percent white guy named Wu, né Hanson—ex-literature major and former Marine—cooks Korean food and American diner classics, wearing, not a chef’s coat, but a T-shirt that says something different each day, including one that says “I Heart Eve Wu.”

“Oh, yeah, I took her name when we got married,” says Eddie, of Eve. “I mean, I probably knew seven Hansons my age growing up in South St. Paul. Wu was obviously such a cooler name.”

On this particular day, in addition to being volubly in love with Eve Wu, being Eddie Wu means paying a visit to the gardens at Urban Roots, where a row of mature peppers destined to be fermented into a Korean chili sauce called gochujang, await his inspection.

Photos by Wing Ta
Surdyk’s November 2017 PP 1

Wu and his restaurant are among the most loyal buyers of Urban Roots’ produce, all of which is grown on urban lots on St. Paul’s East Side by kids between the ages of 14 and 18, who, remarkably, all get paid minimum wage to garden, cook, market to restaurants and co-ops, and supply produce to a 30-member CSA.

We all step through the garden gate, amid a startling cloud of butterflies, and taste test the peppers—a variegated heritage variety called fish peppers, once nearly lost, with deep and fascinating roots in African-American fish and seafood sauces along the Atlantic seaboard. The raw peppers push a few of us into stoic imitations of people who can handle it, before we start walking in aimless little circles, snuffling a bit, taking deep breaths, and saying, “Hooo!”

“Gotta exorcise the demons,” says Eddie, removing his round, English-major glasses, raising an arm, and drying the corner of his eye on his T-shirt sleeve.

He exorcised a lot of demons in the course of learning his craft, working at Sole Cafe on Snelling Avenue as a busboy, dishwasher, server, and, incrementally, cook, (all at the same time) under the unendingly critical eye of Kimberly Firnstahl, a kind of  Margaret Thatcher of Twin Cities Korean food, whom he considers a kind of mentor, spiritual mother, conscience, and hilarious pricker of the ego bubbles of white people who think they know what hot food is. He is one of the only white people in his experience who is even allowed to order one of her dishes at full heat.

As we slowly recover from our encounter with fish peppers, we move out of the lush and impeccably groomed garden—still bursting in late September with eggplants, basil, peppers, parsley, and cilantro—into an obviously urban rear lot, very much within earshot of the traffic on East Seventh Street, and it is here that Eddie sets up his outdoor kitchen, and starts chopping romaine, surrounded by a crew of half a dozen 14-to-18-year-olds, who will be both servers and served, and who appear to know pretty much exactly what to do.

Photos by Wing Ta

What Eddie is making today is bibimbap, or at least his version of it, which actually combines two traditional forms—hot bibimbap and cold bibimbap.

When he first proposed this hybrid, Kimberly Firnstahl looked at him a little pityingly, and shook her head: “Eddie-ya, this will never work.”

It’s currently the second most popular dish at his restaurant after eggs Benedict with pulled short ribs, which the Payne Avenue regulars at the former Serlin’s Cafe would most certainly have vetoed as well, with, perhaps a, “Well… that sounds interesting.”

The point is that Eddie Wu seems to have found a way never to be anything but Eddie Wu, take him or leave him. And that has meant serving Korean food at an American diner not because he has done a Korean food trend analysis and applied it to the East Side, but because he once fell in love with Eve Wu. It has also meant naming his daughter Khan, after Genghis, because he expects either that she will unite great portions of the world, or that 11 percent of humankind will die under her rule. And this afternoon, it has meant, as far as I can tell, that he checked out some peppers and cooked a meal for Urban Roots because he wanted to be here, and because he likes what they do. No part of the day has appeared to involve him lingering until his self-regard had been sufficiently stroked.

I can’t for the life of me detect a difference between how Eddie talks to me, and how he talks to the adolescent crew, whom he is supposedly doing a charitable favor. He orders them around. He gives them shit. He listens. He corrects. And he ignores them at length to talk about things he cares about.

One of those things is Korean food.

Next Page: Building a bibimbap bowl

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