Hundreds of Milwaukeeans have learned Korean cooking from this one woman
The Milwaukee Recreation Department runs hundreds of free or low-cost classes for children and adults.
If want to learn how to make a new dish, you’ll find that many of the Rec’s cooking classes are Korean. Why do they offer so many Korean culinary classes?
It turns out it’s because of one woman. Seon Joo Oh is a teacher and grandmother in her 60s.
I met her on a recent evening at Hamilton High School, where she was getting ready to teach a dozen students how to make beef bulgogi, also known as Korean barbecue. It’s marinated thin slices of beef cooked on a stovetop.
"Many Korean dishes very slow food, but very nutrient," Seon Joo says. "Some protein, carbohydrate, some vitamin, and all kinds of nutrition. I want to introduce about the Korean dishes, and bulgogi is very popular for everybody."
Students start to file in. There are a few couples, a group of friends, and a mother-daughter pair named Gail and Lilli Dompke.
"Bulgogi, I’ve had it in restaurants before and it’s delicious," says Gail. "I’d very much like to be able to make that at home. I’d like to learn it from somebody who knows how to prepare it property."
Seon Joo tells the students that they’ll make the sauce used to marinate the meat. The students get to work chopping onions and scallions and crushing fruit to add to the sauce.
Seon Joo never expected to be a cooking teacher. At age 44, she moved from Seoul to Milwaukee to study early childhood education at UWM. That’s when she started to learn English.
"So it’s a little bit hard time, but every day I should take the course, meet the American friends," Seon Joo says. "It’s good to learning for my life."
Seon Joo says her grandmother, who lived to 105 years old, told her you’re never too old to learn something new.
"[She said,] your age will be more than 120, you need to study something new," Seon Joo laughs.
Now, Seon Joo is the teacher rather than the student. She teaches paper-folding arts to schoolchildren, and in 2017 started teaching Korean cooking and culture classes through Milwaukee Rec.
"I start to open [cooking classes] one-by-one, many American people want to take more and more," Seon Joo says. "They give some comment, 'Open the noodle class, open the pancake class.' So that’s good idea. I open more and more."
The demand for Korean cooking classes is there, says Claire McHugh, a marketing supervisor with Milwaukee Rec.
"Seon Joo has been a staple here at Hamilton for a quite a long time," says McHugh. "I know the staff here love her... her classes are always full, like tonight. So, yeah, she’s been a really wonderful asset to the program."
Seon Joo says the most challenging part of teaching these classes is procuring the right ingredients. Milwaukee grocery stores lack the Korean staples. She says her husband drives to the Chicago area about once a week to shop at places like H Mart and Joong Boo Market.
Once the vegetables are chopped for the bulgogi class, Seon Joo lines up the ingredients for the marinade. It includes soy sauce, wine, honey, green onion, garlic, sugar and more.
Seon Joo submerges thinly sliced beef into her finished marinade. While that sits, the students make their own sauce, commenting on how good it smells.
Finally, Seon Joo puts the marinated beef into the frying pan with onion and carrots for about 10 minutes. Students watch as it sizzles.
After it’s cooked, Seon Joo demonstrates how she eats bulgogi – by putting a bite of the meat, along with white rice and spicy chili paste, on a lettuce leaf, like a spoon you can eat. She takes a bite, and the students applaud.
"It’s very good," says one student. "Definitely you can taste the sesame oil and some of the sweetness from the sugar and the fruits."
About 250 Milwaukeeans have learned Korean cooking from Seon Joo, according to the Rec department.
She is teaching more classes this summer, including bibimbap and fried noodles. They’re currently full, but there's a waiting list.
"Always my grandma said, 'The good food is better than medicine,'" says Seon Joo. "So we don’t need to take more medicine if you take the good dishes. So I want to follow her tradition, her advice."