Interview & Photographs Justin Chung

Saehee Cho, Soon

Los Angeles, CA

April 30, 2020
Los Angeles, CA

A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with my friend Saehee Cho on a Sunday afternoon while she tended to her garden. Saehee is a Los Angeles-based writer and a cook who I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with in both of her creative outlets; Saehee has written several essays for Faculty Department and has also worked as a food and prop stylist on multiple of my commercial assignments.
During the early challenging time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saehee embarked on her new endeavor, Soon, an art project, turned catering business, turned impromptu grocer. As one of her customers, it’s a pleasure to receive not only locally sourced produce, but also specialized items like Bub & Grandma's bread and her homemade kimchi.
Below are some questions on Saehee’s new project and what's to come:

Details from Saehee's garden in Los Angeles, CA

Can you share a little bit about what exactly is Soon?

Soon has been different things over the years. At first it was a way to marry my background in writing and an on-going/life-long love of food. Later, this became a catering company with a specialty in cakes. At times, it’s hubbed my work as a food and prop stylist. At other times, it’s been a vehicle to organize pop-ups and food events. Mostly, I think it’s a way for me to hold space for a meaningful engagement with the things we eat. How did it come to be? I started cooking professionally while I was at Calarts in 2009. I had been bringing cakes and baked goods to writing workshops and this snowballed into being hired by the school to cater the individual thesis readings for all my classmates. It was incredibly gratifying to cook with the idea of congratulating friends. Looking back, essentially I was catering weekly parties for people I loved. Not much has changed since. From there, I’ve been slowly building Soon, cake by cake.
Over the years, we’ve collaborated in different capacities (as a writer and as a cook), what inspired you to pursue Soon? How do you think your previous endeavors influenced your path?

I’ve spent too much time wondering whether I was a writer or a cook and at some point I decided there was no reason I couldn’t be both. It was a relief to start thinking about my life horizontally as opposed to vertically. I didn’t need to “build a career” in one or the other direction, I just needed to build a life that was sustainable. My previous endeavors are my current endeavors and then there are always future endeavors.
As long as I’ve known you, it has always been clear that you have a deep connection with food. Can you share a little bit about your upbringing/background as it relates to food? How has that influenced this project? What was your starting point, your first inkling that food was going to be the focus of your life?

I feel like I started cooking in the womb! I come from a family of avid cooks. And not unlike a lot of immigrant families, mine congregated over cooking. In place of cultural gaps, language barriers, and generational differences; there was food.

My grandmother did a little food styling and taught cooking classes in her day but there’s no easy way to sum up how deep and soulful her food is. We joke that even instant ramen tastes different when she makes it. She has what Koreans call 손맛 (son-mat), which could be explained as that intangible ingredient of experience, care, and intuition. She’s 89 now and cooking is the thing that keeps her going. I think it’s her love of her food that motivates her every day. She still treats it like something to study, like she still doesn’t know enough. I find it absolutely amazing.

What has been some of your favorite dishes to make as of lately?

Right now, I’m living off of napa kimchi. I’ve been making kimchi twice weekly with the most beautiful cabbage from Underwood Farms. When I’m jarring the fermented kimchi, there’s always a small portion leftover that’s extra fermented and saucy because it was at the bottom of the crock. That’s my treat. Or I’ll strain the kimchi brine and use the broth for cold somen.
How do you go about selecting items for your shop?

It’s a combination of what the farms have to offer seasonally, special requests, and things that I would want handy in my kitchen in a time like this. It’s funny because when I’m building these orders, I realize they mirror my own pantry. Seeing how friends interpret these ingredients is endlessly fun to me
A lot of people, myself included, are ordering groceries for the first time during the pandemic. You’ve been able to shift your focus to online ordering/delivery rather than brick and mortar since the lockdown. What are your thoughts on the landscape of this market thus far? How were you able to adapt your business to offer delivery so quickly?

When we all started to shelter at home back in March I started delivering meals and basic farmer’s market produce to a very small circle of friends, you included. It became quickly apparent to me that what people needed, more than prepared meals, was safe produce, good bread, and healthy staples. Everyone had stocked up on canned goods and was a little suspicious of the produce aisle. With the closure of so many restaurants, local farms without major distribution were next in line to be impacted with no one to sell their produce to despite the empty grocery stores.

As I was fielding an unprecedented volume of requests for produce, it was very clear to me that there was a large need that could be easily satisfied if there was a go-between. My friend, Eli Silverman had been building restaurant software for his company Resto and immediately stepped in and volunteered his time pro bono to build an online ordering platform called Minimart, with my store, Soon Mini, as the first user. He provided a system based on this immediate need and it helped me scale in a way that just wouldn't have been possible.
From there, my friends Saya Russell, Bessie Hwang, and Jeremy Schmidt volunteered to deliver groceries so that I could focus on order fulfillment. And out of the pure goodness of her heart, Bri Holmes started donating weekly bouquets to sell through Soon Mini.

This is all to say, Soon Mini wouldn’t exist without the graciousness of friends who wanted to find a way to help. This, in general, feels like the mood of the “covid-era" — people looking for ways to be useful when we all feel so helpless.
What has been the most fulfilling part of the project so far?

I’m so grateful for this work on so many levels and I take pleasure in my long drives to Underwood Farms, seeing friends from a safe distance, and the small gestures of kindness they leave me when I deliver. I love that this is a win-win situation for farms and my community. And I love that this community is generative. Because the service has been referral only, it’s been touching to see the circle grow ever wider. But mostly, I think there’s something so basic and true about the desire to feed people good food. It’s almost too simple to explain.

My friend Miranda Weiss told me this week that she’s baking bread and feeling inspired by food for the first time while sheltering at home. She sends me photos of home baked bread with heirloom tomatoes I’ve delivered and the very idea that we can find some kind of tiny joy, in a tomato, makes me so happy.
With everyone staying home and many businesses closed right, how have you been finding your rhythm and staying inspired?

Rhythm is a thing I’m always refiguring but inspiration is readily available! I’m inspired by how Los Angeles looks like it’s taking a deep breath from pollution, how so many of my friends are contributing in their own creative ways, and by the conversations I’m having weekly with farm workers and managers.
What is the future of Soon? Where do you see this going in the next few years?

Right now it feels hard to see two feet in front of us, let alone years. I have great hope that the restaurant industry will bounce back but I have many thoughts on how the landscape of food and consumption have shifted, possibly permanently. I’m seeing on a ground level how broken our food supply chain is and how people’s relationships to basic goods are changing. If Soon can learn, advocate, or contribute to more localized, personalized, conscious consumption; I’d be pretty happy. ●