When life hits a sour note, make kimchi. One Black and Asian chef in Washington, D.C., chose to do just that when she lost her chef’s job to the COVID pandemic. It proved to be the perfect time to honor all the hours she spent as a child learning the traditional art of creating kimchi in her Korean mother’s kitchen.
“Most of my early knowledge of cooking came from my mom,” says Tae-Gu Kimchi founder Patrice Cunningham. “She came to the United States from South Korea with my dad and learned how to cook Korean and American foods together. She was already an amazing cook. People enjoyed her food because it was so flavorful.”
Passion for Kimchi
Cunningham remembers how her mother Hong’s dishes surprised family and friends. “She would make baked chicken, fried chicken, burgers and all the things Americans eat. But there would always be some traditional Korean dish,” says the chef whose father, Michael Cunningham, is a Black American Army veteran.
The one dish served at almost every meal is her mother’s fresh, handmade kimchi. “I’ve eaten it almost every day of my life. It’s something that is always in our diets and eaten with every meal,” says the D.C. native.
The chef named her company after the city of Tae-Gu, where her mother was born in South Korea. Hong Cunningham taught her daughter about the history and traditions surrounding kimchi. This fermented vegetable dish dates back thousands of years. “Historically, people made kimchi for survival because vegetables would not last over winter months,” says Tae-Gu Kimchi’s owner. “There are over 200 types of kimchi. Napa cabbage is the most popular, in my opinion.”
Kimchi, a fermented food, can be made with a variety of vegetables besides cabbage, including radishes, cucumbers and garlic chives. While salt-based fermentation gives kimchi its unique aroma and taste, seasonings such as garlic, Korean red chili pepper, ginger, fish sauce, anchovies and salted shrimp add flavor.
The health benefits of kimchi are widely reported, including by the Food Revolution Network. “While overall nutrition varies depending on the recipe and ingredients used, in general, kimchi is a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B6, folate, iron and manganese.”
Chef Cunningham’s “freshly-made” kimchi is packed with nutrition, and most importantly, the Korean side dish is a natural source of probiotics that support gut health. “People are learning more about the health benefits of fermented food. Right now, health experts are saying eat more probiotic foods and kimchi provides just that,” she says.
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Building Tae-Gu Kimchi
With the popularity of kimchi spreading across the U.S., Cunningham noticed local and national brands appearing on store shelves and at markets. She firmly believed the kimchi she always wanted to create from her mother’s recipe would taste better than anything currently available.
Cunningham launched Tae-Gu Kimchi in the summer of 2020. “We make our kimchi fresh every week for the farmers markets. A lot of commercial brands are overly fermented and taste really sour. It’s a very different taste when kimchi is made fresh. I think that’s why we have so much success and why we are trying to bring that fresh taste to the grocery shelves as well,” says Tae-Gu’s owner.
The Black Korean American entrepreneur’s decision to start a business during the pandemic gave her a chance to take advantage of the e-commerce explosion. Today, Tae-Gu Kimchi is available online and distributed nationwide. The company’s three varieties, classic, extra-spicy and vegan, are sold at nine farmers markets and four store locations. Customers in the D.C. area can also pick up the kimchi or have it delivered.
Cunningham’s mom made kimchi with her daughter weekly until the business grew large enough for the chef to hire two employees. Tae-Gu Kimchi promotes the tradition of sharing the versatile Korean dish throughout one’s community. The Korean name for this practice is Kimjang. In 2013, UNESCO put the ritual of Kimjang on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
“Virginia just declared a kimchi holiday,” says Cunningham. “In Korea, they celebrate Kimjang at the end of summer and close to winter. Communities would make large amounts of kimchi to honor the history of bringing people together to make the dish and share it.”
In February, the Virginia General Assembly designated November 22 “Kimchi Day.” California passed a similar resolution last year after South Korea established its November 22 “Kimchi Day” as a federal holiday.
Finding the Right Path
Tae-Gu Kimchi’s owner did not begin her college years with a plan to be an entrepreneur. She majored in biology and pre-med at The George Washington University, thinking she would become a pediatrician. After graduation, Cunningham chose a new path and earned a master’s degree in business administration. “I was around a lot of entrepreneurs at that time. Both of my parents are business owners too. I said to myself, if I’m not going to be a doctor, I’ll be an entrepreneur,” she explains.
While managing operations at a Nando’s Peri-Peri and two independent restaurants, Tae-Gu Kimchi’s founder discovered she belonged in the kitchen, not the front of the house. “I had a change of heart when I realized that cooking is something I’m passionate about and something that has always made me happy. I decided I wanted to make cooking my priority and help others appreciate foods from my heritage, both Korean and Black,” she adds.
Next came Tuesdays with Patrice, the dinner party events she put on free for up to 10 guests. Cunningham served a three-course dinner plus wine and beer while she explored different recipes, cuisines and cooking techniques. “Eventually, I started charging for the dinners. Tuesdays with Patrice got really popular. Even strangers started to book reservations through Airbnb Experiences and word of mouth. It was so much fun.”
By August 2019, the up-and-coming businesswoman had focused her Tuesdays with Patrice on serving Korean barbecue dinners. That gave Cunningham the confidence to contact the restaurant group opening the first Korean tabletop grill in D.C. She won the job as Gogi Yogi Korean Steakhouse & Bar’s first chef and general manager. “The menu featured my mother’s recipes. I brought my mom there to make sure I had the most authentic cuisine. I came up with a few things too. Some of the banchan (small Korean side dishes served with cooked rice) were my creations. So was the hangover soup,” Cunningham says.
Despite the restaurant’s positive reviews and popularity, the pandemic temporarily closed Gogi Yogi in March 2020. Cunningham lost her job and did not get it back when Gogi Yogi reopened. She moved on with her catering business, Cooking with Patrice, and launched Tae-Gu Kimchi.
As a Black Korean American, the kimchi maker continues to seek opportunities to expand her entrepreneurial expertise. She is a part of Retail Ready, a community of consumer-packaged goods producers who are share and learn from each other. Cunningham is a 2021 graduate of Venture Noir’s mentorship program. “Throughout the eight weeks, we focused on what it means to be a minority in food or any business. We learned how to manage ourselves and navigate the world as a minority. It helped with building my confidence as an entrepreneur.”
Daring to Dream
“Just being your own boss is the most fulfilling part of it. I’ve worked my butt off for people for years. Now, I can apply all that same energy and more to my own thing,” says Cunningham.
Ironically, the chef’s parents never wanted their children to work as hard as they have as entrepreneurs. Cunningham’s mother owns Wells Quality Cleaners with the chef’s brother and sister-in-law. Her father is the owner of H&M Oil Company. “My mom definitely wanted me to be a doctor. But she is proud of me. She is still helping me every week.”
Building a business with her mom’s kimchi recipe appears to be the right path for Cunningham. “People love our kimchi. They tell me all the time it’s the best they have ever had,” she says. “We’re hiring and seeing record sales. We are projected to do a little over 100K in revenue this year, and I hope to double that in 2023.
Cunningham’s five-year plan for Tae-Gu Kimchi focuses on first building the sales in D.C.’s metropolitan area, including Maryland and Virginia. She envisions growing her company into a national brand seen on the shelves of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other major stores.
The chef still loves cooking and delighting people with Korean cuisine. However, the expense and risk of opening a restaurant make that a distant dream. “If I ever get rich from making kimchi, that is when I will open a restaurant. You just have to be persistent and don’t give up.”