An Interview with Saehee Cho
1. Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to do what you do.
I am a writer, cook, and food stylist. I started cooking professionally while I was at CalArts while studying creative writing in 2009. I had been bringing cakes and baked goods to writing workshops and this snowballed into being hired by the school to cater. That became my first official catering job and I’ve been maintaining that work as a side and main vocation in turns for over 11 years now.
After CalArts I had the amazing luck to work with Clare Vivier for about 5 years, unexpectedly finding myself in the fashion and design world. I learned real world skills (not taught in art school) and worked with a team of talented women who are now lifelong friends.
Since then I’ve been toggling between a life of writing, food, and styling. It’s haphazard and admittedly un-strategic but I’m unwilling to give up any aspect of my nonsense life. Somehow it’s gotten me here and looking back I’m grateful that I never constrained myself to any one lane.
2. How does your work in writing, cooking, and styling inform and influence one another as aesthetic experiences?
More than ever these worlds are starting to intersect and play off of each other. On the surface the aesthetic parallels probably aren’t obvious. My writing tends to be terse, minimal, but emotional. My cooking and styling tends to be lush, sensual, and nostalgic. All are ways of storytelling for me though they satisfy very different things.
While cooking is the practice that connects me with my body most, it’s as much about emotion, memory, and poetry as it is about technical skill, adrenaline, and endurance.
Styling is the unhinged part of cooking -- I get to think about food sculpturally which opens up a whole new world. It’s the space where I can allow aesthetic to have higher priority than function.
Writing sits a little bit in a world apart. Writing is how I make meaning out of cooking, styling, living in general. It’s the frame for everything, so really if I’m not consistently feeding this practice, the rest starts to lose value.
3. Please tell us about Soon Mini! How did the pandemic affect the way you see your practice — did you learn something new from this experience?
The pandemic transformed my practice. I was in a phase of life when I was focusing on writing before the pandemic and in March 2020 everything shifted as we all started to shelter at home. I started delivering meals and basic farmer’s market produce to a very small circle of friends. At the time restaurants had been shut down and 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.
Soon Mini became an alternative means of distribution for organic, sustainable produce. From there I started expanding my delivery service, getting more people involved, and expanding the circle of small independent farmers Soon Mini benefits from.
While the initial goal of Soon was to address the needs of our farm workers and local farms, the mission of the project quickly expanded to goals centered in mutual aid, community support, and fair employment practices. It’s been inspiring to see how many people have volunteered their time, labor, mind space, and even money to this completely organically grown effort.
4. What are your forever comfort staples, and what have been some new experiments in cooking?
My forever comfort staple is pasta. I can eat pasta every day, every meal. I am a bottomless pit for pasta. It’s an easy vehicle for refrigerator scraps, easy to make for one or scale up for a party and satisfying every time. I am convinced it’s best as a late night snack.
My kitchen is a constant lab for pickles, drying herbs, all kinds of things fermenting in jars. I am always trying to manage food waste and so there are always things brewing in my kitchen — some are failures and some are surprising wins. I recently had an excess of cherry plums from Ojai Roots Farm and pickled them with bay leaves, mustard seed, and black pepper and was really happy with the beautiful whole pickle that resulted. The cherry plum as fruit was a little tart for me but when pickled the tartness was perfect and was great with hot rice and fresh cucumbers.
5. Outside of work, what is keeping you grounded or interested lately?
My sister, my friends, my animals, and the future writing time I’ve set aside for myself; in that order. My sister has always been my touchstone and even more so during the pandemic. This is also true for my friendships. I don’t have much in the world but I feel like I hit the jackpot when it comes to friends. Animals need no explanation — they’re just the best.
I also think consistently setting aside dedicated time for my writing practice is essential to keeping me sane. It’s hard for me to write when I’m in food-world mode — everything is too fast and too intense. Writing is slow, tedious, and wandering. It needs a lot of space. I work hard so that I can set aside time for this. I’m learning to build in time for writing, not as an indulgence but as a means of balance. I’ll be in Mexico focusing on some writing projects in the fall and just letting my mind wander. Setting that as a goal fuels the food work I am doing now and makes the journey there all the more meaningful.
6. Who are your inspirations, or who have you been reading lately?
I’ve been reading Anne Carson’s unbound collection of essays “Float". It works for my lifestyle right now because the essays are unconnected and so easy to dip in and out of. That being said, they are all individually dense, require multiple readings, and are generously rich in meaning so I can read them over and over again an find new gems in the text.
7. What are you looking forward to this summer?
This summer I am looking forward to catching my breath! I feel like I haven’t stopped running since March 2020! Food workers will empathize with me here! I am looking forward to taking a moment to re-group, make sense of all the blessings and challenges of the last year, and move forward with a little more clarity and intention under my belt. That, and I would really like a few beach days and a long road trip up the coast.
See more of Saehee here.