My name is Ji Baek and this is my blog. I have lived in the chaotic, but stunning island of Manhattan since 1996.
A little glimpse of the chapters in my life so far:
With the guidance of my mother’s austere will, I started piano lessons at the age of six in South Korea. Then, my family came to this liberal country when I was twelve years old, and I, not speaking a word of English, was immediately smitten with blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls with their tight jeans. As I adapted into my new life, and with my very own barely-breathable Calvin Klein jeans, I was assigned to play the violin in my junior high school orchestra. I negotiated my way out of piano lessons and took on the violin, which segued me into becoming a rebellious teenager, full of mischief.
To be honest, I was not the prodigy that my mother thought I was; at most, I was an above-average violinist who had perseverance and discipline. In my junior year of high school, our orchestra was short a violist for a rehearsal and my conductor nudged me to an unknown section.
Instantly, I fell for the viola’s mellow sound. At the time, there was a high demand for violists. The most attractive aspect of switching instruments was a shot at a scholarship. I traded in the violin that had been a gift from my grandfather for a decent viola. (A young man from the violin shop who assisted me during this trade-in will reappear in my life later.)
Being an honorable daughter has its own virtue, but I was truly unhappy about the rigorous hours of practice and rehearsals. My body rebelled—I suffered two painful years of tendonitis on my left shoulder that spread to my wrist—the best thing that ever happened to me—for I started seeing a brand new world without being cocooned by my musical community.
Aimlessly, I searched for what to do next. I decided to make some cash in the interim and started to waitress at a small, trendy Italian Trattoria. I was promoted to daytime manager/pastry maker. The title was glamorous, but the reality of this small establishment was that I was the sole waitress, barista, food runner, busgirl and manager who ordered food supplies, did the inventory, and followed the owner’s recipes for our three desserts: Chocolate Almond Tart, Amoretto Cheesecake and Tiramisu. I relished every moment of it, the rapid high-energy of turning tables, folding in the egg whites for the Chocolate Tart, plus, the money was phenomenal. Six months later, I was scouted to be a manager at a reputable restaurant.
Training at the new restaurant resembled boot camp and my body clock turned upside-down from starting my workday from 3pm to whenever I finished my duty. Clumsy with inexperience, sometimes I went home with the sunrise. To my family’s dismay, I thrived in my new environment. When all the elements were aligned gorgeously together during dinner service, it was almost like being in the orchestra. Most of the time, the place was kept swiftly in-tune, but some nights when it derailed, I was busy running around putting out fires. Being an enthusiastic and quick learner, I dove into being a problem solver and a leader. The restaurant owner became my mentor and I would never have been able to run my own business at the age of twenty-eight unless I had his stern, demanding training.
Remember the man from the violin shop? He happened to also be a regular customer at the restaurant I was managing. Our friendship blossomed through our deep affection for food and we planned to open a restaurant together. We became eating partners in crime.
After a few years of restaurant management experience under my belt, I enrolled in The French Culinary Institute full-time. School was extremely strenuous and demanding, but I had a blast. I loved every minute of the experience (and almost 18 years later, I would do it all over again). My intentions were never to become a professional cook, I only attended school so that if we were to open a restaurant, I would know the ins and out of the kitchen and possibly win the screaming fights about food costs. Besides, those black-and-white checkered polyester pants I wore during school were definitely not my thing—no matter what I did, they never looked cute on me.
Years of friendship and many eat-cations later, my best friend and I started dating and effortlessly finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences. Our silences together were beautifully comfortable; we fell in love and married; we’ve been joined at the hip ever since. We were actively seeking to open our restaurant together until I found an infuriating distraction: the search for a perfect pedicure, which became my obsession. Here is how RBL was born.
My husband is my partner in life and business. I took almost a ten-year hiatus from cooking because we were nurturing our growing business. A few years ago, secretly thanking the recession, I had more time and started trotting back to my kitchen with gratifying joy. My husband is an ebullient dishwasher, conscientious sous chef and willful Manhattan food gatherer—no place is too far if they have the best ingredients. Although we never opened our restaurant, we have one of our very own in our kitchen. We plan our menu daily and our schedule revolves around getting the ingredients. We are COFF (compulsive, obsessive, food, freaks), devoted to Michael Pollan’s ideas and we cook from scratch by supporting local farmers by eating accessible, sustainable food. Our time in the kitchen has become a precious and priceless time together: most of all, we are having fun.
When I was a little girl, I never wished to be an expert in the nail industry, but here I am, blessed with the people I have met through RBL. Regret, sorrow, guilt, envy, jealousy and anger are useless emotions; life gave me twists and turns and I learned to be flexible to move forward. I apply what I learned from playing music to my everyday life; no one gets everything right on the first try, but you can eventually get there if you practice slowly and relentlessly—as many times as it takes. It is clichéd, but practice does make perfect. Learning three different instruments taught me to be fearless and ageless; the willingness to learn is a gift and life’s virtue.
I remembered being sick of getting stuck in the orchestra pit during every Nutcracker season. In 2005, I started to study ballet, I might be a granny ballerina, but I’m learning the grace I longed for when I watched the dancers from my seat in the dark pit. Now, I feel like I’m one when I dance.
I never would have become a virtuoso in time-management or attained great organizational skills without my training in the food industry. These skills now allow for “me” time and they help me run a business smoothly every day. My mom recently reminded me about my youthful interest in art. I freaked out for a second, I pictured myself as an artist, a painter, maybe even a fashion designer! My mom, with her knowing smile said, “But how would you have met your husband?” Once again, she is right and my inner art major mixes nail polish colors instead of having paintbrushes soaked in linseed oil under a sky-lit studio in Paris. It is so clichéd to say life happens for a reason, but so far, my life has and I’m blessed.
Thank you all for being a part of my life!