Photos by Lauren Liz
It's not often that a healthcare professional puts his medical career on hold to follow his childhood culinary dreams.
But for restaurateur Jae Choi, 41, the decision to step away from his optometry practice to pursue his gastronomical passion was the culmination of a lifelong interest in playing with ingredients.
"I remember making mandu (dumplings) with my mom, and she would teach me how to fold it," Choi said.
It's that same warmth and comfort that Choi evokes with the Korean-Japanese dishes at his restaurant, Yakitori Jinbei, located at 2421 Cobb Pkwy Smyrna, GA 30080. Now, raising a family of his own, Choi said it's important to him that both the community and his kids have a place where they can come have good, authentic food with fresh ingredients.
Choi's parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was five years old. It was Chicago in the eighties, Choi remembered, and America was not as much of the multicultural melting pot as it is today. "
Even though we were in a big, metropolitan city, there was not a whole lot of Asian cuisine," Choi said.
He remembered his family having to travel to downtown Chicago just to dine at an Asian restaurant or to purchase ingredients for cooking at home.
It wasn't until high school that his eyes opened to a whole new range of flavors. At the time, his school offered cooking classes, through which he started learning about the techniques behind mixing various ingredients together. He and his classmates would then challenge each other to see who could create the best dishes, and his team would often win. It just clicked for him, Choi said.
"It was fun to create dishes, put it together. There was a lot of science behind it," Choi said.
He would then bring home the skills he had learned and would compete with his brother to whip up concoctions. He soon realized he had a knack for cooking, and he eventually expressed to his parents his desire to pursue the culinary arts.
They were not enthusiastic, and they dismissed the idea, saying they didn't come to America so he could cook. Choi said it was a common immigrant narrative for the time -- his parents had worked many jobs and opened small businesses throughout his childhood. They expected him to take to a career that would allow him to have a good living.
"Life took me on a different path, and I went to optometry school," he noted.
To this day, Choi doesn't regret his decision to pursue optometry, as he still maintains a practice, and he said it has afforded him the life he has today. It has allowed him to travel, eat and experience different cultures, ultimately allowing him to purchase the restaurant he now owns and manages, fulfilling his lifelong dream. It started after he moved to Atlanta in 2002.
He and his business partners stood up optometry offices, but in 2016, they sold out the practices to a private equity firm. Having been an entrepreneur until then, he said it was difficult working for someone else after the buyout, but he no longer had to spend time with the administrative burdens of owning the practice.
Instead, he spent his free time in the kitchen, starting with a chicken wing recipe that reminded him of home, in particular, the Great Seas Chinese Restaurant of Chicago that was had been known for its chicken wings. After several iterations to perfect the recipe, he started to bring food into the office for his staff to try, and they raved about his Asian-inspired spicy wings.
He was curious: Was he really that good?
Choi could no longer hold back.
In 2017, using the funds from the buyout of his optometry practice, Choi purchased an existing restaurant. His intent initially was to manage the business and help revamp the menu while the original owner stayed on to manage the kitchen. However, the chef didn't want to cook his recipes. So he recognized that he would have to roll up his sleeves and start cooking himself.
From that moment, he pulled away from his optometry practice, and went into the kitchen full time with his staff. He recalls it was some of the hardest work he's done. The long hours of work paid off: his restaurant started making real food, with real ingredients from scratch, and buttoning up the their flavors.
The restaurant started to gain traction and more attention, eventually landing thanks to one of his former patients putting in a good word. The restaurant had turned a corner, and business was good. "I feel like I've been blessed," Choi noted.
He doesn't take the blessings for granted. Choi's culinary success has inspired him to partner with the Atlanta Community Food Bank. It's his way of paying it forward after all of the good fortune he has experienced in his life.
Choi witnessed firsthand the power of teamwork and the impact of the food bank when he volunteered with them recently. He was so impressed with their mission to providing access to fresh food for those who may not have access to it, that he committed to donating a percentage of proceeds from his seasonal menu to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
After all, throughout his life, Choi has been passionate about sharing fresh flavors with others, so the partnership was a natural fit:
"This is where I want to be, this is the space I want to be in."
Atlanta-based travel and food writer on a mission to guide others in creating meaningful life experiences with friends and family through mindful travel, vegetarian food, and an active lifestyle.