Alumni Profiles

Esther Choi: What I Know Now

esther choi

The chef, cooking TV star, restaurateur, and YouTube sensation reveals her recipe for success

By Debbie Meyers

At five feet, two inches tall, Chef Esther Choi holds her own slinging heavy pots and pans, sides of beef and racks of lamb in the male-dominated field of culinary art.

With a heavy dash of creativity and competitiveness, she recently took on five of the world’s most celebrated chefs in a test of ingenuity, endurance, and raw talent on the Netflix series Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. She nearly bested them all, coming only one point away from being proclaimed the first “Iron Legend,” a title reserved for only the best of the best in the kitchen. She has also appeared on several food-related shows as a judge or panelist, like Chopped, Battle of the Brothers, and Beat Bobby Flay.

Choi LC’08 began at Rutgers majoring in pharmacy then transferred to psychology, which led her to a position in sales and marketing for a software company that left her feeling unfulfilled. So, when her Korean roots and her kitchen called, she answered. Choi now owns three restaurants featuring ramen and kimchi-inspired dishes she learned from her grandmother who named her, helped raise her, and shared with her a world of Korean flavors and ingredients.

Here, in her own words, this petite powerhouse talks about what it took to get where she is and what it takes to stay there.

The kitchen—my first love

Since I was 14, I have worked in restaurants. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, Egg Harbor Township, where there were no Asians at all, let alone Koreans. My parents were small business owners and had to fight their entire lives to succeed.

Throughout high school and college, I worked to support myself—my parents never had to pay a single penny for school. I bartended and served and loved hanging out in the kitchen with chefs and cooks to watch what they were doing—that was my jam.

When I left my tech job, I went to culinary school and went back to working at a restaurant because they’ve always been my safety blanket. They’re like my home. I spent way more hours working at restaurants than hanging out with friends.

I’ve always been driven that way because I loved the feeling of being free, independent. I called the shots because I made my own money. I never had to depend on anybody else. Restaurants brought me that freedom and that’s why I think I fell in love with them without knowing I was falling in love.

I want to be on TV

I always had the side dream of being in the entertainment business. In grade school, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always, I want to be on TV. I want to be an actress.

When I host [TV shows], producers try to get me to say certain lines and I’m really bad with lines. That’s something that I can’t do. I can’t be an actress, but I can authentically be myself.

I’ve worked behind the scenes with producers and been at Food Network long enough to be well-versed in production. I find it similar to how a restaurant runs—a high energy operation on a strict timeline in a high-stress environment. That fits my personality.

Why I work so hard and have extreme goals

I am extremely competitive, a middle child from an immigrant family. I’m the year of the ox, a Scorpio, notorious for being hard working and super stubborn. I focus a lot of my energy on the creativity I bring to the table because being inspired and continuously having this passion is difficult. I live in New York and have three restaurants and being creative is what distinguishes me as a skilled chef.

Being intentional about your creativity is an exercise you must do continuously. If not, it just goes away.

In this business, you have to pay your dues because without basic techniques and skills, you can’t become a great chef. And it’s a struggle when you’re in it, day in and day out, cooking on the line. You’re just over it. I had to think, How do I take this to a place where I’m going to be passionate about it?

When I’m not working, I’m not working

My work/life balance is also intentional—it has to be. If not, I’m just working 24/7, which I’ve done, especially when I first started my business. I ended up driving myself to the ground, working, worrying, and having anxiety attacks all the time. Switching that mindset was tough for me.

I realized the most important thing is saying, I’m going to take this time off and nobody can bother me. Turning my phone off and being intentional about how I balance my life has probably been the most important lesson for me. Even if I’m hanging out with my sous chefs who are my friends as well, and they try to talk to me about work, I’m like, I’m off the clock guys.

 

What I Know Now features prominent alumni reflecting on their careers and their time at Rutgers while offering their insights and advice to current students and recent grads. They focus on life lessons—identifying what’s important and maintaining a healthy balance. And of course, finding personal success.