Seon Joo Oh cooks beef bulgogi during a recent cooking class in Hamilton High School's culinary room.

Hundreds of Milwaukeeans have learned Korean cooking from this woman

Seon Joo Oh, a grandmother in her 60s, teaches Korean cooking classes at the Milwaukee Recreation Department. She says her own grandmother back in South Korea lived to be 105 years old and told her that you’re never too old to learn something new. Now she wants to pass that on to her community in the US.

The World

The Milwaukee Recreation Department runs hundreds of free or low-cost classes for children and adults.

If you want to learn how to make a new dish, you’ll find that many of the Rec’s cooking classes are in Korean. Why do they offer so many Korean culinary classes?

It turns out, it’s because of one woman. Seon Joo Oh is a teacher and grandmother in her 60s.

On a recent evening at Hamilton High School, she was getting ready to teach a dozen students how to make beef bulgogi, also known as Korean barbecue. It’s made of marinated thin slices of beef cooked on a stovetop.

“Many Korean dishes [are] very slow[-cooked] food, but [are] very [nutritious],” Seon Joo said.

“[There is] some protein, carbohydrates, some vitamins and all kinds of nutrition. I want to introduce [people to] the Korean dishes, and bulgogi is very popular for everybody.”

Students filed in. There were a few couples, a group of friends and a mother-daughter pair named Gail Dompke and Lilli Dompke.

“I’d very much like to be able to make [beef bulgogi] at home. I’d like to learn it from somebody who knows how to prepare it properly.”

Gail Dompke, cooking student

“Bulgogi, I’ve had it in restaurants before and it’s delicious,” Gail Dompke said. “I’d very much like to be able to make that at home. I’d like to learn it from somebody who knows how to prepare it properly.”

Seon Joo Oh lines up the ingredients her class will use to make beef bulgogi.
Seon Joo Oh lines up the ingredients her class will use to make beef bulgogi. Emily Files/WUWM

Seon Joo told the students that they’d make the sauce used to marinate the meat. The students got to work chopping onions and scallions and crushing fruit to add to the sauce.

Seon Joo never expected to be a cooking teacher. At age 44, she moved from Seoul, South Korea, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to study early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). That’s when she started to learn English.

“So, it [was] a little bit hard time, but I [took] the course every day, [met] American friends,” Seon Joo said. “It’s good [to learn] for my life.”

Seon Joo said her grandmother, who lived to be 105 years old, told her that you’re never too old to learn something new.

“[She said,] your age will be more than 120, you need to study something new,” Seon Joo laughed.

Now, Seon Joo is the teacher rather than the student. She teaches paper-folding arts to school children, and in 2017 started teaching Korean cooking and culture classes through Milwaukee Rec.

“I started [cooking classes] one by one, many American people want to take more and more,” Seon Joo said. “They give [say], ‘[start a] noodle class, [start a] pancake class.’ So, that’s [a] good idea. I [started] more and more.”

Students help chop vegetables to include in the bulgogi marinade.
Students help chop vegetables to include in the bulgogi marinade. Emily Files/WUWM

The demand for Korean cooking classes is there, said Claire McHugh, a marketing supervisor with Milwaukee Rec.

“Seon Joo has been a staple here at Hamilton for a quite a long time,” McHugh said. “I know the staff here love her. … Her classes are always full, like tonight. So, yeah, she’s been a really wonderful asset to the program.”

Seon Joo said the most challenging part of teaching these classes is procuring the right ingredients. Milwaukee grocery stores lack the Korean staples. She said her husband drives to the Chicago area about once a week to shop at places like H Mart and Joong Boo Market.

Once the vegetables were chopped for the bulgogi class, Seon Joo lined up the ingredients for the marinade. It included soy sauce, wine, honey, green onion, garlic, sugar and more.

Seon Joo submerged thinly sliced beef into her finished marinade. While that set, the students made their own sauce, commenting on how good it smelled.

After it was cooked, Seon Joo demonstrated how she eats bulgogi — by putting a bite of the meat, along with white rice and spicy chili paste, onto a lettuce leaf — like a spoon you can eat. She took a bite as the students applauded.

“It’s very good,” said one student. “Definitely, you can taste the sesame oil and some of the sweetness from the sugar and the fruits.”

About 250 Milwaukeeans have learned Korean cooking from Seon Joo, according to the Rec department.

She is teaching more classes this summer, including bibimbap and fried noodles. They’re currently full, but there’s a waiting list.

“Always my grandma said, ‘The good food is better than medicine,'” Seon Joo said. “So, we don’t need to take more medicine if you [make] good dishes. So, I want to follow her tradition, her advice.”

Related: In Kazakhstan, timeless Korean recipes are loved and maintained

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