The Ultimate Small Wedding ExperienceWords by Jennifer Stein
Photos courtesy of Wonho Frank Lee
How the Pandemic Lead to a New Business Venture
Many couples are looking for an intimate wedding experience. One that celebrates cuisine, culture and allows their guests to be more involved in the reception. When couples opt for a smaller group, it allows them to host something truly special.
Chef Andy Choongman Lee, recognized this during the pandemic and decided to do something about it. “I have been cooking professionally since 2004. I've done just about all there is in the industry, but weddings are by far my favorite. I've cooked all kinds of food but I always shied away from cooking Corean food professionally,” says Lee. “With so much happening in the world, I was left to really reflect. I wanted to learn and share the things I am learning about the Corean culture through food.”
In September 2020, he was laid off as a culinary director and his wife inquired as to what he really wanted to do. “ My original plan was to take the rest of the year off to figure out my next steps. When [my wife] changed the question to what made me the happiest in the kitchen, I shared that preparing tastings for wedding clients was my favorite because I really got to connect with them and also be a part of the biggest day of their lives.”
Nanoom Dining was born.
“I get to connect with my clients closely and share personal and cultural stories behind everything I cook in the comfort of their home,” says Lee. “It is my personal love letter to Corean food and culture.”
As the pandemic raged on and ravaged jobs across the world, the wedding industry was one of the hardest hit. But one wedding planner, Jason Rhee of Rheefined Company Weddings & Special Events, found a way to create meaning in the void. He partnered up with Chef Andy Choongman Lee to help showcase what he was doing. “We had worked on several weddings and events for clients in the past, but nothing for the simple purpose of creating something for ourselves,” says Rhee. “Being able to spend time during quarantine having more in-depth conversations not distracted by day-to-day busyness brought this collaboration together. To be able to create something from our shared pride of being Corean American was igniting.”
This small private dining service is rooted in culture. “I cook and share stories behind each dish and each menu I cook is curated differently for each client's level of understanding of Corean food and culture. Each course is also paired with cocktails designed with Corean spirits,” says Lee. “There are many meaningful ways that I tie in all things Corean into Nanoom Dining. Our gift cards are printed on hanji, paper only made in Corea that is supposed to last a millennium or longer. I recently learned the art of Corean gift wrapping called bojagi, and I used that skill to wrap the leftovers from the dinner with cloth made in Corea and present it to my clients at the end. All the plates and service-ware are handmade from Corea. The mask I wear for the experience is designed with the materials that are used to make traditional Corean clothing, Hanbok. There are honestly, a dozen or so meaningful nods I wove into the dining experience,” says Lee.
Rhee fully appreciates this thoughtfulness and it is part of what makes this collaboration so meaningful to him. “I believe that people can feel your joy, and without purpose, it's hard to know what brings you joy. Chef has always seemed so clear on his goal and passion for helping others. He literally feeds souls!” says Rhee.
What Rhee brings to the table (pun intended) is an entirely different set of skills. He takes Chef’s food and allows it to be the focal point of the event design. What is shown here is a recent collaboration of Lee and Rhee’s talents. “The design was inspired by Chef Andy and his passion for Nanoom Dining,” says Rhee. “We both felt a perfect collaboration would be the blending of ‘old world meets new world.’ We wanted to keep the tradition authentic but with a modern, more current direction. We were keeping the distractions minimal to focus on the purpose, the nourishment, the food.”
Authenticity is something both Rhee and Lee value and is central to this concept. “We wanted to keep the authenticity by working with other Corean brands and artists,” says Rhee. “I wanted the food to be the focus, the art, while everything else was the canvas. The cool earthy tones with natural textures perfectly balance the food's vibrant and bold shapes and ingredients.”
Everything, including the plating, is thoughtfully approached. “It was very important to me that while I am offering the white-glove service that I still plate everything traditionally,” says Lee. “I think there is too much emphasis on Western-style plating. All the food from all over the world almost looks the same now. All have micro herbs, dust of something amazing, and floral. I love that look as well but it was very important that my food appeared the way my parents remembered eating growing up. Nothing I cook is really reimagined. I focused more on nostalgia and elevation of traditional food and flavors.”
You don’t have to be an expert on Corean culture or cuisine when you work with Nanoom Dining, but you just might learn something. “My job is to make sure everyone walks away from the meal with a deeper appreciation of the Corean culture,” says Lee. “This is important to me because I am always curious and wanting to gain a deeper understanding of other cultures. It's a wonderful thing to have a cultural exchange and what better way to do that than through food?”
For more about Nanoom Dining, click here.
Vendors: Creative Direction/Production: Rheefined Company Weddings & Special Events; Culinary + Culinary Design: Nanoom Dining; Photography: Wonho Photography; Paper Goods: Esther Choi; Floral Design: Designer Dana
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