Isaac Brekken for Bon Appetit
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | 6:30 a.m.
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“A missing piece of my life’s jigsaw puzzle.” That’s how PBS chef Marja Dominique Vongerichten describes the incredible story of her search for the father she’s never known. It’s been a near-lifelong attempt, and when she thought she’d come close to tracking him down in Mississippi, she’s come up empty every time.
Now she’d like your help.
Marja is the beautiful wife of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who owns Prime at Bellagio, Jean-Georges Steakhouse at Aria in MGM’s CityCenter and other restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, Vancouver, B.C., Cabo San Lucas, Shanghai and London.
She’s the co-host with him on the PBS hit “The Kimchi Chronicles,” and they were here together last week for the “Couple That Cooks Together” luncheon at Prime for the Sixth Annual Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit, where he encouraged her to tell me her amazing story.
I sat beside them, and she even sent to me via iPhone the only photograph she has of her black father and Korean mother. “My mother was seven months’ pregnant with me when he left. I was born in Uijeongbu in 1976. He was a United States serviceman in Korea and was sent back home to America. He never saw me,” Marja said.
“I hardly knew my mother, either, because I was in an orphanage, St. Vincent’s Home for Amerasians, and she had to give me up for adoption when I was only 3 years old. I was raised by African-American parents in Virginia outside Washington, D.C. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old that I was reunited with my birth mother.”
Viewers of her series and readers of her cookbook “Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen” know of her spiritual journey back to her roots in Korea. She reveals that her adopted father also was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Marine Corps, and he did the research to track down her birth mother.
“He went door to door for days with an old photo until he found her and talked with her into a tape recorder to eventually give to me. There was a letter from him and my mother explaining the whole process of my adoption. When I was ready and went off to college, the Korean Embassy in Washington put me in contact with American nuns there who reunite adoptees with biological Korean families. Three months later, they told me she was in Brooklyn, New York. I didn’t even know she’d come to America.”
Then began her quest to find her biological father. “All I had was William H. Brown from Mississippi. It was easier to find a needle in a haystack because that’s like saying John Smith in New York.” Marja told me she called thousands of William Browns listed in phone books, but to no avail.
“Finally, there was one that could have been a possibility. The mother of a serviceman from Korea said her son was a William Brown, and so I flew there. But it turned out not to be, and since that emotional moment, I sort of abandoned the search.
“It was difficult not having the right paperwork and citizenship to get the U.S. military or the American Embassy in Seoul to help. Kids like us didn’t get official birth certificates, so I didn’t exist on paper until my adoption went through. My mother actually picked out the dress from the market for me to go off to America with my new family.
“But, yes, it’s the missing piece of my life’s jigsaw puzzle. Maybe your story and the photo of him looking like Jimi Hendrix would reach somebody who knows him. It would complete my journey and the experience.
Marja says her birth mother and she are very close and see each other all the time; they make plans at least once a week “making up for lost time.”
Marja began cooking at age 12 and even prepares meals for her famous kitchen king husband. He’s incorporated Korean aspects into his own French-Thai fusion cooking style. “We go for Korean fried chicken and karaoke on Monday nights,” she laughed. “I’m a pretty good Korean cook.”
Their luncheon at Prime included herbed mung bean pancakes, smoked salmon and caviar with Korean sauces, Kobe ribeye bulgogi style with kimchi fried rice and more sauces and one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted: passion fruit sunflower served atop crisp meringue with vanilla pastry cream.
Marja summed up: “I found my mother. I discovered my culture when I returned to film the PBS series. Now I should find my father.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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