Oh Kimchi: An Interview with Abbi Lunde

There's something about kimchi--that funky, fermented, completely addictive Korean pickle--that's so much greater than the sum of its parts. Like most fermented dishes, something magical happens in the pickling crock that unlocks powerful nutrients and flavors. The best thing about Abbi Lunde's version is that it is distinctly Austin--made with locally-grown ingredients, it's a product of her commitment to her adopted hometown and an homage to her family's roots in Korea.

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Oh Kimchi.

My husband Duane and I both worked for Johnson's Backyard Garden for a couple years and had access to great vegetables for kimchi making. We had a passion for the local food scene and were inspired to bring my Korean family's recipes to Austin. I started out at the Barton Creek Farmer's market, only back in October with 30 jars, a table and a baby strapped to me. We have really come a long way in a short time, all driven by Austin's intense demand for our spicy fermented goodies!

Tell us about the products you make—what’s special about them?

There are so many ingredients people can use to make kimchi for themselves, but we stick to the methods and ingredients just like my family in Korea would use. We select our vegetables from small local farms here around the Austin area--often the vegetables come straight out of the ground and into kimchi in a matter of hours--something that would make even my "halmony" (grandmother) jealous! I feel so honored to be able to handle such beautiful veggies and carry on the family tradition.

Why use local ingredients?

I personally believe that you have to respect your body by respecting your food. We love getting to know our farmers; they feel like family and we trust their practices, and love that we know exactly where our money is going at the end of the day--you can't say that about a supermarket! Plus your food just tastes better when you know it was cared for with love.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to make food for a living?

I've spend most of my adult life in a restaurant or bar, my teenage years on our family farm and out at the farmers' markets for JBG Organic. But most importantly, I grew up in many kitchens. My family in Korea was obviously an inspiration in terms of food. I was blessed with my mother and grandmother's palate. I was raised in West Monroe, Louisiana and spent most of my childhood at a crawfish boil, catfish fry, or potluck in a church somewhere; all my fondest memories were always shared with a lot of food and my favorite people. That is still how I like to spend my free time...when I find it!

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

At the end of the day, I simply have a responsibility to my daughter to do my best to give her a beautiful and healthy world to inherit. So to me, sustainability is about always striving to do what we can as a family and a business to ensure our practices are good for the environment on every level and mutually beneficial for our farmers, and that we are always putting something good out there for people. I try to challenge myself to bring everything in our life closer to the farmer's market. That's a good place to start!

What does a “day in the life” look like at Oh Kimchi?

Oh man...that's unpredictable! I spend a lot of time out at Winfield Farm in the kitchen. Duane and the baby are either out in the field or driving all over Austin running crazy small business errands. We are always out and about on Saturdays and Sundays at as many markets as time will allow, talking to our farmers and picking up veggies for kimchi-ing. We try to set aside time at Auditorium Shores (while it lasts) for our dog Olive every day too.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

I still like to clean the kitchen floors by hand. I'm obsessively clean and because kimchi can be a messy business, I find that a mop just doesn't cut it. I've never used one. Even at home. I really enjoy cleansing the kitchen at the end of the day. It's soothing!

What do you find most rewarding about making food?

It allows me to be creative, providing something real and good to the people I love, and it makes people happy, which is very fulfilling for me. Plus, I find the monotony of chopping veggies very meditative.

What do you find most challenging?

Baking! I'm terrible with measurements. I think baking is requires too much precision. I'm a "that looks about right" sort of cook.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to create good food for a living?

Well, first I'd have to say ourselves. Duane and our friends were very encouraging to me in the beginning when I didn't believe that my kimchi was good enough that people would be willing to pay for it. I was very hard on myself and didn't believe I could actually do it. Obviously, I was my own worst enemy. But in a more physical sense, one of our biggest obstacles is definitely all the paperwork! Getting the right permits and licenses is complicated, and there is lots of bad information out there. At the end of the day, though, the struggle with "the man" is definitely worth it!

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

I like knowing where my food comes from and where my money is going. I want to trust what I'm putting in my body and, if I can't make it myself, I want to trust who is making it. The farmers' market is like an incubator for some amazing local products. I like to be ahead of the curve when it comes to food trends and health care, and I love putting my hard-earned dollar back into helping someone else's small business grow a little bit more.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

Pogue Mahone Pickles and Confituras, some of our local SFC Farmers' Market favorites, just won awards at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco! We are so excited for them!

What inspires you?

I come from a long line of strong women. I am inspired every day to be more like them. My grandmother owned a noodle shop in Korea, made kimchi, was the local midwife, and was a single mother. She lost two husbands, several children, and is one of the kindest and most sturdy souls on this earth. Every batch of kimchi I make, I think of her, and imagine she is proud of me.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

Keep it local as often as possible and stay educated. I like to plan seasonally and shop at the farmers' market for my groceries and for goodies that look inspiring. Then I fill in the gaps at Wheatsville, where I can find lots of local products under one roof. It's like a real-life scavenger hunt every weekend.

What are some of your favorite market finds?

I just tried Confituras' Suenos Marmalade and am obsessed. I also recently found a delicious West African-style Spicy Carrot Relish I'm sprinkling on everything!

What are you cooking this week?

Probably several things with kimchi, obviously. But I am excited to roast a pheasant this week. My daughter Ellie is really into cruciferous veggies so there's always a lot of sautéed kale, broccoli, and cabbage at our house these days.

What’s your favorite dish using ingredients from the market?

While our winters aren't so rough here, I love a good vegetable soup with a homemade chicken stock--lots of greens and root veggies and a big dollop of goat cheese on top! And maybe some gluten free fusilli if we are lucky.

What are some new products lined up for spring?

We are all seasonal, so we anticipate lots more greens, and the continuation of cabbage! But we are eagerly awaiting the reemergence of cucumbers!

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: Korean breakfast with seaweed soup, rice, egg custard, and lots of kimchi!

Favorite comfort food: Red beans and rice with andouille sausage or any kind of casserole. I have an affinity for casseroles--it's the Louisiana in me.

Favorite book about food: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Favorite cookbook: The 1988 Southern Living Christmas Cookbook. It has my dad's favorite gingerbread cookie recipe. I don't really do many cookbooks. I know how lucky I was to learn by watching my mom and my grandmothers.

Favorite winter fruit/veggie: persimmons

Favorite food indulgence: Taro bubble tea (I'm slightly obsessed) and Chacosutra lavender chocolates! Mmm.