Editor’s note: Joyce and David Seo speak English, but they prefer to speak in Korean, their native language, so their daughter, Grace, translates for them in this story.
In a small building on West Main Street, restaurateur Joyce Seo prepares homemade kimchi in a white bucket. Stirring the popular fermented cabbage mixture, she prepares the dish to be placed in small bowls for customer’s sides.
David Seo washes dishes a few feet from his wife, intermittently speaking Korean to employee Tina He, OU industrial engineering senior, who brings dirty dishes to him from the front of the shop.
Joyce and David’s daughter, Grace, stops by the shop after she is relieved for the day at Westmoore High School, where she is a senior. Grace Seo greets customers and shares upcoming orders with her parents in the small kitchen behind her.
Monday through Saturday, David and Joyce Seo serve a blend of traditional Korean comfort food with an Americanized twist to Norman locals at their Korean fusion café Wing It.
At Wing It, the Seo family welcomes new and familiar customers alike, offering an “in-between” home for Asian Americans, international students and anyone with a hankering for their blend of home cooking.
The Seos are not alone in the pursuit of fusion food as an alternative space for community. Over the last several years, the idea of creating an in-between space for those who juggle in-between two identities has gained social traction.
Converging cuisines have resulted in popular experimental restaurants such as New York City’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004 and specializes in ramen and noodle fusion, such as their Smoked Pork Ramen dish, with egg yolk and bamboo. A popular fusion restaurant in Oklahoma is Tulsa’s Lone Wolf, which opened in 2012 and focuses on kimchi fries, banh mi and fried rice bowls “with an emphasis on quality and creativity,” according to its website.
The rice bowl ranges in cost from $8.95 to $10.95 and has an option of bulgogi, a traditional Korean meat with a twist marinated in house Spicy Korean sauce, or teriyaki. Traditionally bulgogi is beef and absent of spice, but Wing It offers spice levels and options of chicken, pork and tofu, as well, Joyce Seo said.
To Grace Seo, Wing It and fusion food is the personification of the “in-between” nature of being Asian American.
“I’m not going to lie, there are times when you kind of have to choose in-between (one of your identities),” Grace Seo said.
She said there are times she feels like she has to adapt her behavior depending on who she is surrounded by, but at her parent’s restaurant, no one has to choose.
The Seos are immigrants from South Korea who packed up their home in 2000 and moved to New York City for David’s work in the Korean Community Church. A decade later, they packed up again, this time with their three daughters — Day, age 20, Grace, age 17, and Mary, age 15.
David Seo said the couple dreamt of expanding their church work to a broader community, so in 2017, they jumped at the opportunity to accomplish that dream by opening their own cafe in Norman. Their ultimate goal was to provide a space or home for those like them to find comfort and family through a mixture of their own American and Korean family, food and culture.
“They don’t really have any interest in getting rich off of it or expanding it,” Grace Seo said. “They want to make it to where — at least for a lot of the immigrants or international students — that they can feel comforted by it and it’ll remind them of home and they can approach this restaurant like it’s their home.”
Wing It is a true family establishment. All five members of the Seo family work at the restaurant, with only one non-family member employee, He, who began working for the Seos after coming to the restaurant as a customer. David Seo said He is “like family.”
Grace Seo said she and her two sisters “do a little bit of everything” at the restaurant, from washing dishes to serving food and speaking with the customers. The Seos hand make every product they sell, from their kimchi to their fusion fried wings and sauces, she said.
Despite the spicy options and mixture of traditional options, Joyce Seo said they don’t struggle with a diverse range of customers, which include Vietnamese Americans, international students and white Americans.
Joyce Seo said 60 percent of their customer base is OU international students, with the remaining 40 percent is split between American and Vietnamese customers.
Grace and Mary Seo enjoy working at their parents’ shop, but this wasn’t always the case. They both agreed that when they first began waiting tables and serving food, they were less than pleased.
“I didn’t like it at first because I had to work, and I was like, 'I don’t wanna be here,'” Mary Seo said. “Now it’s like, 'OK, I’m OK with working because it’s a lot easier.'”
In cities in South Korea with universities, restaurants have a culture of creating a secondary home for students from far away villages and towns, Joyce Seo said. So while the restaurant owner might not technically be the students’ family, the environment and food they provide allow students to feel comfortable and like they are in their parents home.
“(My) wish is that this restaurant can ... provide that home feeling, so that anyone from anywhere can come and enjoy,” Joyce Seo said.
She said their food is made for a diverse group of people to remind them of whatever home they come from.
“For a lot of the immigrants or international students ... they can feel comforted by (the food) and it’ll remind them of home, and they can approach this restaurant like it’s their home,” Grace Seo said.