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NOLA restaurateur Seung Hong launches a culinary Rebellion

Seung Hong of Rebellion (Photo: Rebecca Friedman)

Seung Hong of Rebellion (Photo: Rebecca Friedman)

New Orleans native Seung Hong wants you to know that his Warehouse District hotspot, Rebellion Bar & Urban Kitchen, is a New Orleans restaurant. Yes, its menu draws heavily upon Korean, Southeast Asian, South American and New Orleans influences, but that mix reflects his own background. “I am a product of New Orleans, and this is the stuff I grew up with, so don’t tell me that this isn’t New Orleans food. This is just expanding the definition to include people like me.”

We sat down with Seung to talk about his nontraditional path to restaurant ownership, how Rebellion captures a new wave of experimentation in local dining, and how he envisions the space as a place for people to come together for much more than a meal.

NolaVie: What were you doing before you got into the restaurant game, and what prompted the leap?

Seung: I was doing some political consulting work, working with non-profits, and I managed a campaign for the public service commission. I spent almost two years doing that kind of work, and before that I had spent three years working with Mitch Landrieu and four years with Shelley Midura on the City Council. This has been in the back of my head for years, though. I knew I wanted to have some kind of brick and mortar business. I’m the true believer type, so it’s hard for me to do jobs for the money. It had to be something I could feel passionate about and not mind putting in long hours. This was very high on the list of what I wanted to do.

This isn’t my first experience in restaurants, either. My very first restaurant job was at Bennigan’s on Veterans, right after graduating high school. There is a comradery in restaurants – it’s a little bit like socializing, but you’re being paid for it. Even though Bennigan’s was a terrible restaurant, and there were days when it just sucked and I would go home with $14, I never minded it much. In college [in Madison, Wisconsin], I worked in the kitchen of a sushi place and was a dishwasher at an Italian place. Everything there was baked on metal pans, and I had to scrub those off. That’s probably one of the few restaurant jobs I didn’t like. The other was bartending for a summer at Red Lobster, making terrible, terrible drinks. But the thing about those chains is they give you a lot of training. The culture sucks, and it’s souless, but you learn good habits.

When I moved back to New Orleans, I kept a service industry job – even when I had another day job. On the weekends I would bartend at [now-closed Korean restaurant] Genghis Khan, and it was awesome. I loved going there. And now, even though it’s a double shift every single day, I never feel like I don’t want to go to work.

NolaVie: Why the name Rebellion?

Seung: I meant it to be a nod towards my life in politics and toward that concept of mixing styles and being un-traditional.

NolaVie: Are there any experiences or skills from your political life that have carried over to this role?

I thought there would be more. In politics there is so much schmoozing. I thought "restaurant/bar – that’s schmoozing too," and there’s some of that, but that’s a small piece of what it takes. I knew it was going to be a ridiculous amount of work. That social side of the job is really small when you actually own and manage the place.

NolaVie: Let’s talk about the food. How does the concept reflect your background?

Seung: I’ve been working on this concept for a long time, and I knew I wanted it to be kind of biographical. I’m Korean American, grew up in New Orleans, and my parents grew up in South America, and I wanted to have all of that represented. I grew up eating interesting food. My mom is a great cook – she is definitely an experimenter who would borrow from different styles. It was normal to me to eat things that were a mix of Korean, South American and New Orleans. I knew I wanted to do something like that where I didn’t have to feel in a certain box. I didn’t want to be a Southern traditional or modern Southern restaurant. I didn’t want to be an Asian restaurant. I wanted to be free to play around with things that are delicious and things that have some familiarity to me.

There are some things on the menu that are reminiscent of my mom’s cooking – like the kimchi Oaxaca empanadas, which are similar to my mom’s kimchi cheese pupusas. I was thinking about doing something like that, but our executive chef, David Dickensauge, was the menu designer. He looked at my concept and kind of took it up a notch and designed all the recipes.

My mom just left, actually – she’s here a couple days a week helping out. I don’t know that she even understands how much of an inspiration she was for this place. She just is like, "I’m here to help my son." People love her. She can be bossy, and yet she’s also kind of charming, so she can get away with things. I’ll get super embarrassed and look at the person like, "I’m so sorry!" and they’re like, "No, it’s fine. Your mom’s great!"

NolaVie: Is there a menu item whose popularity has surprised you?

Seung: The burger. The burger is ridiculously popular – people tell us all the time that it’s the best burger they’ve ever had. The first impetus to put it on the menu was that Phil’s Grill used to be in this space, and I knew there was a built-in burger crowd, so I wanted to have something for them. I think Phil’s does a great burger, but I kind of wanted to take it up a notch. It’s grass-fed wagyu beef, and we put a couple of our different housemade sauces on it. Last time I counted, we had 47 different sauces that we make in house, and a couple of them are on the burger. It might be our number one seller. A lot of people come here and think, "I’m not going to get a burger here because I get a burger anywhere," but I tell them, "It’s okay, you can get the burger. It’s a good burger, and I resist getting it every day." I’m really proud of the burger.

We also just started offering weekend brunch. Brunch is such a thing in New Orleans. So many places do it so well – Atchafalaya, Elizabeth’s, Dante’s, all the Brennan places – but I think most do a traditional New Orleans or Southern style, and ours is a little bit different. It also includes bottomless mimosas, which has been interesting. When I go out for brunch, I never ever get bottomless mimosas, but people were strongly encouraging me to do that, saying they only go to brunch at places with bottomless mimosas. That is a litmus test for a lot of people. It’s never been one for me. So I did it and totally underestimated how many mimosas people in New Orleans can drink on a Sunday. I thought, okay, we’ll probably get a small group of women who want bottomless mimosas, but there are like tables of dudes who are all getting bottomless mimosas. Just downing them.

NolaVie: What is your favorite dish on the menu?

Seung: It changes. Lately I’ve been into the squid ink spaghettina. The flavors work well, and it’s unique – I don’t think there’s anything else like it, definitely not around here. It’s kind of like Spanish meets Italian meets Southeast Asian meets Korean – it’s a pasta dish that has squid ink and caviar and curry and kimchi and a tomato compote. I’m intentionally avoiding using the word "fusion" throughout this conversation, but it kind of embodies, conceptually, that cross cultural mix that I like.

NolaVie: What about the space? How did this evolve from Phil’s Grill into Rebellion?

Seung: I wanted to have a cool space that would cater towards creative folks, public interest people, progressive-minded people. I wanted to have a space that was a blend of all those things I mentioned plus traditional and modern, old and new, east and west – all of that in the same space and concept.

We finished the space in two months, which is kind of unheard of. We honestly didn’t have to do that much. We redid most of the bar. We built all the dining tables. We painted, and painting was actually much more of a pain than I thought it would be. It was me and Steven, one of our chefs, who did most of the work. An interior designer friend suggested I try painting these horizontal stripes, and I thought, "That looks kind of like a pain in the butt, but I will just get a level, and it will be easy to do straight lines." But this building is 140 years old – it’s not level. I used the level, and the lines were all shooting at obvious angles. So the stripes are not perfect at all. But that’s how it is – when you have a place, you know all the things that are not perfect.

NolaVie: Has there been a particularly gratifying moment since opening Rebellion?

Seung: We had an event last week for the public defenders office. It was mostly young people who are working their asses off for a cause they believe in, trying to defend people who have nothing. Helping them in a small way – whether it’s giving them a good drink for a good price or helping them to raise a little money – was extremely gratifying. That’s the social stuff that feels the best. What I miss about politics is being connected to something that’s bigger than yourself. Any little bit of that is a little more gratifying.

NolaVie: Any big plans for Rebellion’s evolution?

Seung: We’re trying to figure out programming for the first half of the week. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are a little slower, so those are the days when I want to do more events. I’m trying to make Monday like my purposeful event day – like we did with the public defenders – trying to organize and reach out to groups that I think do really important work, where I think it would be beneficial to them and to me too to give each other mutual exposure, mutual support, and hopefully help them raise some money. We have a standard event we’re doing on Tuesdays – there will be music and some artists. Wednesdays, starting October 7, we will start doing wine dinner nights and free wine tastings, with an optional wine pairing for a four-course dinner.

One of my favorite places that I’ve ever been is Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. It’s an interesting concept, like a bookstore/café/restaurant/community space. It was opened by an Iraq war protester and filled with really cool art, civil rights artwork. It became a de facto meeting space for artists and activists. I’m in some ways trying to be a small version of that, but in the Warehouse District. I feel like that’s where a lot of culture making happens. Getting people together, you have cultural exchange. I do this, I show it to you, you start doing it, some other person starts doing it, and then you have culture. I wanted it to be a place that inspired culture and good conversation and debate and mindfulness, thoughtfulness. The artwork – I get a lot of mixed reactions on it. I’ve had a couple of people tell me, "I really like your food, but Nelson Mandela, that communist? You’re really going to put him on the wall?" I’m not offended if you feel differently about somebody. I want it to be civilized, but I think it’s good to have those kind of conversations.

NolaVie: How do you see Rebellion fitting into the dining scene here?

Seung: What I was thinking when I opened this place was I really love New Orleans food. I love the New Orleans food scene, but I wanted to have something that was a little bit different, not traditional. People come in and say, "I really love your food, you’re doing something different from New Orleans food." But I want to be considered a New Orleans restaurant. People think I’m trying to be hip, trendy, East or West Coast, but I’m not. We’re still a New Orleans restaurant. We’re not traditional, but there are changes happening. Demographics are changing here, and it’s a contentious issue, but I feel like there is room for how New Orleans is defined to include places like this.

SEUNG’S PICKS FOR:

Casual group dinner: The last place I went that made me go "wow" was Compere Lapin. Every single thing I put into my mouth was amazing. There wasn’t a single weak link.

Late night eats: Root Squared (the bar) – best cheese plate under $10 I’ve had in my life. And Bouligny Tavern – they have awesome gouda beignets. Mimi’s – best steak under $10 I’ve ever had. And two that are a little more divey – Half Moon and Twelve Mile Limit.

Special occasion: Lately I’m always here, but before, when friends came into town, I would take them to Green Goddess in the French Quarter, or Cochon, or Ye Olde College Inn. I don’t know if I have a go-to for myself … maybe Lilette.

Hungover brunch: Atchafalaya. Whether I’m hungover or not, I’m going to get a Bloody Mary, and they have a Bloody Mary bar. The best Bloody is the one you make yourself.