Like other East Asian languages, Korean lacks a distinctive “L” or “V” sound.
So “love” ≈ “rub.”
If you’ve never had Korean BBQ, you might find people’s craze for it hard to understand. A good introduction can be found at sisters Ann and Janet’s stall at Smorgasburg, a flea food market (where have these been the first twenty-one years of my life?) held in Williamsburg every Saturday.
Yoonie and I stumbled across We Rub You a few weekends ago. It was our last stop at the market, and rightfully so, considering by the time we lugged ourselves into line we had already stuffed our faces with sesame noodles, two blueberry blintzes, a chocolate dipped frozen banana, and an ice cream cookie sandwich.
We ordered a spicy pork belly bun to share, which came piled high with kimchi, cucumber, and a perilla chimichurri (green sauce made with an herb from the mint family). While waiting for our food we struck up a conversation with the guy in front of us, James, a fellow Yalie like Yoonie. He also happened to be Ann and Janet’s cousin.
We ended up talking with James for over an hour and found out Ann had just left a ten year stint in banking to work on We Rub You full-time.
Ten years as a banker! She didn’t look a day older than twenty-six. And our pork belly bun was amazing, easily the best thing we tried all day.
Ann Chung Mellman is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, hands down. It’s hard to imagine her in the rough and tumble environment of the trading floor, where she spent a previous life managing derivative swaps and other things generally above my head.
Her breadth of knowledge is impressive, yet never in your face. She can weave “herbaceous” into conversation without sounding awkward, comment on prominent architects who designed in the Beaux-Arts style, and describe the chemistry behind why certain flavors complement each other.
Ann and her sister grew up in Dallas, Texas, the oldest pair of six cousins. This afforded them plenty of opportunities to cook for younger family members. As James put it (somewhat ruefully), “Yeah, I never really got into cooking. Everything was usually already made for us.”
The role complemented Ann’s natural affinity for food. “Since we ate mostly Korean cooking at home, I wasn’t exposed to many other cuisines. Whenever I read books and came across a dish I didn’t recognize, I would try and reverse engineer the recipe based on its name. I remember there was this one scene in Anne of Green Gables with split pea soup; the recipe I imagined was nothing like what split pea soup actually is.”
After graduating from Columbia with a degree in engineering, Ann accepted her first job on the trading floor. Though she enjoyed her work, she always felt there would be a finite end to her time in banking. “You give up a lot to be good at anything you do, but finance especially. I wanted more freedom and flexibility.”
She continued pursuing her love of cooking, enrolling in the French Culinary Institute for a year as “a way to stay sane.” With the onset of the recession, Ann felt it was the right time to make a transition. In 2009 she left her position as a senior VP on the Latin America derivatives desk, and spent two years traveling and taking classes at Pratt, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the City Seminary of New York. Her first stab at being an entrepreneur actually involved textiles, but it never got off the ground, partly due to a lack of industry experience.
“At that point I asked myself what I did know, and I knew that I knew Korean food…someone once told me that men tend to play to their strengths, while women will push themselves to be more well-rounded. Both are valuable, but it often makes a lot of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If you don’t speak Spanish, why force yourself to do something that requires learning Spanish?”
Eventually, Ann and Janet hope to get their line of marinades and sauces onto store shelves and make Korean BBQ accessible to a wider audience.
In the meantime, they’re having a blast at Smorgasburg. Every Tuesday, they make the go/no-go call for the week (it’s a lot of refreshing of weather.com). Ingredient orders are placed shortly after and the team goes to Queens on Friday to do their market shopping. The rest of Friday is spent cooking at a commercial kitchen in the Bronx, and set up starts at 8:00 am on Saturday.
“Our first week was kind of crazy. We were pretty conservative since we didn’t know what to expect, but somehow ended up being really off on our proportions—we had way too much meat and not enough bread. You know the Biblical story where Jesus makes fish and bread multiply? It felt like that. We were like where is all this meat coming from?? We were buying up all the bread we could get a hold of in the neighborhood.”
For Ann, the biggest perk of starting her own venture is “the moment you realize that in your own small way, what you’re doing is actually having an impact on your community.” We Rub You hired its first non-family help a few weeks ago, the son of a friend who swims at the same local pool. “We’re creating jobs!” Ann beams.