Eunsook Pai doesn't do things by half measures: She'll travel almost two hours from her home in Fairfield, Connecticut, to New York City just to buy Japanese eggplant from a particular farmer at the Union Square Greenmarket or to find a rare variety of cucumber for her pickles -- which take up to two weeks to make. She has an entire refrigerator devoted to aging kimchi, which she makes by the barrel following a labor-intensive process. So, predictably, when her grown children -- son Ian and daughter Liana -- come for a barbecue, accompanied by Liana's husband and daughters and a few friends, it's not exactly a last-minute, throw-something-together kind of affair. "I'm a visual person, a creative person," says Mrs. Pai, as she is called by almost everyone. "I want things to taste delicious but also look good."
Born in Korea, Mrs. Pai came to the United States in 1966, moving to Brooklyn, New York, where her husband, John, was a professor of sculpture at Pratt Institute. "My mom spoke no English -- and there wasn't much of a Korean community in Brooklyn -- but she was always surrounded by artists and musicians because of my dad's job," says Liana. It was then that Mrs. Pai began expressing her own artistry through food, something she's only gotten better at over the years. "She doesn't follow rules," says Liana. "She does what she feels will look and taste good."
For today's meal, that meant laying out an abundant spread of Italian antipasti before a traditional Korean feast, including beef bulgogi, a marinated hanger steak served with lettuce. The salumi, cheeses, and desserts came courtesy of Liana, who picked them up at her mother's favorite places in Manhattan. But the Korean fare was all homemade by Mrs. Pai. Her only helpers: her granddaughters, Ima, 8. and Mica, 7, who pitched in filling the pork-and-cabbage dumplings. And as with everything Mrs. Pai does, when it comes to those dumplings, she doesn't mess around. Her everyday recipe makes 80 -- enough leftovers to feed her guests for a week.
The World According to Mrs. Pai
The consummate (and opinionated) hostess shares her entertaining secrets.
Collect and Use
Over the years, Eunsook Pai has amassed an impressive collection of Mediterranean pottery and earthenware -- she's flown back from Portugal cradling large pieces on her lap. She uses all of it, keeping bowls and plates stacked and at the ready on a table in her kitchen. She declares the earthenware the best vessels in which to cook Korean food.
Create a Visual Feast
Mrs. Pai pays particular attention to how food is displayed. No sorry sprigs of parsley as a garnish on her table. Instead, smoked fish is set out on chard leaves, big bunches of sage frame platters of dumplings, and carrots are placed in the same serving bowl as strawberries -- not because they're meant to be eaten together but for color contrast.
All those garnishes get a second life: Banana leaves on which she serves fruit are washed and refrigerated until the next event; the sage is used for cooking; the bread is ground into crumbs; and any uneaten food is sent home with guests. Regulars know to show up with their to-go containers.
Mrs. Pai thinks nothing of traveling almost two hours to buy blooms from New York City's flower market the day they arrive. How does she know the vendor isn't just telling her a story? She's been known to hand out doughnuts, coffee, homemade Korean food, and cigars to certain sellers, who now tip her off to what's the freshest.
Let Nothing Be Sacred
The hand-carved wooden bowl might date back to the American Revolution, but that doesn't mean it's kept in some cabinet. Its place of honor is always on the serving table, where today it holds the cornucopia of greens used for wrapping the beef bulgogi.
Time Is of the Essence
Mrs. Pai's kimchi ferments in the cellar for months. But she won't cut it until she's ready to serve it. "It's like Champagne," says Liana. "You can't let it sit once it's sliced or the smell and taste change."
Use Your Surroundings
Since Mrs. Pai tends to prepare enough food for an army, the serving bowls would never fit on the table. Instead, she places the table near the hipheight fieldstone wall, which she then uses as a buffet.