Student Chef Focuses on Food, Sustainability, Community

March 15, 2012

Yeojin Yi

by Laura Pochodylo '14

Yeojin Yi, a Knox College junior from Sammamish, Washington, is cooking her way through school, channeling her passion for all things food into a job at En Season Café. Her job is helping her grow as a future chef and develop her interest in sustainability, as well as strengthen her connection with the Galesburg community.

Yi, who goes by YJ, is majoring in English literature at Knox. She says her upbringing provided her with a love for food and inspired her goal of attending culinary school.

"I have always had a passion for cooking," Yi said. "My family has owned restaurants all their lives, so I was always around the kitchen and the chefs."

Yi is involved in the local sustainability movement. Through events like the Galesburg Farmers' Market, Yi met Cordelia "Cordy" Kaylegian, who runs Cordy's Country Kitchen in the Knox County community of North Henderson. Kaylegian sells homemade bread at the Farmers' Market.Yeojin Yi

"I think of her as my grandmother," Yi said. "She has taught me how to be sustainable in the kitchen" and other aspects of life.

Kaylegian encouraged Yi to apply for a job at En Season Café, and she was hired as sous chef -- or assistant to the chef. The restaurant, which opened in 2011, has a menu consisting of meals made with locally grown produce and other ingredients from nearby farms.

"We really do follow the seasonable fruits and vegetables available to us from local farmers and producers, so sometimes it can be a challenge to cook in season all the time, but it is a good challenge," Yi said.

"We all work at En Season together," she added. "Sometimes I am the waitress, dishwasher, and busgirl. My favorite part of the job is creating a meal out of fresh and healthy ingredients while keeping the integrity of the local meats and produce."

Yi draws on her Knox background in environmental studies, especially what she has learned from Peter Schwartzman, associate professor and chair of environmental studies, to put her passion for sustainability into action at the restaurant.

"My first class in environmental studies was Intro to Environmental Studies with Peter Schwartzman," she said. "I'd never even met him before that class. But halfway through the term, I had an epiphany with everything we were learning, and I really wanted to do well with applying what I was learning to my life."

"En Season is all about creating healthy, fresh, and local food for our community. We try to be as sustainable as possible, which is really inspirational to me," she added. (Photo below left: Yeojin Yi with a batch of fresh mayonnaise she made at the restaurant.)

Yeojin YiAs part of her coursework at Knox, Yi is pursuing an independent study project -- setting up a food vendor's booth at the Galesburg Farmers' Market. Her faculty advisor is Nic Mink, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and an expert on food systems.

"I was very intimidated with such a big project on my shoulders," she said. "I thought: This is going to be so hard for me to achieve. But he's very easy to speak with, and he's so reassuring. He's a great moral support."

The project, still in the works, already has proven to be educational.

"I've learned about perseverance and tolerance, being able to cope with difficulties," Yi said. "Starting a business is not going to be easy. You've got to learn to persevere through the tough times."

One of her goals with the independent study project is to encourage more Knox students to visit the Farmers' Market. "Their support would be a cool impact for the community," she said, "and it would also bring so much awareness to the students."

Yi said she is grateful that her time at Knox has helped her become more knowledgeable about food. Before arriving on campus, she hadn't expected to pursue that passion as part of her college experience.

"But I was completely wrong. There are a lot of professors here who are also interested in food. They know a lot," she said. "I think that also goes for any passion that people have -- they can pursue it here at Knox."