My birthday was this past weekend. To celebrate, my mother offered to take me out to dinner at… our family’s restaurant. Some history is in order. (WARNING: This is long.)
My mom works/I was raised in a Korean food catering place called Mae Il Jahnchee Jeep. I don’t really know what Mae Il stands for, but “jahnchee” seems to be a relatively new word to the Korean lexicon, meaning “lunchbox” — not the collectible Mork & Mindy kind, but more like the bento kind. “Jeep” translates to house, which you’ll find in the names of many Korean restaurants that offer traditional home cooking. (Sometimes my mom and her associates drop the “jeep” when referring to the store.) On a final confusing note, according to some English signage, the place is also called Party Well Buffet.
My father’s side of the family seems to be a lot wealthier than my mom’s side. With the financial backing of my better-off uncle, my parents opened a Korean joint called Mae Il Jahnchee in the early ’80s. This was actually the first business of its kind to appear in the states (or at least in New York City), which begs the question of whether or not my family coined the term “jahnchee.” Perhaps “jahnchee” had already existed as the Korean word for lunchbox, but I’ve heard that my parents were the first to use it to refer to a restaurant. (Take that, DJ Conner!)
The first incarnation of Mae Il Jahnchee was a no-frills catering operation in Flushing, Queens. It was a one-story building with a picture window that gave passersby a glimpse into a chaotic kitchen. There was some sort of rudimentary counter behind which my mom and dad took orders, but for most of the day all hands were on deck in the back, and no one really manned the front of the house.
In the late ’80s, my uncle decided to invest in expanding Mae Il Jahnchee. He purchased a large building that was catty-corner from the business and set about renovating it into a catering hall. No one in my family seems to know what this building was used for before my uncle bought it. I’d imagine it was for some kind of entertainment. I remember seeing red vinyl columns but that’s about it.
The renovation took several years. My family moved into a house right next to the new store. My sister and I played in the construction rubble.
My mom and dad dealt with a lot of stress for this long stretch of time: signing a lease on a house; raising two dirty, accident-prone little girls and one teenage boy who had taken to good old American rebelliousness a little too much; overseeing the construction of a new business while still operating the old one. And during all of this my father’s health was declining.
I remember one late-night argument my parents had during this time. My family must have just recently moved into our house, because we were all sleeping together on the living room floor in a mess of blankets. I pretended to sleep as my mom and dad raged over their kids’ prone bodies.
My father passed away in 1990. He never saw the finished, new Mae Il Jahnchee Jeep.
The grand opening was a huge event; pretty much the entire Korean community in Queens was there. Mae Il Jahnchee continued to be the happenin’ spot for weddings, babies’ one-hundredth day celebrations, decade birthdays, and other significant events in the lives of local Korean Americans.
In addition to the main hall on the ground floor, there were two ancillary party spaces that I’m sure were more affordable. One was in the basement, past the bathrooms and sharing a wall with the kitchen. The room itself had low ceilings, terrible lighting and a tacky linoleum floor.
The other party space was on the second/top floor, and though it was airy and spacious, it was also obviously just part of a cleared-out apartment. The room was flanked on either side by bedrooms that came to be occupied by my brother, my cousin (rich uncle’s son), and my grandmother, as well as a couple of bathrooms, complete with bathtubs and toiletries that shouted, “Someone lives here!”
Strangely enough, business moved so briskly that it was a common occurence for each party room to be booked on weekend nights. When karaoke mania hit the US in the mid-early ’90s, I usually fell asleep to the cacophony of not one, not two, but three drunken revelers belting out K-pop ballads.
Meanwhile, Mae Il Jahnchee still did out-of-house catering. My brother and the aforementioned cousin (who deserves his very own essay) earned their keep as delivery boys, driving aluminum trays of food out to Korean businesses, churches and households all over the tri-state area.
Though the store had assumed a more presentable reception area, there wasn’t a lot of walk-in business. Most transactions were conducted over the phone, and the drivers received cash on delivery. The kitchen produced a handful of small styrofoam trays of snacks – jahnchees! – everyday, and what didn’t get sold was usually forced onto me and my sister.
Over the years, as more Korean establishments popped up in the area, Mae Il Jahnchee didn’t change much about its business model. There are still no computers; all numbers are crunched on laypersons’ calculators and documented by hand in composition books. Though I’m sure they’ve started taking credit cards, I don’t recall ever seeing any sort of card reading device.
Thus, business slowed down at Mae Il Jahnchee. As the glamour of the party halls deteriorated, they booked fewer and fewer in-house events. The bedrooms upstairs emptied out as my brother quit his delivery job and moved into another apartment, my grandmother passed away, and my cousin took on a new house and some sort of managerial role at his dad’s newer, grander party hall in Astoria. (That is, until his drug use landed him in a rehab program in Hawaii, where he seems to have been for the past decade or so. Hm, maybe he doesn’t need his own essay after all.)
The basement party room now houses teetering piles of dry goods – napkins, Sterno cups, to-go containers – and, in recent years, the occasional cat. Every now and then the staff will welcome a new cat into the kitchen for mousing purposes. They always name it Nabi, which is Korean for butterfly.
And then – this past Christmas – my brother mentioned that there is now a restaurant on the main floor. Somehow I’d missed this development in preceding months, during which I guess I managed to entirely avoid this area. Anyway, this is when my already weak grasp of the family business reached new, hypoglycemic levels of weakness. My mother sort of just shrugged off our questions, apparently not understanding why this was such a big effing deal.
“Is it ours?” “Did rich-uncle finance this?” “Does the downstairs kitchen make the food?” “Will there be a grand opening?” “If there is a grand opening, can we come?”
Over the course of last night’s very tasty dinner I learned two things from my mother. First, they did not – and will not – have a grand opening. Second, this place is called Mae Il Garden.
I also observed some things which may mean different things about this restaurant and my family’s relationship to it. There is a small, separate kitchen from the dining hall, which I guess means the restaurant’s food prep is under some other jurisdiction. (Although my mom said the kimchi we ate was ours.) We were given a check, which means the place is not ours, though the check had a significant “working staff” discount applied to it. Serving as hostess was a cousin of mine – one of my father’s sister’s daughters – indicating that my father’s sister has some money in this venture (and/or which may also explain the “working staff” hookup).
After the barbequed fatty pork and assorted VIP freebies including shrimp tempura and sizzling stir-fried mushrooms, we were unable to eat a lot of other items on our table. Worried that it would get wasted, my mother picked up a bowl of spicy seafood stew (one of the bahnchan, or non-VIP freebies one typically gets in a Korean restaurant) and carried it into the staff’s plating area, asking them to put it somewhere safe so she could eat it at work the next day. Though they were nice about it, I could tell that her actions were somewhat out of bounds.
All told, I am still pretty confused by this place. I eagerly await someone’s Yelp review to help fill me in.