“It’s so cute to think of little Kyla being so enamored. It was the combination of the soy sauce, the crispy dumpling, and the pork filling. A lightbulb turned on in my little-kid head.”
We are a big food family, especially my dad’s side of the family. That side is originally from Oklahoma (my grandfather, who has Native ancestry) and the Carolinas (my grandmother, who is Gullah), so there is a lot of seafood, a lot of gumbo. My father initially grew up in Chicago, though. I call my dad the Fresh Prince of Chicago because it is a similar story. It was too violent here, so he was sent to live with his family in North Carolina (not necessarily Bel Air)! My Grandma Erma, who is originally from the Carolinas, taught my dad’s sisters how to cook. There is quite a big age gap between my father and his sisters, about twenty years. He can cook, but not like they can. My favorite thing my Aunt Lenny cooked was gumbo. I haven’t had that since I was small. That definitely influenced my dad’s cooking, which in turn, influenced why I love eating! We are a big food family.
When I think of how much I love food, I always think back to the first time I ever had a Korean dumpling, mandu. I was in third grade, in a small classroom in the suburbs of Chicago. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mahoney, and it was a sunny day.
I think we were creating a recipe book. What a great way to get kids to experience new things! I’m surrounded by children, and I am gazing up at my Korean classmate’s mother effortlessly making the single best thing I’ve probably ever put in my mouth! Instead of making the mandu at home to bring in, his mother made the dumplings right in front of us on a hot plate! I was dumbfounded, and paralyzed by the smell. I’m forever grateful to Ms. Mahoney for giving us this recipe book project.
I’ve always loved eating. When I was younger, I ate a bunch of garbage, a bunch of fast food. I could just eat a lot. Then as I got older, I worked in restaurants, and that made me fall deeper in love with food, and food cultures. I wanted to be a chef! I think I was really into it when I was a sophomore in college, around nineteen, or twenty years old. I was studying chemistry as a nutrition major, and I was miserable. I got on the phone with my mom and begged her to let me drop out so I could go to culinary school! She wouldn’t let me. So, I stayed in school and switched my major to sociology. I’ve always tried to tie in what I love, which is food, with sociology. I realized that maybe I didn’t want to be a chef, but I still wanted to be involved, to be side-by-side, sharing creative ideas with chefs. My relationship with food is quite intimate. It is something that is on my mind daily, and I assume people think the same way I do. But then I will talk to my sister, and ask what she ate that day, and she’s like, “Oh, I had an almond, and a tangerine”. I’m like, “What?! I had pasta for breakfast!” I’m quite literally always thinking about food.
The smell is savory and sweet! Mandu browning on the flat top, the sweet and sticky smell of soy, and the rich aroma of the meat. The taste is rich, but balanced. Fatty and salty pork, a freshness from the green onion. A hug in one bite, as corny as that may sound.
Both of my parents were in the military, so I traveled a bunch when I was little. I think my love for food culture started when we moved to Germany. My neighbors brought over some little treats, different breads, and we would go to European bakeries—just trying a bunch of different foods. It was in Germany where my father’s friend taught me how to use chopsticks! Now, I have more chopsticks in my house than I have forks. It was an early introduction to food culture. My parents purposefully introduced my sister and I to new things when we were growing up so we could be comfortable in most settings. It was tricky moving back to central Illinois, and then Texas, and trying to tap into a food culture.
People say they like food, and will go out to the popular restaurants, but they don’t look for the hole-in-the-walls! When I was in Texas, I was craving food from Burma. I wanted this catfish soup, so I spent hours trying to find a restaurant. I finally found a family owned shop, and when I showed up, I was the only customer. They made me feel so welcome. That is food culture to me. If you’re not able to actually go to a country, try to seek out the next best thing, something family owned.
My classmate’s mom probably brought enough for everyone to enjoy one, or two, dumplings each but I’ve been a glutton since day one! I couldn’t keep my grubby hands to myself. I remember asking for many, many more and even drinking the soy based dipping sauce. This moment changed my life.
My aunts (my dad’s sisters), Betty and Lenny, always lived in Chicago, but their mother’s influence, from the Carolinas and Gullah culture, was very present. They are just excellent cooks. It’s wild! When we were living outside of Chicago, we would visit them on the Southside, and on the drive over, we knew we were going to eat well.
I hear mandu sizzling on the flat top, my inner monologue freaking out, children around me munching the dumplings (but maybe not as much as me!) I have that sense of pure excitement, when you’re discovering something for the first time. It feels like children can only really encompass that feeling. I was drawn in. It’s so cute to think of little Kyla being so enamored. It was the combination of the soy sauce, the crispy dumpling, and the pork filling. A lightbulb turned on in my little-kid head.
I have some amazing memories of being on the Southside of Chicago in the 90s. Lenny had a larger house, where we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas. She was the one who would make the gumbo, the ham, the dressing, the greens, everything for holidays. Whereas Betty’s house was a bit different. We knew all the neighbors, there was a pool out back, someone was always grilling, and I remember the big aluminum pans of hot dogs, wings, links, and ribs. All the adults at the table talking, and my cousin taking his teeth out, trying to scare me! I associate eating well with these two women.
These women cook with their entire heart and soul. I cry when they cook for me now because it meant so much to me as a child. They were always feeding us. Sending us home with bags and bags, boxes and boxes of leftovers. They were always in the kitchen, always asking if you needed anything. The most hospitable.
I love Korean food and it took me a while to piece together the reasons why. In college, I lived above a Korean restaurant and I commented daily how amazing it smelled. It felt like I had a connection to it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. You know when you smell something familiar and can’t quite figure out where you know it from? Then one day, I recalled this classroom memory, and it all clicked! As excited as I am when my dad fries catfish for me, or my aunt makes me breakfast, this specific memory was so different, and exciting. It is the cutest moment. Just plain glee!
Kyla has always sought out professional opportunities that surround her with new people and encourage her to adapt to ever changing environments. Inclusive of diners, award-winning hospitality groups, and Michelin starred restaurants, it was always imperative to give attention to an assortment of operations throughout her career. Coming from a sociological background, Kyla noticed the lack of diversity in restaurants and has been researching the industry’s misrepresentation of women since 2013. Though still less common to see women and women of color in positions of leadership, Kyla is passionate about redefining the current state of a narrow industry, leading service teams, and highlighting the importance of not taking yourself too seriously.
[ Kyla Peal is photographed in their home in the neighborhood of Humbolt Park, in Chicago, IL, on 120mm film. ]