Eddie Wu never expected to be a restaurateur. In fact, he never knew he'd be a Wu, let alone become an enigmatic diner owner creating a wildly popular restaurant destination with a menu that's made up of equal parts pancake batter and kimichi. You see, Mr. Wu, began life as a Hansen and it's worth noting that he is not Korean.
The passion along with his surname comes directly from his wife and muse, Eve Wu. "My love for Korean food didn't really get serious until after my wife and I started dating," he explained. "I lived in Denver and she lived in Minnesota. When I would visit she took me to Korean restaurants, most of the time Sole Cafe. When I moved back in 2009 I found a way to do an apprenticeship under Kimberly at Sole to get a solid understanding of the fundamentals of Korean cooking."
Being a restaurant owner as constantly needing to put out fires — sometimes literally.
From there, he eventually made the crazy leap to restaurant ownership. "If I knew what I know now when I opened Cook, I never would have done it. A friend describes being a restaurant owner as constantly needing to put out fires — sometimes literally. I am always putting out fires, and in fear of the collapse of Cook St Paul." Luckily, he thrives under pressure, drives harder in the face of fear and views the insanely tight profit margins in the business as a dare to succeed in spite of the seemingly insurmountable odds.
"For unplanned reasons, I love what I do," he said. "I love being part of an industry that demands so much and usually gets so little in return other than the satisfaction of kids wanting to have their birthday meal be at my restaurant, or a couple making their weekly lunch date at my restaurant, or a note being left on a receipt stating that a guest was thankful for the great service because it made their day…. It is a fool’s endeavor to own a restaurant, but I'd rather be a happy fool than miserable and secure."
Despite his apprenticeship at Sole, he doesn't consider himself a chef. "I feel most at home in the front," he explained. "I feel like to call me a chef is an insult to all of the chefs that have a better understanding of food than I do. That is why Taelyn is here."
He is referring, of course, to Cook St. Paul’s chef Taelyn Lang. Lang holds an impressive resume, having worked in kitchens since he was 14 years old. A couple of years after attending culinary school in Portland, Oregon, he moved to Tucson, Arizona where he took an executive chef position at the historic Hotel Congress in only his second year there. "I was 23 and had no business running a kitchen," he said. "But I learned a lot and had a great time." After moving to St. Paul in 2006, he worked at Corner Table, Muffuletta, Craftsman and The Bachelor Farmer.
Since arriving at Cook shortly after its opening, Lang began sourcing exclusively local meat and organic eggs, and working more directly with farmers. He also insists on cooking entirely from scratch. "I am looking forward to working much more with farmers for our produce needs this season," he said. "I will continue to evolve the menu further towards the interesting and different, and push our Korean items and flavors to the forefront of what we do."
While the Korean twist makes Cook St. Paul unique to the Twin Cities, at its soul it is a good ol’ American diner. The items on its menu range from familiar French toast to eggs Benedict with beef short ribs standing in for ham to full-on Korean comforts like pancakes crafted from yellow beans, blended with sausage, spicy cabbage, bean sprouts and topped with poached eggs. And, then there are the glorious baked goods. Many are made by Eve Wu, who also runs her bakery, Keikeu Cake Boutique out of Cook's kitchen. She's responsible for the bundt cakes, specialty desserts - even the granola served in the restaurant.
Koreans have a way of making arduous tasks like making Kimchi or chopping a bushel of Habaneros with scissors into a way to bond.
"There is an approach to Korean food that I really enjoy," Wu said. "It is kind of like the American BBQ culture, where you work close with your ingredients, chopping big chunks of meat, marinating, using a minimal amount of ingredients to produce bold intense flavors. I spent a lot of time over giant tubs cutting stuff up with scissors at Sole Cafe. There would be the 60" screen TV showing Korean soaps as our backdrop, and customers hanging out next to us eating the food we made them and sometimes joining in our conversations. Koreans have a way of making arduous tasks like making Kimchi or chopping a bushel of Habaneros with scissors into a way to bond."
"It was an experience like I have never had in a kitchen before," Wu recalled. "It is how I want my employees to feel about working in my kitchen, and how Taelyn runs our kitchen. He invites all employees to be a part of butchering the whole hog we get and introduces all of the staff to the people that bring us our supplies, like Andy Peterson from Peterson Craftsman Meats."
And while the all American breakfast and lunch charm of Cook St. Paul is still going strong after two years, there is much to look forward to in the coming months. The wildly popular Friday night pop ups will return in May (after a brief April respite) and the restaurant recently added a dinner service to Thursdays when the regular menu is available until 8 pm along with some specials.
June promises a special pop up, which Wu coyly described as "the best one we've done yet."
With warmer weather upon us, it is important to note that one of Cook’s most addictive offerings, the Eddie Wu, a refreshingly intense blend of locally crafted Gray Duck chai and lemonade- is available at about a dozen outlets around the Twin Cities, including Mississippi Market. Eddie is also working on bottling his fan favorite hot sauce for distribution, but you can currently pick up a bottle at Cook.
In May Wu will travel to Korea and who knows what might come out of that experience? It's Eddie Wu. It's hard to know what's coming next, but we know something delicious is likely to follow.