Latte art is pretty and all, but it's hard to focus on foam when the textural rainbow of a bowl of bibimbap sits next to it. But in the immortal words of the Old El Paso Taco Girl: Why don't we have both? And if you've wandered down Brunswick Street in the past few weeks, you've probably run into the Steve-O-Reno's sandwich board that offers both at Moonhei's Korean Pop-Up.
Since the Halifax Forum Farmers' Market opened in May of last year, Moonhei Gye has been operating Moonhei's Korean Delight where she serves up her bibimbap each weekend. One of Korea's signature dishes, bibimbap is the same loose idea of a sandwich, but instead of putting things between bread, you are putting things—sauteed or pickled vegetables, meat, tofu, egg—in a bowl of rice.
The ingredients in bibimbap can include an assortment of vegetables, different meats and tofu; it's incredibly versatile. The only real constants are rice and gochujang, a pungent fermented red chili paste that is a spicy backbone of Korean cooking. Gye makes her own gochujang, grows her own garlic, green onions and mung bean sprouts, and buys her other vegetables and free-range chicken and eggs from other market vendors.
Gye moved to Halifax in 2002. She worked as a computer instructor at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia from 2008 until 2012, when the government cut the program. "The computer program was gone so I got laid off," says Gye. "So then I worked in Steve-O-Reno's cafe. First I started as a baker: I baked for one year—cookies, muffins, things like that—then I was a cashier at the front."
At the cafe, Gye noticed a lot of customers looking for vegan and gluten-free options. An idea sprung up.
"I knew I could provide really good, healthy, delicious gluten-free and vegan food," she says. It just so happened that the Forum Market was starting up when she had the idea.
With no formal training, it was a combination of passion and support that led to her bibimbap business. "I liked cooking when I was young," Gye says. "I'm not trained. I never had restaurant experience before Steve-O-Reno's, but I was always interested in and always liked looking at food blogs and websites."
Three years ago while visiting a friend in Ottawa, Gye worked in the kitchen of a Korean restaurant as a way to get a bit more experience.
"At that time I learned a lot about cooking a big amount of food," she says. "It was just for two months, but it helped me a lot with dealing with the public, and how much I should prepare. It was a good experience. And that's it: that's all my experience in food."
Her experience was enough for Steve Armbruster, owner of Steve-O-Reno's Cappuccino, to invite her back into the cafe to collaborate on lunches with a Korean pop-up, which has been happening Tuesday through Friday at the cafe.
Support from the cafe is nothing new, though. Gye's work there has given her a network of friends and supporters that her previous office grind didn't really offer. "I've met so many people—really nice—and I enjoy integrating with everybody at the cafe. I'm an immigrant from Korea, but in the cafe I really feel like I'm mingling in Canadian society, in Haligonian society. Steve really supports me and so do my co-workers, all of them. I feel like I owe them so much. I didn't feel any different in the cafe: I'm one of them, I feel like I belong there.
"When I worked in the office, I thought 'I am Canadian,' but I didn't really have the feeling from my heart. In the cafe, I feel I am Canadian from my heart," Gye says. "I'm really happy."
Moonhei's Korean Pop-up
1536 Brunswick Street