My Family Recipe

I'm a Chef—but Broccoli Spaghetti Was All My Family Wanted From Me

August 21, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

I hadn’t seen my family in four years. My parents live in a small town in Korea called Pohang, known for its steel, and my brother in Seoul. And I've been in New York trying to make something of myself.

A lot has happened to me since I last saw them: I graduated culinary school and started a new job. My family was (and still is) very confused by the whole chef thing, but once I told them that my graduation ceremony would take place at Carnegie Hall, they couldn’t stop talking about it. And of course, wanting to see me walk, they decided to fly 20 hours across the world to visit me. This would be our first family reunion since 2014.

The pressure was on. Awaiting their arrival, I started to realize that four grown adults would be squeezing into my tiny studio apartment for 12 grueling days. That for the first time in four years, my family would see the new life I've built for myself here in America. I started to get nervous. What would they think? How was I going to feed them?

When I went to pick up my parents and brother at JFK, it dawned on me, the weight of finally being face to face with my family after years of communicating solely over FaceTime. “It’s been so long since I touched you, James!" my mom said, holding my face. "I missed my son so much."

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Knowing that they'd just sat on a plane for hours, I wanted our first meal together to be extra special. We went back to my apartment and, per my mother's request for pasta, I made my signature dish of penne, rosemary-infused oil, charred Italian sausage, and lots of Parmesan cheese—a weeknight go-to for me. This pasta was, in many ways, a reflection of various flavor-building techniques I had learned in culinary school. I wanted them to taste it, to see what their new chef son had learned during our years apart. Aiming to impress, I plated the pasta with extra Parm and garnished with fried rosemary, a flourish of freshly cracked black pepper.

As soon as my mom saw the pasta, the first thing she said was: “Oh, this isn’t what I was hoping for...but it looks delicious!”

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Top Comment:
“Moms can be the hardest to please, and it brought me joy to read she loved your freestyling pasta creation. Can't wait to try it. Best wishes. Keep reaching for your goals. Looks like you're already on your way :)”
— Food

I was so disappointed. “Did you have something specific in mind?” I asked. I wanted that first meal to be perfect and impressive, proof that the sacrifice of four years apart was worth it. It was imperative that my mother enjoy it.

She took a bite and smiled. “This is delicious, but I wanted that other thing. It was white and creamy."

"White and creamy?" I asked.

“You were eating it once while we were FaceTiming; I wanted to reach through the screen and taste it! But it’s fine. This is delicious, too.”

I’d been aware of Korea’s interpretation of Italian—and, by extension, American—pasta. To many older Koreans, especially those of my mom’s generation, "pasta" is a dish with long noodles, pretty much always spaghetti, drenched in either tomato or cream sauce. Koreans love their cream pastas. Now that I think back on it, oil-based pastas, like the one I had just made, were not something my family would’ve ever associated with pasta.

I remember when my mom and I tried carbonara for the first time at a restaurant in Korea. When the dish arrived, we thought it was spaghetti in a creamy soup, the type of creamy potato soup sold in cans and even in powdered form, with a few slices of bacon and a sprinkle of parsley. It was brothy, ideal for sopping up with crusty bread, not unlike how you’d eat white wine–steamed mussels.

So I thought all creamy pasta dishes were meant to be brothy until I came to America and tried an authentic, cheesy, broth-less carbonara. My mom, on the other hand, still associated pasta with that soupy version we once had—and after a 20-hour flight from Pohang, it was the comfort food she was apparently craving over my "discomfort" food of rosemary, spicy sausage, and oil.

12 days went by—mostly without a hitch. I took them to all of my favorite restaurants, what I'd considered the classics, like Keens Steakhouse, Spicy Village, and every "cool" place I could think of. They didn't like any of them, of course. All they wanted to eat was Korean food. It seemed that all my years of expanding my palate here in America, becoming excited about new cuisines outside of my own, wasn't translating for my family, who'd lived on that tiny Korean Peninsula their whole lives.

There were other bumps. I realized that, in all those years facing my family through a phone screen, I was able to control the narrative, only revealing to them what they wanted to hear and see, never showing them my cramped studio apartment or the meager checks I was making at work. But during their visit, I couldn’t hide any of it. My life was on display for them to pick at. My mother began nagging and pointing out my flaws (just like any mother would do). There were many moments that I felt like I was a disappointment to my parents, from little things like taking too long to get ready, to bigger things like not thinking about what they wanted to do rather than what I wanted to do.

Was I being selfish? I just wanted to show them the parts of my new life that I was excited about, but the way they resisted each bullet point on my itinerary, I couldn’t help but feel that I was letting them down.

It was the final morning before I was to drop them off at the airport. The last supper. I felt the pressure to make this farewell meal perfect, like the ending credits of a sad movie where a family has to spend most of their lives on separate continents. I didn’t have much time left or any particular ingredients in my fridge. I had a handful of random bits and bobs like broccoli, lemon, and Parmesan cheese.

Then, I remembered: my mom’s request for a creamy pasta that I failed to deliver.

I put on the water for spaghetti and started cooking from taste memory, recalling our first time trying pasta with cream at that restaurant in Korea. No recipe. When describing that comforting dish, my mom used words like "brothy, creamy, and not too buttery," so I concentrated on recreating those flavors from my pantry. I used lots of garlic and red pepper flakes to add spice to the dish. I mixed butter and olive oil to bring more substance to the base. Broccoli and onion were the only vegetables I had, so I added those to the pot; they added a nursery savoriness. It smelled good. I recalled that many Koreans would use milk to create that creaminess—not cream—so even though I would never have thought to add milk to pasta myself, I poured it into the pot with everything else.

Pasta with milk and broccoli. Photo by Julia Gartland

The thing is, pasta with milk makes so much sense. When you have something as starchy as spaghetti, it thickens the milk into a brothy sauce that you can take as far as you'd like: reduced until very thick and creamy, or a bit soupier and brothier, like my mom likes it. Koreans love soup. The thing I came up with was more ramen-like then pasta-like, but according to my mother's vernacular, it was, for all intents and purposes, pasta.

“Ah!" my mom shouted as she saw the dish. "It looks similar to what I was craving!” Mother's Approval, on a scale of 1 to 10: 10. She took a sip of the broth first, with a soup spoon (as I knew she would). And she let out a big, consonant g-ahhh as Koreans often do after drinking something gosohae, or tasty-nutty. She proceeded to slurp the spaghetti and smiled again. “This is it! This is what I wanted!” She scarfed down the milky, brothy pasta in mere seconds—as if they were ramen noodles she didn't want to wait to get puffy—and we rushed to the airport.

Photo by James Park

This airport goodbye was especially hard. The four of us just stood in front of the terminal, holding each other in a huddle, weeping quietly. Saying goodbye is never easy, but this time was brutal, namely the part where I had to come home to an empty apartment. I could still see them all in my head: my mom sitting on the couch, my brother on the computer, and my dad playing music on my bed. My tiny studio, crowded with luggage and the best people in the world for 12 days. It felt so empty after all that.

And then I saw my mom's empty pasta bowl in the sink.

I was so frantic trying to cook that last meal, I realized I didn't even get to taste it properly. I walked over to the stove and saw that there was a little leftover in the pot. I took a bite. It was comforting, the flavors reminiscent of a traditional creamy Italian pasta, like Alfredo. But with the spice and garlicky savoriness infused into that creamy broth, it reminded me a lot more of Korean soup, or ramen. I could see why my mom preferred this. It reminded me, too, of how much I'd changed and grown over the years, not just as a chef but also as a son and a brother.

So much happens to us when we're apart from the things that give us comfort. We forget the little things the soul needs. Now, whenever I find myself trying too hard in the kitchen or overthinking a recipe, I'll think back on this humble, simple broccoli spaghetti, and how it fed the people I love most.

Have you ever tried too hard to impress someone in the kitchen? Tell us about it in the comments below.


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lindy Pagán
    Lindy Pagán
  • Jordan
  • rhea kuban
    rhea kuban
  • Alice
  • Matt Corey
    Matt Corey
Eating and cooking my feelings one dish at a time


Lindy P. June 29, 2019
Love this recipe, thank you!!!
Jordan June 27, 2019
I am really glad you mentioned this dish. When I was growing up, my sister and I were on swim team and the parents always made food for meets. My mom called it “swimghetti” but it was actually just broccoli, a little cheese, and garlic. We all LOVED it! This brought back a nice memory from 20+ years ago, thanks for the reminder!
rhea K. April 29, 2019
Omg! I can’t wait to cook this for my husband because he loves pasta! But what I loved most about this was your story! It really tugged at my heart strings about how it was created for the love of your family. As an Asian American and also being far my parents/siblings I totally sympathized! Thank you for sharing your recipe & story! *cheers*!
Author Comment
James P. June 27, 2019
Hi Rhea! Thank you so much for your kind words! It's never easy not to let go of those "guilt" as a child with Asian parents with "big expectations" when you are not a doctor or a lawyer. I'm glad that this simple spaghetti made my mom equally happy!
Alice April 19, 2019
I have not made your receipt yet. Your article was beautiful and honestly written. The photo is super cute Too!
Author Comment
James P. June 27, 2019
Thank you so much, Alice!
Matt C. November 26, 2018
I thought I messed up by it being so brothy at the end, but came back and read the rest of article (just having needed a recipe on the fly). I added fresh thyme, smoked salt and my New England-born girlfriend declared she'd eat it every night. Thanks from another NY small apartment-dweller.
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James P. June 27, 2019
I'm so happy to hear that! Fresh thyme and smoked salt would add so much more flavor to this dish!
Cindy October 22, 2018
As a newlywed still in college, we were trying to impress our first guests. Apartment was cleaned, floors waxed, potatoes baked and steaks were grilled. I was bringing the steaks to the table when I slipped on the freshly waxed floor. Steaks went flying all over. Everyone had to go find their steaks, wipe them off and pretend it never happened.
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James P. October 22, 2018
oh no! 3-second-rules still apply right, especially when it comes to steaks! I hope you guys still had a great time because that's all it matters!
Cindy October 23, 2018
You bet we did! That was 1970 when steaks were such a treat for us!
Nancy October 8, 2018
Wow! Great story, well told...
Author Comment
James P. October 22, 2018
Thank you for reading Nancy!
suzybel63 September 29, 2018
This is the kind of pasta I love after growing up with red sauce only. I have made something similar but I’m going to make your recipe. My favourite dish my dad used to make was white beans with lots of garlic and some kind of meat, maybe stewing beef. I’m glad you figured out what your mom was craving, sometimes simple is better. Loved the story.
Author Comment
James P. October 22, 2018
Ahh white beans with lots of garlic and meat sound so delicious! Thank you for reading my story and sharing your dad's recipe! When it comes to pasta, sometimes, the simpler, the better!
Earl M. September 7, 2018
While reading this, I totally got transported to my childhood—and my guilty pleasure of pouring milk in my Beef Top Ramen. Thanks for that Ratatouille moment!
Author Comment
James P. October 22, 2018
AH amazing! Pouring milk into ramen isn't as bad as it sounds like! I think it adds a surprise element which makes the broth taste more exciting!
Carolyn C. September 3, 2018
This was a wonderful post and your family is so handsome and your mother beautiful. I, too, love creamy, brothy, not tomatoey, pasta. Your great story and recipe really resonated with me. I have never commented on this site but I just had to! Will be looking for more from you.
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Carolyn,

I love my family indeed! Who knew that my mom had a soft spot for pasta?!

I am so glad that I got to share my story with you and everyone, and I hope you give my recipe a try!

Hope to share more stories here. Stay tuned!
Rick G. September 3, 2018
James...... your honesty in this story immediately infused me. Though not Korean, family is family. I came into a passion for cooking later in life and am quite aware of how it connects and bridges..... cultures, generations, palates, and most any '-ology' we stick on the end. I live in the rainforest jungle of southern Costa Rica and via my food and the occasional cooking class, my wonderful Tico neighbors and I fill in the language gap with food. Your article moved me and has made me view my context in a new light, and evidently, for many more people. Thank you so much for lifting the curtain of your angst and familial love. The best article I've read here on Food52
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Rick,

Thank you so much for your kind words!! I am tearing up a bit reading your comment!

What I love about family is that it's so universal, like you said. We all can relate to that. I got into food and cooking because I think it's the best way to get to know someone and other cultures.

It's so cool to hear that you live in the rainforest! What kinds of foods do you make? did cooking bring people together? I am so curious :)
Rick G. September 5, 2018
I run a B&B so I always try to expand my menu and you get to understand what people like but I also try to always present some new interesting things that they’re not going to get anywhere else in Costa Rica that’s for sure. The cuisine here is pretty elementary. I have a background as a professional taster as well as owning and operating at Dairy Ranch so various factors contribute to being able to concoct a recipe or to adjust an existing one. My pork ribs are beloved by both my guests and especially by my Tico neighbors. I often buy the pork that I use either for the ribs or for Carnitas from a neighbor who grows them organically. In conjunction with a conference held in my community by a long time tour operator in Brazil I offered my services to instruct the local Costa Rican tour guides on expanding their menu so they can attract a different level of clients. I’m also quite blessed to have the climate in which I can grow a plethora of different fruits, tropical fruits. also in my river which is a very clean river, I get the best shrimp or maybe you’d call him crawdads, the most delicious and sweet I’ve ever had in my life. Prepare them w butter and garlic or rolled in shredded coconut and fried. Irish soda bread is a staple as well as Swedish pancakes. Fresh fruit most often from my garden is an every day thing. It’s so easy to grow things here except for winter vegetables. The cooking classes I give are mostly a family affair because family is very important here so I’ll have them in the morning and we’ll prepare things and then come back for the evening with the rest of their family and will just have a feast, what a blast, can life get any better than that? I like to expose my neighbors to foods they’ve never had or possibly never even imagined. Such as a custard layered cornbread or a French inspired stew. One fun but simple recipe is one I made up that I call Sedona rice. I use leftover rice with heavy cream making a sauce with heavy cream, onion powder, thyme, some liquid mesquite smoke and then a small can of sweet corn niblets.
Kathleen R. October 22, 2018
You sound like the kind of Gringo that changes our general image here in CR. Keep up the good work, Rick. Pura vida!
James, I loved your poignant article. I'm sure your mom realized how much love you put in your efforts, just sometimes its hard for us to allow others to take care of us, since that is usually our job. Much continued success in your career.
Sean B. August 28, 2018
James, this is absolutely beautifully written -- how emotional!

I have no formal culinary education, but I have a passion for honing my skills in my home kitchen, and I love to invite friends and family to try the results. Sometimes, it seems that no matter how hard I try, the dish that receives the most love is the simplest: the "backup" made to please the pickier eaters among the group.

It's always a humbling experience -- a reminder that the meal isn't just about the food, but about the people you share it with. It's really a beautiful thing. Keep up the good work, brother.
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Sean,

I was emotional reading this story as well! My editor, Eric, did an amazing job, and when I read the story again, I got so emotional, really taken back to that time!

Even though I went to a culinary school, I think the best cooking comes from your heart! If you have a passion for cooking and continue to cook, you will find yourself feeling more confident!

You are ABSOLUTELY right that meal isn't about the food; it's about the people you share it with! I am so glad you cherish the memories as much as I do! Keep cooking your feelings :)
Kim G. August 27, 2018
Thank you for sharing, all around. 💓
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Kim, Thank YOU for reading! ^_^
Liz R. August 27, 2018
Thanks for writing this sweet story! I've pinned the recipe to try in the future.
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Liz,

Thank you so much for reading my family story! Let me know when you give my recipe a try!
Food August 23, 2018
Dear James,

What a sweet story. It made me tear up a bit. Living far away from family can be hard. I also try to cook my mom's food because it makes me happy. Moms can be the hardest to please, and it brought me joy to read she loved your freestyling pasta creation. Can't wait to try it.

Best wishes. Keep reaching for your goals. Looks like you're already on your way :)
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Pam,

Thank you SO much for reading my story! Cooking for someone you love so much is always rewarding and stressful. I think she also enjoyed the dish because she saw me cooking frantically haha

Thank you so much for your kind words :) It means a lot to me to have your blessings!
Alice L. August 22, 2018
Judging from your mom's taste and personality, my mom will love this recipe. I always thought my mom had a boring palate, but maybe I'm too hard on her. Loved your thoughts on this.
Author Comment
James P. September 5, 2018
Hi Alice! I think any moms would love simple, creamy pasta! I think moms in general tend to go for mild, something they are familiar with, so don't be to hard on your mom ^_^
Suzanne F. August 22, 2018
Dear James,
What a wonderful story you have shared with us! And, again, the connection between food and family!
Being of Italian decent my family enjoyed Broccoli and pasta many nights - especially during Lent and when we were not eating meat on Fridays. My mother called it “peasant food” because of the simple ingredients, but it was always a “hit” and devoured by everyone! As you said, the simplest ingredients are often the ones we crave. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! I think I’ll put a pot of water on to boil....!!!
Author Comment
James P. August 22, 2018
Hi Suzanne, you are so right. Simple ingredients can taste so delicious! I hope you give this recipe a try. It may look really odd at first, but the milky broth is so addictive and delicious! It made me feel like I was eating that soul-warming Korean stew almost!
Susanna August 22, 2018
I love Reading to this story, I've had some similar expierence myself I could see myself reflected in your words. It is all so true!!
thanks for sharing the récipe, it looks great! I would love to give it a try, I'm sure it tastes amazing!
Author Comment
James P. August 22, 2018
Hi Susanna, thank you so much for reading! The milky broth is so delicious! It has that spice kicks from red pepper flakes and it's so garlic-y too :)
Shark2th August 21, 2018
I grew up on a US Army base overseas and learned to love Korean food. Once I returned to the SF Bay area, I've discovered I love something about every cuisine. So I can't wait to try a Korean influenced pasta dish. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story of reuniting with family. It really touched me.
Author Comment
James P. August 22, 2018
Thank you for your kind words! I love Korean cuisine's balance of sweet and spicy and the soul-warming broth that's often found in many Korean stews; there is nothing like it. So, when I added lots of red pepper flakes and garlic before adding milk broth, the broth reminded me of typical Korean stew broth, but creamier. It was like the best of both Korean and Italian flavors! I hope you try the recipe and continue to cook more Korean foods!
Eric K. August 21, 2018
Whenever I go home to Atlanta, I take my mom to a new restaurant. She’s so particular in her tastes that I’ve just made it a habit to always order the cream pasta on the menu, whatever it is—Alfredo, mushroom, etc. Does it for her every time. I don’t know what it is! Maybe the lack of cream in the Korean culinary imagination makes those tastes exciting for these women who spend their lives cooking for others and never for themselves?
Author Comment
James P. August 22, 2018
Eric! So TURE! The lack of cream in the traditional Korean cuisine might be the reason why creamy, brothy pasta dishes are so popular in Korean among older women. I once joined my mom and her friends at the Korean-Italian restaurant, and they all loved the cream pasta. I think as we get to taste so much beyond Korean food, we want to share the joy of different flavors and tastes with our moms, but they never seem to enjoy what I enjoy. So we always find ourselves in Korean restaurants again and again no matter where we are haha