My Family Recipe

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

A tale of two pasta dishes and one huge reunion.

March 18, 2020

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."

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.

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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

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!”

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.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

More Pasta Recipes

1. Pasta & Chickpea Soup With Miso & Chile Oil

Big Little Recipes columnist Emma Laperruque turned Italian pasta e ceci into an umami-packed soup worth writing home about: a little Lao Gan Ma or Fly By Jing chili crisp goes a long way here.

2. Spring Weeknight Pasta

Senior Editor Eric Kim's spring weeknight pasta starts with a sheet pan of roasted seasonal vegetables: asparagus, peas, and radishes. A few slices of bacon slick the produce with porky goodness, which combines with cooked pasta, sherry vinegar, and cheese for a comforting workday lunch or dinner anyone can throw together.

3. Spaghetti Carbonara

A true spaghetti alla carbonara, at least as the Romans do it, should be made with nothing but: eggs, guanciale (cured Italian pork jowl), Pecorino Romano, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. There may be nothing more nourishing for the soul than a plate of this.

4. Pasta con le Sarde

This pasta dish is an Italian classic, flavored with a few pantry staples, including anchovies and sardines, and rounded out with fennel, currants, and pine nuts.

5. Pantry Pasta With Anchovies, Olives & Capers

"When I don’t want to cook, I cook pasta," Laperruque says. Her pantry pasta fits the bill, thanks to its shelf-stable ingredient list: Anchovies, olive, capers, and red pepper flakes are all you need for a comforting, flavorsome spaghetti dinner.

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Aileen March 1, 2023
What a beautiful piece! Thank you, James.
3jamigos March 14, 2022
Wonderful story!
Mackenzie March 14, 2022
LOVED this! What a sweet looking family. I hope the author becomes a WELL paid chef so that he can see his family more frequently. AND perhaps afford a one bedroom apartment (but I’m not holding my breath on that one)!
Plain O. March 14, 2022
This is a terrific story and reminds me of what I am only just now learning more and more (as a home cook, it's a much longer process for me to finally get beloved family flavors just right). Amazing how your mom knew she'd love a dish she only saw through FaceTime. Can't wait to try it. That said, I'm going to have to give a penne, rosemary-infused oil, charred Italian sausage, and Parmesan dish a go, too.
Marti K. March 6, 2021
Cooked it today just after reading!. Had to re- think the timing. With the time needed to boil water my broccoli was in danger of being overcooked once I added milk. I thickened the souce with some roux. Just a bit. Lemon zest and pepper flakes were unexpected and refreshing twist. I will be better managing all the tasks next time, but it was still delicious.
Angi H. May 5, 2020
I loved this story so much. Thank you for sharing it! I love milk in pasta too, I would've never thought of that as ramen soup like, but that makes sense! The dish as you have said out here is what I would've made myself in college when I was learning to cook ❤️
Ellen April 20, 2020
Delightful story! And the recipe sounds wonderful - I shall make it very soon. But I will omit garlic powder, which always gives me a bad stomach ache. And I can never figure out why people use it instead of fresh garlic. Why do you use it?
Sun C. March 23, 2020
As a Korean-American, the part of the airport goodbyes really resonated with me... the silent weeping when it feels like you’re saying goodbye to your heart. The familial pressures, the disapproval, but more abundantly the want for a better life for their children... Thank you for sharing your story and this simple recipe with us
Buckeye11 March 20, 2020
I loved this article! what a powerful story.
Michelle H. March 19, 2020
James Park, I hope you read the comments. This article made me cry. I’m korean and love to cook “American” food. I felt like you were describing my mom in your story. She is very mentally ill which is a relatively new development in her life so this article just made me cry my eyes out. I’m going to cook her this recipe this weekend as cooking for her is the only real way I can communicate my love for her now.
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*!
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!
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.
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.
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...
James P. October 22, 2018
Thank you for reading Nancy!
bellw67 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.
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!
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.
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!