People

Deuki Hong on Being His Sunday Best

Photographer: Deuki Hong

Chef Deuki Hong began cooking at age 15 at Aarón Sánchez’s Centrico in New York City.

Today, he’s a partner in The Sunday Family, a San Francisco-based restaurant group that brings a people-first perspective to the industry while creating great food and warm experiences, not unlike a Sunday afternoon with family and friends.

Q. What gets you out of bed every day?

The first 12 years of my career, I was all about sexy food and the drama that came with it. Hospitality—taking care of my staff and guests—that part of the business didn’t excite me. But over the last three years, as we’ve built three concepts under The Sunday Family umbrella, I’ve come to realize that rocking good food isn’t that hard but managing people really is. Right now, for me it’s about investing in people in a way that makes me a better person, a better leader. It’s about creating the best people, the best team rather than the best dish, and that is what gets me up and out of bed every morning…it’s also what keeps me up at night.

Q. What’s Sunday Gather, and how did you get involved?

Sunday Gather is a not-for-profit business, a discipleship home-based bakery/restaurant job training effort for men and women started by The Way ministries. We’re the operators and it’s a sister business to Sunday Bird and Sunday at The Museum, both of which remain closed. At first, it definitely wasn’t something I wanted to do—a soup kitchen, really? At least that’s what I thought it was. But when my partners dragged me along to visit, I realized that they were truly helping people. My chef side wasn’t stoked to jump in, but my people-helping side was.

Q. What’s the job training program like?

Basic skills—showing up on time, learning to work with others, and completing tasks. Everyone starts as a dishwasher, and there’s no dishwashing machine. It’s old school, dive in and do it by hand grunt work designed to help build character and a stronger work ethic.

Q. Any success stories?

Half of our current staff are members of the program—for me that’s success. But the surprise has been their positive influence on our culture as they try to live a sober, Christian lifestyle. Working together has led us to clean up our act, consciously avoiding all the cursing, drama, and partying we used to indulge in. It’s a better kitchen culture as a result and, while definitely quieter, we still rock it out big time when we get weeded.

[Editor’s note: getting “weeded” is restaurant industry speak for being outrageously busy or “in the weeds.”]

Q. What’s the most important lesson that Sunday Gather has taught you?

I got my ass kicked and was totally humbled when I “cheffed up” the menu. In one weekend, my menu changes—avocado toast and $16 entrees—led to an immediate, dramatic, and sustained drop of 60 percent in revenue. It made me understand that we’re here for the community and to give the community what they want—spam musubi and $10 entrees—and that I had to learn to park my chef-ego at the door. It’s not about the coolest concept that I can come up with but rather feeding people what they want and can afford.

Q. What’s next?

I’m working on two new concepts. The first is an Asian bakery like I grew up with in Leonia, New Jersey—lots of great packaged pastries, shaved ice, and amazing milk tea. The bakery was where we hung out; it was part of our culture. And my memories of those times bring back such a strong sense of comfort, safety, and familiarity—feelings that are going to be so important post-COVID-19.

The second is a re-think of how to deliver high-quality snacks and convenience products via a low-labor model. Now is the time to merge tech and food in a way that better serves guests. We’re going to launch a screen-to-shop platform, an online experience only, before opening our first store. But tech forward or old school, we’re always people-first.

Blueprint contributor and acclaimed food writer Michael Bonadies

Michael Bonadies is president of international hospitality firm Bonadies Hospitality, LLC. An accomplished entrepreneur and James Beard journalism award winner, Michael is the author of Sip by Sip: An Insider’s Guide to Learning All About Wine.