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Jen Naylor’s Korean cooking keeps it seasonal, fresh and local

Chef Jen Naylor with Sussex Farm and Umma’s Restaurant
Chef Jen Naylor with Sussex Farm and Umma’s Restaurant. (Image: Terri Allard/VPM)

Jen Naylor’s introduction to American food at age 14 was not an auspicious start. Her father, who had brought her mother and three siblings to the United States from their native South Korea for a new life, took the whole family out for fast-food hamburgers.  

“I almost threw up,” she said. “The ketchup made my stomach turn.” 

Fortunately, her mother had come prepared with some kimbap, a seaweed rice roll that would fill her belly with the healthier taste of home.  

“She always had a backup plan.” Naylor said. “Just in case.” 

Naylor said her mother was the inspiration for Umma’s, the Charlottesville restaurant she runs with her daughter, Kelsey.  

“Umma means mother,” she said. “And if I can be half the person she is, I’ve done a good job.” 

Some of Naylor’s earliest memories are of helping her mother in their kitchen back in Korea.  

“I was always the taste tester for her kimchi,” she said. “I could taste a little bit and tell her it needs more salt or more of this or that. I love that she trusted me to make that call.”  

The problem, Naylor said, is that spontaneous approach made it difficult to come up with a recipe she could share.  

“I learned to do it by taste and smell.” she said. “So, there was nothing written down.” 

After making her mother’s cucumber kimchi and carefully writing down the steps, she now has a proper recipe. She’s delighted to help others make a dish she’s always been passionate about.  

“Kimchi is a superfood,” she said. “It contains prebiotics and probiotics to keep your gut healthy. When your gut is healthy, you feel better and you’re healthier overall.” 

She noted that it has been a staple of the Korean diet for thousands of years and can help to counteract some of the heaviness of a Western diet.  

“Sometimes, when we’ve been out to eat, I eat some kimchi when we get home,” she said. “It helps to cleanse my system and keep things moving.” 

After that first fast-food disaster, she did eventually find some comfort in American food. 

“A friend from school introduced me to hot dogs and baked beans,” she said. “I thought that was amazing. And I still love barbecue, good barbecue with that tangy Carolina sauce. I never say no to that.” 

But the staples of her diet have always been three simple words: seasonal, fresh and local.  

“Our bodies are made to handle that,” she said. “We’ve been spoiled by being able to go to the store and get foods that don’t grow here or foods that were in season six months ago. But that’s not what our bodies want.” 

To keep the healthiest foods on her table, Naylor said she has always had a garden. Even while living on a cul-de-sac with a tiny yard, she staked out a plot of land to grow peppers, tomatoes, onions and other ingredients for her favorite dishes.  

When her daughter’s egg allergy presented a challenge, Naylor began keeping chickens in that same small yard. She let them roam freely and fed them a diet that followed her own rule of thumb — seasonal, fresh and local.  

“And then, guess what,” she said. “My daughter wasn’t allergic to those eggs.” 

Ten years ago, Naylor fulfilled a lifelong dream by leaving that cul-de-sac and starting Sussex Farm with her husband, John. Situated in Esmont, just outside of Charlottesville, the farm is bustling with hundreds of chickens, quails, ducks and turkeys, surrounded by fruit trees and gardens that offer up the seasonal, fresh and local ingredients Naylor treasures.  

“It really is that simple,” she said. “When you’re giving your body what it’s supposed to have, you can’t go wrong with that.” 

Cucumber kimchi recipe

  • 2 lbs. Korean cucumbers of Kirby pickling cucumbers
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup garlic chives chopped into 1” length
  • 1/2 cup Korean radish or daikon radish thinly julienned
  • 1/2 cup carrots thinly julienned
  • 1/2 cup spring onions julienned
  • 1/4 cup course ground Korean red chili peppers
  • 2 to 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 cup sweet rice flour porridge
  • 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp garlic minced
  • 1 tbsp ginger grated
  • 1 tbsp sugar(optional)

Sweet rice porridge

  • 2 tbsp sweet rice flour
  • 1cup water
  • Mix flour and water until all dissolved
  • Cook on medium heat stirring constantly until thickens
  • Bring the porridge to completely cool
  • Mix cooled porridge with fish sauce, garlic, ginger, chili flakes and put it aside
  • Cut cucumbers into 1” squares, sprinkle salt, toss and let sit for about 30 minutes turning them over once in 1/2 time to make sure the cucumbers are salt brined evenly
  • Rinse cucumbers with cold water and drain. 
  • In a big bowl add cucumbers and all other ingredients except toasted sesame seeds.
  • Massage the porridge mix into above and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds
  •  Serve fresh or fermented in a room temperature for 1 to 2 days, refrigerate then serve. 

Happy Good Eats!!