Joe Kwon has been a very good boy this year. The cellist for the Avett Brothers has only one request of Santa and he's really hoping the big man will come through.
"I just want to cook in my new kitchen," sighs Kwon, who hopes he and his fiancé will move into the home they are building in downtown Raleigh soon after the Avetts ring in the New Year at PNC Arena. "I want to cook some eggs and some really banging fried rice. Indian food and French food. I just want to get in there and cook and feed my friends."
In certain circles, Kwon is as well known for his passion for great food as he is for his cello playing. When not touring, he's often found dining at Bida Manda, which he affectionately describes as "my favorite watering hole."
Kwon, soon to be living within walking distance of the Moore Square restaurant, is greeted warmly by staff and recognized with respectful nods by fans who let him savor a bowl of his favorite crispy pork belly soup in peace.
"I thrive on good food. If I'm ever having a bad day, all I have to do is come here and have a bowl of this soup," Kwon says. "This," he adds, scooping steaming noodles and taking in the heady aroma, "makes everything better."
Kwon has no intention of trying to top the dish, but he did invest in a massive commercial stove with burners that can blast 20,000 BTUs to his wok for classic Asian cooking. The stove, set below a powerful exhaust hood in a 19-foot-long island, literally is the heart of his and Emily Meineke's home.
"The house is about 2,000 square feet, and half of it is kitchen," Kwon says, scrolling through photos on his phone to show in-progress images. "Downstairs is all one room, with the kitchen extending into a dining area, which in turn opens to a big screened porch—like any good Southern house."
Construction on the stylishly angular home began in April based on Kwon's design, which was formalized by Raleigh Architecture Company. "It's a lot more modern than Louis Cherry's house," he says of the residence that created a stir in nearby Oakwood. "I made it clear that I wanted the kitchen to be the most important feature of the house, a place where we could welcome friends and family."
Kwon has a particular model on which to build this dream. Throughout his youth in High Point, his extended family would meet nearly every week to eat Korean food and celebrate their close ties.
"We never needed a reason like Christmas to all get together," says Kwon, fondly recalling visits with aunts and uncles, and playing with cousins until they crashed from exhaustion. "There would always be at least 30 of us, week after week. I was very lucky to grow up in such a close family."
Thanks to a lighter performance schedule, Kwon has been able to devote time to oversee the construction and to craft custom furniture. He is working on inlaid-wood open shelving for the kitchen and a stunning desk for Meineke's office. She is working toward her Ph.D. in entomology at N.C. State University.
The house will feature other elements that spotlight the couple's culinary interests. The master bedroom, which also opens onto a large screened porch with a huge angled overhang, has a built-in coffee station. "My friends at Counter Culture hooked me up and I can make a mean pour-over," Kwon says. "I love the idea that I don't even have to leave my bedroom to have a really great coffee."
He'll amble downstairs to the kitchen, however, to make his favorite childhood breakfast: fried Spam and eggs.
"I don't know why Spam gets such a bad rap. It's fatty and full of nitrates, but it's the same for hot dogs, and everyone in America loves hot dogs," Kwon says. "I might have to get some on the way home for breakfast."
Also, Kwon has visions for using his open kitchen for fundraising events. Last year, he helped raise $38,000 for the Frankie Lemmon School and Developmental Center in Raleigh. This year, he will host a private dinner to be cooked by Raleigh's Ashley Christensen, Kinston's Vivian Howard and Korean-American superstar chefs Edward Lee of Louisville's 610 Magnolia and David Chang of Momofuko in New York City.
The kitchen also will serve as a sort of studio to document how his mother creates family-style Korean dishes. He plans to film her and Christensen making kimchi in coming weeks but he is not sure where he'll post the outcome.
"It's not like it will be a cooking show, but you could do 10-minute shorts of my mom making a different kimchi every week for a year," Kwon says with a laugh. "There is so much about my mom's cuisine that is undocumented. I ask her for recipes and she says she doesn't have any. She never measures anything. By filming her, this is how I'll learn it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The perfect space."