Editor’s note: Chef of the year

Francesca Hong goes beyond a talent in the kitchen.
Francesca Hong in front of the Majestica
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

This month’s cover story is technically our 2020 Chef of the Year feature. I’ll explain.

I called Francesca Hong on March 23, 2020 to see how things were going. Days earlier she had made the difficult decision to close operations at Morris Ramen, the downtown restaurant she owns with Matt Morris. We talked in the afternoon, right after the service industry mental health meeting she hosts regularly (on Zoom since COVID-19). I could hear George, her then 3-and-a-half-year-old, vying for mom’s attention while she was on the phone.

I knew enough about Hong from previous interviews and interactions that I wasn’t surprised when the chat took a different direction. The conversation I had framed as a check-in on her and Morris Ramen became more focused on other area businesses, the welfare of her 21 employees and her concern for the hospitality industry as a whole. We talked about the statement she wrote on behalf of all Wisconsin restaurants demanding immediate government assistance, and how she’d given the last of the noodle shop’s fresh ginger to Jo Um at Saints Madison Juice Co. She had also donated soup to be turned into meals for the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.

Like Um notes in this month’s cover story, Hong is “incredibly generous with her time and with her emotions.” And she asks for no pat on the back for the leadership role she’s taken in Madison’s culinary scene, especially when it comes to supporting and advocating for her staff. She says most restaurant folks are just built that way.

“We’re an industry that cares about its workers more than, I think, a lot of other people do,” she told me over the phone.

A day after our call, I pleaded my case in the magazine’s editorial meeting: Francesca Hong would make an outstanding Chef of the Year selection. Madison Magazine has given this award since Shinji Muramoto first accepted the title in 2007. The team quickly agreed. We put it on our calendar for the October 2020 issue.

Then Hong announced her run for state office. So our plans were put on hold until after her race, which she won to become Wisconsin’s first Asian American state representative.

But I think it’s still appropriate to call Hong our 2020 Chef of the Year. It’s never been just about a chef’s talent in the kitchen — which Hong undoubtedly possesses — that wins them the title. It’s also about a chef’s efforts to make their city a better place for all. Hong is quick to say she’s not the only one. She’s among many chefs who ask for help the least but give it so freely. Even when restaurant owners and workers had to beg for assistance that didn’t immediately come, Hong was more focused on donating time and food, paying and feeding her employees and advocating not just for her own restaurant’s survival, but for the jobs and livelihoods of an entire industry. Running for office was an extension of that work.

That’s certainly a Chef of the Year in our eyes.

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