Walter Rhee is an academic hourly in the department of food science and human nutrition. He teaches native Asian cooking. In addition, he is a martial arts and self defense instructor who holds a third-degree belt and is working on attaining his fourth-degree rank. A three-year employee of the university, Rhee holds a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Cornell University.
Going from marine biology to food science seems an unusual career transition. How did that come about?
After I took some of Dr. [Shelly] Schmidt’s food science courses, it dawned on me that that was my calling. On a humorous note, I realized that in food science I could eat my ‘research animals.’ I could also see the interrelatedness with my science background, so when I explain seafood, I explain not only the cooking aspect but the scientific aspect of it. My ultimate goal is to become the liaison between cooks and food scientists. Also, I recognized if I teach one person, they are going to eventually feed others or teach others. I think this is a great way of giving, and people enjoy it.
Tell me about the cooking classes you teach.
A lot of people are now getting more interested in health because the Baby Boomers are getting older, and we are living longer than before. The key is nutrition and exercise. On spring break and such I still go to Boston and teach Asian cooking at two adult education centers. In Boston and other places, I’ve taught over 2,000 students. I have taught adult ed cooking classes in Urbana and will be teaching a series of classes at a Champaign fitness facility. I love teaching.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
I can be myself. I’m doing diplomacy in a sense. I’m teaching people how to share instead of fighting against each other. I know I’m doing something that will benefit others eventually. The sad part about living in Vietnam was I saw the [Vietnam] War and even had close calls where I almost got killed. I am writing a book on sushi right now, and if I get any profits from it, I’m going to donate them to the orphanages. I’ve done research on sushi for the past 20 years, and I’m incorporating aspects from my marine biology and field work in fisheries into a book.
What misconceptions do people have about Asian cooking?
I think I see people genuinely being hurt when I say chop suey, moo goo gai pan and fortune cookies are not Chinese. Chinese have many different kinds of soy sauces, and most people here in the United States think there is only one kind. The little subtleties surprise people. Chinese food in the United States and other countries is adapted to the tastes and ingredients available in the region.
When food is called ‘authentic,’ that means it’s been adapted to local tastes and ingredients, and when I see a sign that says ‘authentic,’ I try not to go in there.
Tell me about your martial arts background.
I teach martial arts, women’s self defense and Tae Kwon Do. Because my father was a diplomat, I changed schools 10 times before going to college, which I now see was a blessing because I got exposed to different cultures and different things. I was taught Tae Kwon Do when I was 17 by one of the original masters who taught the Korean troops in Vietnam. It had the martial arts as well as the self defense, the foot and hand techniques and ground fighting. Today, Tae Kwon Do is very commercialized and watered down for competitions. People aren’t taught as much about the purpose of each movement and the theory behind it. I extracted the close encounters techniques of Tae Kwon Do and teach them as women’s self defense, which are instant-immobilization strikes, sweeps, throws and strikes to the pressure points.
What other interests do you have?
One of the things I am really interested in is languages. I speak seven or eight different languages or dialects, including Korean, French, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese. I also collect cookbooks and have about 750. Most famous cooks will not reveal their secrets, so when I buy a famous cook’s cookbook, I try to read between the lines. They’ll leave an ingredient out so when you cook it, it doesn’t come out right and [the famous cooks] know that. When there’s a recipe that I really want and none of the best cookbooks will give it, I will do research in bookstores and the library. Then I start putting the jigsaw puzzle together and figure out what the real recipe is.
I am also a divemaster in scuba diving and a master diver. Divemaster is a level attained through course work in the classroom and in the open sea. Master diver is a level with at least five different specialties. My five specialties are rescue diver, night diver, wreck diver, equipment diver and research diver. I have scuba experience in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington state and the Caribbean (U.S. Virgin islands) and Korea.