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Chef Melanie Meyer opened a Korean restaurant in Mo. — and found her birth family


Food has amazing powers beyond just fueling our bodies. It brings us together. It makes us feel loved. And it can help expand our worlds. Melanie Meyer grew up in a majority-white area in southern Missouri, an adoptee from South Korea who felt disconnected from her birth country. Food has helped her change that.

MELANIE MEYER: It was almost like I had been missing and longing for a culture and a past that I was barely aware it existed growing up in America.

SUMMERS: Melanie Meyer has been a chef for almost two decades. And for the last several years, she's been focused on making Korean-style street food. She is the owner of Tiny Chef, a micro restaurant that is inside a pinball bar in St. Louis. And for the past six months, between social media posts showing mouthwatering pictures of kimchi carbonara, cheesy carbo noodles, musubi burritos, Meyer has been sharing how she found her family, her birth family, through food.

MEYER: I had actually emailed Holt International Adoption agencies to just see if I had, you know, a file or any semblance of, like, any kind of report. And I was kind of left with a dead end. But I ended up meeting some friends within the industry since opening Tiny Chef and one of them is Simone Faure of La Patisserie Chouquette. And she is an amazing French baker from New Orleans. She has an affinity for finding out family history, and she's told me that she would love to help me. And one day, she was - Simone was in her kitchen. Her business partner walks in with a friend, and that friend just so happened to be a man named Andy Kim (ph). who has direct ties with the Holt International Adoption Agency. And they had a conversation. She told him my story. And within a week, I had my file, which was crazy.

SUMMERS: So I know you wrote letters to each of your birth parents, hoping they would answer. What was it like for you when you heard back from them?

MEYER: It completely rewrote my history because I was always told that I was an abandoned baby. You know, I was thrown in an orphanage. Nobody touched me. Nobody loved me. But whenever I received my file, that was completely untrue. My birth parents tried to keep me for the first three months of my life, but because of their struggle, they had to relinquish their rights, which ended up with me being in a foster care. So whenever I got that file, they had also said that they had the addresses of my birth parents. And would I like to try to connect with them? And I said absolutely. And I panicked for about four hours straight, you know, broke down crying because this is the first time in almost 40 years that, you know, I would be writing a letter to my parents.

SUMMERS: Through those letters, you got responses from your parents. Can you tell us what that moment was like to hear back from them after, as you say, almost 40 years?

MEYER: Yeah, basically, I got responses from my mother, my oma (ph). And I have two brothers out in Korea, as well. I'm the oldest of three kids (laughter). So I just talked to my mom. But she raised my brothers. It's unexpected to have a single mother raise two sons. She is so incredibly strong, and I feel like I got some strength from her just from hearing her story. And now we talk almost daily, sending pictures. We send each other packages. I'm planning a trip out there this summer to see them. It's insane. I have a family out there (laughter).

SUMMERS: How has getting to know your family changed how you think about your own story, how you think about yourself?

MEYER: I had always considered myself somewhat of a loner. I have been kind of cut off from my adoptive family, so I've been alone for quite some time. You know, I still have amazing friends. But you know, there's a lot of depression that comes with being alone and having so many identity issues, which is why I started Tiny Chef because I felt like I was missing a part of myself. And now that I found my family, it just - it feels unreal. Whenever I go to Korea, I'm going to have a family waiting there for me. We're going to cook together. I'm going to be able to eat my oma's food for the first time. I'm going to be able to cook for my family. And we're going to be able to learn from one another.

SUMMERS: Do you think about what you all might make together, what you might eat?

MEYER: So they already follow me on social media. And my youngest brother's always - he's already, like, OK, so I want that Korean crab boil. I want this. I want that (laughter). So I already have a list of what I'm going to make.

SUMMERS: You know, you have chosen to share just so much about yourself, your journey, the family that you're discovering on social media. And you've really allowed people to come along with you on this journey. Why was it so important for you to share this with your community and with all of us?

MEYER: This is the first time that I feel like there's so much hope in my life. And I feel like it's important to know that it's OK to dream and dream big. And whenever you accomplish any kind of dream, keep on going.

SUMMERS: That's Melanie Meyer, owner of the Tiny Chef restaurant in St. Louis. Thank you for sharing your story with us today.

MEYER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL EASY YOU SONG, "ANNIVERSARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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