Francesca Hong’s mise en place

Francesca Hong is using her food industry experience to prepare for her new role as the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 76th District representative.
Francesca Hong
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

Francesca Hong’s Korean name is Yunjung (윤정 in Korean and 倫廷 in Chinese). The Chinese characters hold specific meaning, though Hong didn’t know it until her father told her recently. “Yun” refers to “ethics, humanity, a principle that must be followed in order for humans to be in harmony with others.” The rough translation of “jung” is “royal court where the king discusses policies with his advisers.” It seems oddly fitting for Hong, who earlier this year assumed her role as the 76th District representative of the Wisconsin State Assembly.

“My dad was like, ‘I talked to a lot of people and they were like, this is not only her destiny, we knew this was something that she would do,’ ” Hong says.

It certainly didn’t seem like her immediate destiny a year ago. At the beginning of March 2020, Hong was busy running the restaurant she owns with partner Matt Morris while raising their son, George. Now 4 years old, George has grown up alongside Morris Ramen — the noodle shop on King Street that quickly became a fixture of Madison’s food scene after opening in late 2016. The restaurant had made it through those difficult first few years when, all of a sudden, COVID-19 forced it to close overnight. In the days that followed, Morris Ramen would join an entire industry shifting to survival mode. Weeks turned into months, leaving businesses like Morris Ramen hanging on by a thread.

During that time, Hong was not seeing the same kind of supportive response or aid from elected officials that she saw in the community. “And when I say community, I’m talking about the service industry community. I’m talking about the working-class community. I’m talking about communities of color,” Hong says.

So she made her voice a little louder. Inspired by a group of independent Chicago restaurateurs, Hong penned a statement on behalf of Wisconsin chefs and restaurant owners demanding action on emergency unemployment benefits, elimination of sales and use tax and payroll tax, and a call for rent and loan abatement for workers and employers.

“Everyone was in a holding pattern because there was just a failure in leadership that trickled down,” Hong says. “And then the folks who suffer the most are the folks who are doing the work every day.”

At first she was disappointed by the inaction of decision-makers. Then she decided it was unacceptable. On Mother’s Day 2020, Hong launched her 76th District campaign.

Francesca Hong working in the kitchen

Francesca Hong in the kitchen at Morris Ramen. Photo by Nikki Hansen

In a packed Democratic primary with six other opponents, Hong entered the race with a resume that looked a lot different than those of people who’ve historically held office. Vying for the seat previously held by Chris Taylor in a progressive district, Hong raised more money than any other candidate in her race without self-financing and while receiving the lowest average donation. She was backed by librarians, teachers, attorneys, flight attendants, nurse practitioners, grocery store clerks, CEOs and, overwhelmingly, unemployed folks. Her win with 28% of the vote might indicate that everything that sets Hong apart — and her willingness to build trust with so many — is what people were ready for in a representative.

Hong is a business owner, a service industry worker, a mother and a second-generation daughter of immigrants. Her supporters say she brings people together through food and fellowship — that the welfare of her employees seems to come before her own, even during a pandemic. As she does in the food industry, she’s able to see a problem and solve it. She understands the power in community-building and acts as a conduit. She does the right thing even when it’s difficult. She’s taken heat for being unapologetic about the language she sometimes uses to engage conversation. But accolades, or even acknowledgement of a job well done, are not what she’s after. Averse to the spotlight and with no preplanned political career, Hong didn’t run for office for personal gain. She didn’t do it to amplify her own voice — she wants to put power behind the voices of people who are doing the work.

“When she’s in a space, whether it’s professional or personal, she automatically tries to uplift and give voice to the people around her,” says Nada Elmikashfi, Hong’s chief of staff. “She’s a natural leader who’s not only assertive but also incredibly generous with her time and with her emotions. In a time like this, generosity is what’s going to get us through such a storm in our political history.”

Hong has already helped redefine representation in Wisconsin government by becoming the first Asian American to serve in the state Legislature. But what lies ahead for Hong — call it the destiny foretold at birth by her given Korean name or unexpected circumstances — feels more like the next chapter of her life’s calling.

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Hong says her candidacy was born out of grief. “I sympathize with chefs and restaurateurs,” she says. “I don’t think we ever really got a chance to talk about how sad all of this was. You’re stressed out, and there’s this financial burden. And you’re angry when there isn’t a lot of collaboration from policymakers and the city.”

Morris Ramen closed indefinitely on March 16, the same day Hong published her statement addressed to Gov. Tony Evers that was widely shared throughout the state by restaurant owners. Hong and Morris processed the leftover food from that last day of service, froze what they could and made meals for employees they were forced to lay off, as well as for other industry workers and folks in the community. Morris Ramen didn’t reopen until the first Paycheck Protection Program loan came in mid-April, and the first thing Hong and Morris did was offer all 21 staff members their jobs back. Fourteen returned. But the takeout-only operation didn’t feel the same.

“I’m getting a little candid here, but it was too sad — I couldn’t be in there,” Hong says. “We worked in shifts so there were never more than four or five people at once so we could socially distance. It was really difficult for me.”

Francesca Hong's family

Francesca Hong is pictured with her family (clockwise from top left: partner Matt Morris, son George Jinsu Morris, Francesca Hong, sister Theresa, brother-in-law Elan, nephew Noah Junseo, father Jinkuk Hong and mother Youngjoo Hong). Courtesy of Francesca Hong

It felt like losing the joy that made her get into this line of work in the first place. Hong, a West High School graduate, was filling out an application to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication after a few semesters at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when she decided the restaurant industry was a better fit. “I fell in love with food,” Hong says. “I think more than that, I fell in love with the community that’s created because of food.”

At 23 years old, before opening Morris Ramen, Hong was one of the youngest and first female executive chefs in town, working at the now-closed 43 North. She felt accepted in the kitchen. She discovered a sense of belonging. Over time she acquired the skills necessary for service industry folks — skills that now translate to her new job.

“I think our work ethic, our commitment to serving people, our commitment to creating experiences and telling stories are all very undervalued qualifications for office,” she says.

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Hong has hustle and she has vision. That’s what makes her a leader in Madison’s food scene, her industry peers say.

“She cares about community and people, and I don’t think you find that very often anymore,” says Laila Borokhim, owner of Layla’s Persian Food on South Butler Street. “She has a passion to make sure that things are getting done that we sit around having conversations about all the time.”

For example, Borokhim, Hong and others shared the same concern about the lack of women actively participating and taking on leadership positions within the chef community. So, in 2017, the Culinary Ladies Collective was born. The concept belongs to everyone, Borokhim says, but Hong, who serves as president, became its champion. “She actually gets things done,” Borokhim says. The collective acts as a networking and support group for its members, and the team hosts events and sales that benefit nonprofits. Past recipients include Planned Parenthood and Harambee Village, a local community-based program that provides pregnancy, birth and lactation support to mothers and families.

Hong was also a driving force behind Femmestival, one of the last big in-person food events held at Garver Feed Mill in February 2020. Its mission was to “celebrate and uplift womxn, femmes and nonbinary entrepreneurs, artists and producers.” Borokhim says she wanted to hold an event like that for years but hit so many roadblocks along the way. But Hong got it done. “She was like, ‘No, we are going to do this, we are going to have this festival. We are going to figure out sponsors and vendors and everything.’ She did all of that.” All donations and proceeds benefited Centro Hispano and the Culinary Ladies Collective.

It was a fun and innovative event, Borokhim says, and it all came from Hong’s ability to connect with other people. “And she didn’t want to be the center of attention,” Borokhim says. “There are a lot of people who put on a festival like that and then they want to put on a crown and walk around and be the king of it. I don’t know if anybody really knows how much work she put into it and how much I think it took out of her to do that thing.”

She’s relentless, says Jo Um, Hong’s friend and colleague, who owns Saints Madison Juice Co. on Williamson Street. “I just know how hard she works,” Um says. “I always encourage her to try to turn a couple of things down so she has a little bit more free time for mental sanity and also physical strength.”

Hong doesn’t hesitate to talk about her own mental health and has long urged chefs and service industry workers to talk about their struggles and lean on each other for support. Hong hosts regular meetings at Morris Ramen (in-person before COVID-19, virtual after) for anyone in need of a wellness check-in.

Um says she’s glad Hong, a fellow Korean, wasn’t shy about walking into her juice shop to introduce herself one day. They now text daily. When Hong needed a campaign website and brand development, Um stepped in immediately. Along with a few other Asian friends, the two hosted PDA, or Public Displays of Asianness, an event that was held twice pre-COVID-19. “With Francesca’s help, we were able to start this little food festival,” says Um. Part of the event’s proceeds went to the Asian Liver Center at Stanford University. Um’s father died of liver cancer.

Francesca Hong Carrying a box of containers

Courtesy of Cook It Forward

When COVID-19 made community-building more difficult — but more necessary — Hong became involved in the very early stages of Cook It Forward, or CIF. Inspired by World Central Kitchen, Rule No. One Hospitality Group business partners Joshua Berkson and Patrick Sweeney saw excess capacity in restaurant kitchens and a need for an emergency response to help people who have become food insecure during the pandemic.

“It felt like we were catering to the haves, not the have-nots,” Berkson says. “And it didn’t feel right in terms of our mission as a company and as a community organization.”

Hong caught wind of her First Settlement District neighbors’ idea at a Madison’s Central Business Improvement District meeting and called up Rule No. One, which operates Madison restaurants Lucille and Merchant, to get involved. With Hong on board, they moved at lightning speed to get CIF connected to nonprofits to take donations and to figure out where the highest need was for free, chef-made meals and how to get them there. CIF started contracting meals before donations even came in, paying restaurants $10 per meal. It was a way to both uplift restaurants (including Morris Ramen, Lucille and Merchant) and fill a need in the community through hard work, as restaurant owners so often do.

“We didn’t have enough work and we didn’t have enough money coming in, but I knew that we had to feed people,” Hong says about Morris Ramen participating in CIF. “That was the one part about our identity that I never wanted to go away.”

CIF delivers an average of 500 meals a week, and it surpassed its 12-month goal of $100,000 in individual donations in roughly half a year. A goal of $500,000 in corporate donations is on track, and in January the team announced big plans moving forward, including a goal of quadrupling the number of free, individually packaged, healthy meals delivered to households. Berkson says 85% of the service providers they work with are “Black- and brown-led nonprofits.” “That’s the intention,” he says. “Francesca was really part of that. It has to do with inclusion and bringing everyone into the fold. She feels very personally motivated to do that.”

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Bringing people into the fold is a skill Hong learned from her parents. Her father, Jinkuk, and mother, Youngjoo, emigrated in 1987 from South Korea to Madison, where Jinkuk completed his Ph.D. in sociology. They became citizens in 2009. “We got great support and help back then,” Jinkuk says of Madison’s Korean Catholic community, who helped show them around, complete difficult paperwork and more. Now Jinkuk and Youngjoo have become senior members of that community, and they’re returning the kindness to new immigrants who relocate to attend UW–Madison. “Everyone’s got to meet my parents first and have a meal with them in their backyard or something,” Hong says. “They help them integrate.” If someone is in need of a place to stay before securing housing, they might stay with the Hongs.

“It’s kind of our duty to help newcomers so they settle and also feel welcome in a new place and this community,” says Jinkuk, who’s worked at the Waisman Center for more than 23 years. Youngjoo went back to school to get a degree in music education, earned her teaching certificate and worked as a public school teacher for more than 10 years teaching K-5 music. In retirement, Youngjoo earned a master’s degree from UW–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music in 2020.

Hong takes after both parents. She’s a talented singer and plays several instruments, including violin, piano and guitar. And she’s like her dad in that she seems to intuitively understand people and communicates effectively. Hong also co-captained her high school varsity soccer team. But her ability to lead emerged much sooner, her dad says — when Hong was only 16 months older than her newborn sister, Theresa, she became her protector right away. “I think that’s where she kind of first took on the role of a leader,” Jinkuk says.

Jinkuk watched his daughter’s debate with six other candidates on Zoom. “The way she spoke — I mean, as parents, I guess there is a bias — [but] it was quite impressive. The way she articulated her ideas and presented those ideas and also defending herself against others challenging or criticism — I was like, ‘Wow, she is really good at this.’ ”

Francesca Hong as a child with her parents and sister

Born and raised in Madison, Francesca Hong (below in red) is pictured in 1992 with her parents, Jinkuk and Youngjoo Hong, and her sister, Theresa Lindenbaum (clockwise from top).

Born and raised in Madison, Hong says she still feels like there’s so much about the Asian and Pacific Islander, or API, community that she doesn’t know. “But I’m so deeply invested [and] I’m committed to learning everything I can and building more relationships. I think running for office has really introduced me to the important work that so many other API leaders are doing,” says Hong, who now regularly volunteers at The Hmong Institute. “They just don’t often get highlighted.”

Hong openly talks about her internalized biases and advantages. She’s dealt with her own share of racism growing up and throughout her life. But she doesn’t want to speak for anyone else. “Having parents who were highly educated allowed me to have certain privileges,” she says. “Yet I’m still expected to represent all Asians. That is a terrifying thought for me.” The Asian American identity is incredibly complex, she says, because it’s a multiethnic, multiracial, multiclass, multigenerational group that also includes adoptees, and the cultures are difficult to define. “I want to represent Asian Americans in a way that allows our very diverse group to share their very diverse experiences on their own.”

That’s something Hong and her chief of staff, Nada Elmikashfi, bonded over. Elmikashfi, who came in second in her inaugural race for the State Senate’s 26th District, connected with Hong via Twitter during primary campaigning. Elmikashfi emigrated from Sudan when she was 6 years old. “She is holding a lot of burdens,” Elmikashfi says of Hong. “The burden of being the child of immigrants, the burden of uplifting her own community while uplifting the entirety of the 76th and giving each their due service. Sometimes, as immigrants would understand it, there’s a lot of burdens that come with looking at this American dream and feeling like you have to earn it.”

Borokhim — whose father is an immigrant — recognizes that same reality. “There’s something about that whole getting the seat at the table,” Borokhim says. “It’s good, it’s great, but also, why do we as women and minorities, too, why do we have to be so much better than our white, male counterparts that it’s taken us this long to get there?”

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The Wisconsin State Assembly’s Democratic Party makeup was majority men before the 2020 election. Now the 38-person Democratic caucus is majority female (21 women). In the restaurant industry, Hong operated among a sea of primarily white men, too. But she doesn’t want the focus to be on the fact that she’s the only woman of color in the room.

“Instead of making it about that, you have to think about why there are so many firsts still,” she says. (Samba Baldeh marks another first among 2021 freshman legislators as the first Muslim elected to Wisconsin State Assembly and the first Black man elected from Dane County.) “It just means that I have a deep responsibility to make sure I’m not the last.”

Enduring racism and pandemic fatigue prevents a lot of people from actively participating in society, says Hong, who hopes to lift up those people in her new role. “We’re missing out on talent and resources and contributions from folks because they’re just having to survive,” she says. “Being visible at the decision-making table will influence how people speak about our communities. Because they’re going to have to look at me, and I can tell if they’re respecting the nuances of how diverse our communities are.”

Francesca Hong stands on King Street with her Chief of staff, Nada

Morris Ramen is only a few footsteps from Francesca Hong’s new office at the Wisconsin State Capitol, where Hong works with her chief of staff, Nada Elmikashfi (front). Photo by Paulius Musteikis

Amid a pandemic, Hong felt like the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was like aggravating a wound that had always been there. “I was definitely not only motivated but inspired by protestors and the resiliency of those protesters demanding their elected officials to meet the moment,” she says.

But that demand was not met, she feels. Hong now has a seat at the table, but a Republican-controlled state Legislature means she’ll have to work hard — something she’s been known to do — in order to influence how and what decisions are made.

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It wasn’t until two days after her election that Hong finally let the magnitude of her new role sink in. She spent election night celebrating with her family. They ordered takeout from one of her favorite restaurants, Dumpling Haus at Hilldale Shopping Center. Hong put George to bed before she went to a Count the Vote rally hosted by the Sunrise Movement. She then gave a speech at the Capitol that night and drove back home, where she stayed awake until 5 a.m.

Running on about an hour of sleep, she woke with her son around 6:30-7 a.m. and went back to work on Wednesday, her 32nd birthday. “I think I had meetings for Cook It Forward and a few interviews,” she says, “one radio and one interview for a Korean newspaper.”

Hong hadn’t told many family members back in Korea of her run for office for fear of disappointing them if she lost. But once articles were published in Korea, word officially got out, and “she kind of made me famous,” her dad says. They ordered takeout again that night, this time from Osteria Papavero. Hong noted how fortunate she felt to be able to support local restaurants.

Francesca in a handbok

Francesca Hong (pictured) wore this traditional Korean hanbok for her wedding and — inspired by Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland of Washington — for her Jan. 4 swearing-in. The hanbok is often worn for special occasions such as New Year’s Day and Lunar New Year. “For me it’s about building that kind of tradition with George,” Hong says about her 4-year-old son. Photo by Paulius Musteikis

It was the next night that Hong had that moment of realization. She was alone at Morris Ramen late, after dark. “Everything had closed down, we were done for the night, I was coming out of doing payroll,” says Hong. “And it didn’t feel as painful anymore,” she says.

Months earlier, just being there was a source of sadness. While her new role means she’ll become more of a silent partner at Morris Ramen, she knows the restaurant will be taken care of by Chef Morris and the staff. “They’ve shown me resiliency and that we can survive together,” she says.

Standing there alone in the restaurant, it finally sank in: She had won. While she’d be leaving the kitchen, her efforts to help her service industry family and others whose voices have gone unheard — the work she’s been doing all this time — would continue.

Andrea Behling is the editor at Madison Magazine.