A Conversation with Chuck

Creative Health Food Store is a small store on 108th and Broadway, sandwiched between the row of small stores that occupy the first story of The Manhasset, a century-plus old apartment building that occupies the block.

Google Streetview because I forgot to take an exterior photo

I started shopping there in my senior year at Columbia because I was getting into beans and out of plastic, and it was the only store nearby that sold dry goods in bulk bins.

Feeling not much bigger than the narrow singles I occupied in the dorms, the store consists of one long aisle flanked by tall stacks of shelves piled with what feels like every supplement and vitamin imaginable and a contingent of bulk bins of nuts and dried fruits on the other. I’d head straight to the back and scoop rolled oats from the big paper sack and carefully unscrew jars of cinnamon and cumin, loading up the repurposed bags I’d brought. Then I’d go to the bins in the front and get a couple scoops each red lentils and nuts. The employee would weigh the bags, tell me my total, and warn me of the credit card fee.

It wasn’t until senior year was almost over that I first spoke with Chuck, the owner of Creative Health Food Store. He weighed my bags of chickpeas and walnuts and asked how long I’d been eating like this. With seriousness, Chuck congratulated me and told me to keep it up. When he first moved to the States, he told me, he thought all Americans ate, well, like garbage (my words): “Pizza on the street, hot dogs on the street” (his words). Then he saw what the “health food” people ate. “Tofu, tempeh, all grains, and brown rice… I was like, what!? And then I say, well, this is my thing, because this is how I grew up!”

It was probably around then that I got the idea to interview him.

But on my grocery run a few weeks later, Chuck told me that I’d better get everything I needed because the store was closing at the end of the week. The landlord was kicking him out.

The weekend came and went, but the OPEN sign stayed on. Chuck had managed to get by. I crossed my fingers for the future of Creative Health and its patrons, graduated, and moved out of New York. The interview idea was shelved.

Until last month! I took a few days off at the end of December and took the train into New York City for a little jaunt. And wonderfully, Creative Health was still open, and Chuck was inside. So we set up a time. The next day, temperatures plummeted to 7 °F, some massive gales nearly knocked me over, and I took the train uptown to meet Chuck in the store at 7:00 pm, right after closing. This is my attempt at writing up our conversation.

The story starts with a fantastical healing power passed through his ancestors. Well, that’s one way to put it. Chuck grew up a farm boy in the South Korean countryside. His family grew everything from strawberries and melons in the summer to radishes and cabbages in the fall, all organic, of course. When he was about eight, he went to live with his grandmother, a fortune teller. Chuck regaled me with a few tales of what he’d witnessed her do—calling upon the spirit of a 5-year-old boy and miraculously gaining the ability to read, healing an ill 15-year-old girl with an overnight ritual after hospitals failed to find anything wrong, and communing with the dead to learn facts that would shock her clients.

Similarly, he felt from a young age that he had a certain healing power that others didn’t. Although the above sounds magical, Chuck also describes his healing powers with one mundane concept: empathy.

You have to have empathy. If someone is complaining about something to you, you have to be with this person, knowing and getting all the pain together. If you don’t have that connection, if you don’t have that healing power, they don’t get healed. They don’t get over anything.

I ask if this healing power is something he’s always felt that he’s had. Chuck answers before I even finish my sentence. Since he was a child, he says, he’s been able to pull on people’s heartstrings and make uncanny predictions. But education and training helped him further develop his ability to heal. “You need to really know what you’re doing, otherwise you can hurt people instead of helping people.”

After finishing high school in Seoul, Chuck decided to move to the U.S. The decision was simple: he had family there, his uncle needed help with his health food store, and there were plenty of colleges. The journey, however, wasn’t so simple. With his window for mandatory military service looming, he couldn’t get a travel visa to New York. So with a small group, he made a roundabout, nerve-wracking trip through multiple countries to get to the U.S. He arrived in New Jersey, where he’s lived since, and enrolled at Columbia, where he studied nutrition, and started working at Creative Health, his uncle’s store, in 1987. The Columbia degree didn’t work out (a long story we didn’t get to), so he dropped out and took over the store in 1992. Business was going well, and excitement was high.

He returned to school later on, this time at the Swedish Institute, where studied topics including Swedish massage, shiatsu, and acupuncture full-time for two years while running the store. He has plenty of wild stories relating to his unusual ability to connect with people during his time at the Swedish Institute, too. In one memory, he was assessing a woman on the examination table in front of the class, as they did. He moved his hand over her chest and observed a lot of pain in one area. Just like his grandma’s fortune-telling clients, she was “freaked out” by this observation. Turns out that she had breast cancer there.

On another occasion, Chuck was the one on the table, being assessed by a fellow student, when inexplicably, he began bawling like a baby. He and the other student were excused from class. Outside, he asked, “What did you do to me?” She explained that she herself was a crybaby—she cried at everything. Even when he was the one getting assessed, Chuck concluded, he was assessing her right back, absorbing her tearful nature.

An instructor had warned the students: “Some things are going to happen. Don’t worry about it.”

Empathy is a two-way street, Chuck emphasized through his stories. He got through the degree at the Swedish Institute, studying with the store on his mind and manning the store with his studies on his mind. He ran a second health food store in New Jersey for a while. And with his new credentials in Swedish massage, shiatsu, and acupuncture, he opened his own studio near the store. Chuck speaks proudly of the people he helped at there. 

It’s healing for me. If I’m helping, I get helped. If I’m hurting people, I get hurt too.

But he still had limits. After a year, he decided to close the studio. Why? He was using his healing power so much, Chuck explains, that he lost his ability to heal himself, and was getting sick.

The other factor, and the biggest transition for Chuck’s career though, was the birth of his daughter, just after the turn of the millennium. After she was born, he immediately knew that things would be different. As they say, kids grow up fast—blink and you’ll miss it.

“I had to decide: what do I want? I want my daughter.”

Downsizing to only the New York store, without the New Jersey store or the health practice, he also hired a manager to work weekends. And so the past two decades passed, with plenty of family time. “I don’t have any regrets,” Chuck says. “It was a really good decision and I’m very happy with how I am right now.”

Part of his daughter’s upbringing, of course, was lots of organic, healthy food. Chuck is confident that it paid off. She very rarely got sick, never had to take antibiotics, and always recovered very quickly. What’s more rewarding to a parent than a healthy kid?

In thirty-six years of running Creative Health, both very little and very much has changed. Chuck’s core understanding of health food has remained mostly unchanged. He credits much of his wisdom to growing up on an organic farm—what is now unusual upbringing in most circles. He could talk nutrition in his sleep—what keeps him awake at the store is the more tedious side of things: managing people, serving customers, figuring out what to do when fridges break down, handling the occasional shoplifter, and digging his car out of the snow in the winter.

The people are what have changed the most, Chuck says. A lot.

One difference? More talk, but not the action to match it.

“Oh, I have to lose weight!” he parrots. “I have to lose weight! I have to change diets! I have to detox! People talk more than ever, but it’s all meaningless. They never do it.”

People also don’t cook as much, opting for more and more take-out, delivery, and frozen food. “People these days, they don’t even cut their apples anymore” (I think of the depressing, limp, plastic sachets of pre-cut apples served at schools). Corporations push processed foods, and institutions buy into them. This, of course, is a real tragedy for Chuck, who is a natural champion of whole foods. So how does the proprietor of a health food store eat?

“I totally love what I cook. Because what I cook is very simple. Steam, sauté, or grill. That’s it. When I eat fish, fish is a whole food, so I grill and eat the whole thing, with some veggies. It’s very simple. And that way, I have this nice fish taste.

“I don’t put heavy soy sauce, heavy sugar in my food. How can you taste your fish and veggies, with all the soy sauce, MSG, and oil? To me, that’s not a taste. This is a real taste—real stuff. But including my wife, other people say, ‘ooh, this tastes like fish! This smells like fish!’ Wait a minute! It’s supposed to taste like fish and smell like fish! But they don’t want it to. They like a buttery, creamy, sauce-y taste. And that’s the problem.”

What about when he’s invited to a meal out, or when people offer him food he’d rather not have? Chuck isn’t one to stress out about food, and tries to avoid making other people feel bad. For example, if offered, he’ll have a bite of a sugary pastry, but probably won’t finish it. “I can eat anything,” he says, “but I’m not really going for it.” Ultimately, he’s happiest eating simple, whole foods—something he is thankful for.

Not getting too stressed about life is a key element of healthy living for Chuck, second only to nutrition. This didn’t always come the most naturally. Chuck describes himself as a born thinker. On the farm as a child, he had a drive to understand everything that was going on: what was growing, how it was growing, and where it would go. But as life went on, he gradually became more relaxed. Chuck attributes it to a combination of seeing things differently and letting go of ego, achievement, and wanting.

In a culture that so often mixes health with anxiety, ego, competition, and desire, Chuck’s emphasis on letting go of stressors is a refreshing reminder. “Eating, living, working… One thing you really have to do is stress less.”

De-stressing isn’t something that happens just through thinking about it, though. Key to any stress-relief plan is exercise. For Chuck, that comes with his beloved hobby of tennis. It started when he watched Pete Sampras win the U.S. Open in 2002.

Source. Credit: unknown.

Chuck was so inspired that as a 31-year-old who’d never played tennis in his life, he picked up a racket, went to his local tennis court, and started hitting a ball off the wall. One day, another Korean guy approached him and invited Chuck to join his group. Chuck explained that he was totally new and didn’t even know how to swing the racket properly, but the other player assured him that they would teach him. Ever since then, Chuck has played with that New Jersey tennis club. His animation is palpable when talking about how fun it is, and he’s now pleased to have a reputation as an excellent player and highly-sought opponent in his tennis community. Even here, his unique perception may play a part. In tennis, Chuck explains, being flexible helps a great deal to get to the ball. But he isn’t flexible: he shows me his attempt at touching his toes and his hands barely reach past his knees. Instead, he believes his ability to predict what his opponent will do and where the ball will go is what gives him the upper hand on the court.

These days, he still wakes up at six in the morning almost every day to play tennis before work. As of recent years, he’s also started teaching children tennis down over in Riverside Park. He didn’t expect to enjoy teaching at first, but soon realized that it was another form of helping people, not so different from helping people with physical ailments, and brought the same sort of satisfaction.

By Michael Minn
George Washington Bridge, which connects Manhattan to New Jersey. By Fly Navy

After work (and maybe tennis lessons), Chuck heads home across the river to New Jersey, where he’s lived ever since he moved to the States. Despite his decades long presence in Morningside Heights (“Everybody knows Chucky”), he calls a Bergen County suburb home. He loves his neighborhood, a quiet, tree-lined spot. The quiet is good for his health, he says. That’s why he also keeps his space clear of unnecessary electronic devices. The combination of a healthy diet, stress management, exercise, and whatever other tidbits of health advice we didn’t cover, has kept him in remarkable health. His vision is still 20/20, his hair is barely graying, and he can run as he pleases. There’s no chairs in the shop: we do the whole 90-minute interview standing.

I’m at the age of 56 and I still get up with a new body every morning.

Now that his daughter is off to college and things are winding down at the store, what’s next? First things first: he’s going to relax. He might do some traveling, or eventually move back to the countryside in South Korea. Maybe he’ll keep teaching tennis. But he doesn’t think too much about the future right now. One way or another, he’s sure he will keep helping people.

“Whenever I help people, without money, I feel great.”

I’d be remiss not to end this article with Chuck’s advice to you. I asked him what health advice he’d give to the whole world, and reader, here it is:

#1: “Eat whole food, please. Don’t try to eat manmade food. Try to eat whole food as much as you can, avoid man-made.”

#2 “There’s no such thing as a stress-free life. So what do you have to do? Manage the stress. You have to find a way out. You have to find it for yourself. Everyone has different stress relievers.”

That’s solid advice if I ever did hear some.

Much thanks to Chuck for taking the time to speak with me and being a wonderful interviewee. If you’re around the Upper West Side, I highly recommend stopping by to stock up on grains, beans, nuts, and dry fruits in bulk—bring your own bag, because why not?.

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