What does Hooni Kim want to do next? “The Korean version of Eataly,” he tells us. “Remember I told you about all of the artisanal products in each of the villages in Korea? Imagine having 30 versions of gochuchang in one place, with differences based on elevation, terroir, or proximity to the ocean. That would be my dream because it would make everyone cook Korean food at home!”
Having grown up in Manhattan, trained at the French Culinary Institute, and worked at two of the top, high-end eateries in the city (Daniel and Masa), it wasn’t a given that chef Hooni Kim would open a casual Korean joint. In fact, he’d be more likely to open a fussy, upscale one.
“I’ve always been more of a New Yorker than anything else. But I realized that at the best restaurants, chefs puts themselves onto the plate,” he says. “Once you eat their food, you should have an idea of who this person is, what they’re about and what their experiences are. Daniel Boulud and Jean George both cook French food, but all I need to do is look at their plate to know which is which. The truth is, being Korean is such a huge part of who I am,” he adds.
Kim’s wide range of influences are on full display at his two, widely popular and praised restaurants, Danji in Hell’s Kitchen, which serves modern Korean tapas like Bulgogi Beef Sliders and Kimchi Paella, and the recently opened Hanjan in Flatiron, which elevates family-style dishes from the Korean countryside. Think Spicy Octopus Stir Fry and Korean Ramyun, a 12-hour broth of pork, chicken and fish bones. “The older Koreans come in and say oooh… this is 1970’s or 80’s food,” Kim laughs. “And they’re right. Because the rural areas haven’t changed much.”
We also spoke with the chef about his gluten allergy (who knew?), switching from medical school to culinary, and whether or not gochujang is poised to become the new sriracha.
When did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
I fantasized about being a chef when I read Daniel Boulud’s “Letter’s to a Young Chef.” But this was 10 years ago, and I was in medical school at that time. I wound up taking a one year sabbatical to go to culinary school, and applied for a job at Daniel shortly after and got it. That’s when I knew that cooking was going to become my career.
What were some of your most formative food memories growing up?
I grew up in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And what Manhattan kids do in high school was go out to eat. You don’t go to the mall, you go to restaurants. So I was able to try a lot of different cuisines at a young age. Also, my parents would send me to Korea every summer so I wouldn’t forget the language and culture. And the best part was tasting the food. Unlike many cuisines, you can’t get anything similar to what you eat in Korea outside of Korea. The most important ingredients never make it out of the country.
What would you say are some of the flavors, methods or techniques that really define Korean food?
It’s all about the “jangs” or fermented products. The most popular is ganjang, which is soy sauce, and there’s doenjang; Korean miso. Gochujang is red chili paste. These are the heart and soul of everything Korean. Every dish has at least one of these elements in it, which becomes the foundation of the dish.
Do you think gochujang is poised to become the new sriracha?
The truth is, all of the gochujang’s that make it to this country are processed. So most chefs and home cooks have only tasted a supermarket gochujang, which is entirely different than what they make in Korea. In Korea, every market sells their own version of gochujang, which is what makes dishes so particular to the villages and restaurants they come from. For example, a restaurant in Seoul will use gochuchang from that village. And that will distinguish the flavor of their dishes. So because of that, I have doubts of gochujang becoming mainstream here. Also, it has the tendency to really bully every other characteristic of a dish. Sriracha is just a condiment, a supporting ingredient. But if you add gochujang to a dish, the dish is about gochujang. Everything else is just secondary.
So are you getting the ingredients you use for the restaurant directly from Korea?
Yes. We get exactly five ingredients: Korean miso, soy sauce, gochujang, red pepper flakes and sesame oil. With those five ingredients, you can cook 95% of any Korean dish. All you need to do is add vegetables or rice or whatever. So it’s not really recipes that distinguish our restaurant, but the fact that we use those five ingredients. Coupled with our technique, of course.
How do Danji and Hanjan each represent different sides of you as a chef?
I think Danji is definitely the more New Yorker-Korean side of me. Small plates, many courses, it’s how New Yorkers like to eat. And all the techniques are my own. I never learned how to cook proper Korean food and I don’t know how other Koreans cook their food. But based on my knowledge and experience with cooking in NY, this is how I would cook and serve Korean food.
As far as Hanjan goes, I think the best Korean food is in the countryside. The best chefs in Korea are not restaurant chefs. Korea doesn’t have a real history of restaurants like in France or Italy. They didn’t really have any until the economy boom in the 1970’s. So traditionally, the best chefs are the mothers and grandmothers that cook for their families, or throw a huge parties for the village. There were no recipes, they weren’t making money. They were just doing this out of love. And that’s what I wanted to mimic with Hanjan. It is not modern Korean food or even metropolitan city food, like they have in Seoul. It’s country food.
Why do you think it’s taken Korean cuisine so long to catch on in NYC? Chefs have been playing with Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian flavors forever. Why has Korean food been relegated to Koreatown up until now?
I compare Korean food to Japanese food. 30 years ago, Japanese wasn’t really respected in New York. But what led to the boom was a lot of Japanese chefs coming from Japan and cooking authentic food with a lot of pride. They were chef-owners. All of the restaurants in K-Town are businesses. I don’t know a single chef on 32nd street. As far as I know, they change every 6 months. It has never been about the chefs. It’s difficult for a cuisine to elevate and become respected when there are so many inconsistencies; a lack of pride that goes into cooking. So because of that, I think people have viewed Korean food as just a cheap brand of Asian food, like how Thai has been sullied by bad Pad Thai. I’m a chef-owner, and my cooking is based on pride and passion. It’s not just about the money.
How do you divide your time between the two restaurants?
It’s based on whoever needs me more. I’m still in the process of learning how to run two restaurants without being in the kitchen every day. I have two chefs that I try to teach a little bit, but for the most part, I’m really very careful not to step on their toes.
Describe your ultimate meal at both of the restaurants.
Danji: Tofu, Yellowtail Sashimi, Spicy K.F.C Wings, Bulgogi Sliders, Bossan, and the Poached Sablefish. I think that’s enough for two or three people to share.
Hanjan: Our Kimchi Pork and Tofu, the Scallion Pancake with Squid, the Rice Cakes, the Fresh Killed Chicken Skin Skewers, and the Brisket Fried Rice.
What might we be surprised to find in your fridge at home?
I actually have a gluten allergy. So I always have gluten free bread and sharp cheddar cheese, and that’s what I snack on when I get home. I eat soy and gochuchang every day, so at home, I crave cheese and butter.
How does having a gluten allergy factor into what you cook at the restaurant?
Korean soy sauce has no gluten, and we don’t use flour in our chicken wings, we use corn and potato starch. They actually make the chicken wings crisper than flour. There are a lot of options and yes, I probably use them more than someone that isn’t on a gluten free diet. But we do have our sliders and scallion pancakes, and I taste them once in a while. As long as I keep it to a taste, I just get a little red for a couple of days!