Hooni Kim, Michelin-starred chef of Danji and Hanjan restaurants in New York City, sees the marriage of Korean food culture with American food culture as Korean flavors married to local ingredients. At this time, one can’t be a “locavore” and make authentic Korean cuisine in the States.
I met up with him while covering the Korean Sensation Culinary Contest on Oct. 26 at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone campus in the heart of California’s wine country, Napa Valley. He was one of the celebrity chefs judging entries from five student finalists in the competition, hosted with the help of the Korea Agro Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (aka aT center).
“I define Korean cuisine as traditional flavors applied to local ingredients,” he told me during an interview that morning. “Certain ingredients you cannot get here (in America), such as gochugaru or doenjang. Then I apply it to local ingredients. I can get cabbage in Korea, but it’s better from New York or Napa — wherever you are from. Korean beef and American beef are very different, but it is still Korean food.”
Kim has an interesting way of explaining the difference between Korean food and American food: the “flavor profile.”
“I think Korean food is more dynamic because it uses flavors like spice, salt, etc.” he said. “They (Koreans) go all out, whether it’s salty, spicy or umami. You can experience all these flavors. It’s exciting to your palate. It needs to be, because Koreans eat their food with rice, which is usually unseasoned and it’s a blank canvas.”
American cuisine has individually seasoned components on a plate, while Korean cuisine builds flavors in the mouth based on the banchan and rice.
“If I like saltier food, I can eat more of the food,” he said. “If someone else doesn’t like saltier food, they can balance the salt with rice. You will never find salt on a Korean table at a restaurant for that reason.”
Kim’s vision of Korean cuisine has won him Michelin stars, yet he can’t live on Korean food alone. What he enjoys besides Korean food are sushi and steak.
“Because I cook for a living, I like the natural flavors of ingredients,” he said. “There’s a change of textures and flavors, and I do that with Korean food but when I got out to eat. I want to taste raw fish or steak that is simply flavored with salt and pepper.”
Sometimes we need our food to be complex. Sometimes we want it as simple and clean as possible.
The future of Korean-American cuisine is “bright,” but Kim said he has been criticized for his Korean fusion offerings at Danji. Hanjan serves “Korean-Korean” food.
“The best chefs personalize their food,” he said in response to such attacks. “Even if different chefs are cooking the same thing, you should see their personality. A Korean-American growing up in New York City will have a different cuisine than a Korean-American from the Midwest.”
Part of the future of Korean cuisine in America must be a new generation to step up and make it.
“Coming to the CIA, there are over 300 Korean students studying here to learn how to be a chef,” he said. “That is a first step, having Koreans who know how to be a cook, cooking their own food in their own restaurant.”
Tips for foodies and budding chefs
The afternoon of the contest, Kim seasoned the questions from CIA Greystone students with sage advice.
- “There are no shortcuts in cooking.”
- Not everyone discovers their life’s mission in childhood. “I started cooking at 30. Growing up in a Korean family, cooking as a profession was not an option. It’s something to do if you aren’t smart enough to do something else. My mom was the worst cook. She just gave me money to go out to eat.”His marriage to a supportive wife is one of the main reasons he was able to become a chef. “I got married at 30, I was in medical school and I hated what I was doing.”
- “Making soondae is all about technique. The ingredients have to be fresh and the technique has to been well done…. Soondae is a Korean blood sausage that is sold for about $5 an order on the street. You can take any dish to the next level. There’s no thing as cheap or bad food that can’t be elevated.” Even soondae.
- “These days, you are looking for mentors. My mentor didn’t want to be a mentor. I cooked in a kitchen where I had to know. I wasn’t given answers. I had to figure it out; you don’t bother the chef. I make a mistake, I got yelled at.”
- “You learn something in every kitchen and take something away from every experience.”
- “MSG is like an athlete’s steroids. It makes food taste better without any work. It’s cheating.”
- “You have to go eat out (to learn about cooking). It’s important to eat other people’s food.”
Kim offered this wisdom while judging a pork slider dish earlier in the day: “When you create something miniature, make sure everything is perfect. There’s no room for error.”