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Michelin-star chef Hooni Kim says quality Korean food speaks for itself

March 11, 2016
Chef Hooni Kim of NYC's Danji and Hanjan

Chef Hooni Kim of NYC’s Danji and Hanjan

By Woo Jae-yeon

(Yonhap) — For chef owner Hooni Kim, good food based on great ingredients doesn’t need convincing. That was precisely the philosophy that propelled the Korean American chef to distinguish his modern and sophisticated Korean cuisine and present it recognizable and palatable in the picky dining world of New York.

Despite having studied at biological and medical schools, he could’ t ignore a nagging passion for cooking and ultimately made a drastic turn: He put on a white apron, not a white coat, in a suffocatingly hot kitchen.

After training at two Michelin three-star restaurants, Daniel and Masa, Kim opened an unassuming, small 36-seat Korean restaurant in December 2010 in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, against his mom’s wishes.

“My mom says ‘I raised a son to be someone sitting in the dining room to be served by somebody like you,’” he said during an interview in a buzzing cafe in Gangnam, southern Seoul, with the Yonhap News Agency on Friday.

“She is OK now, not 100 percent (happy) though. You know how a Korean mother is. I understand,” he said, laughing.

But less than a year from the opening, he established himself as one of the most sought-after and critically-acclaimed chefs in the city: His first restaurant “Danji,” meaning a small clay pot in Korean, has been recognized as one of the finest diners in the Big Apple. For three consecutive years from 2012, it received one-star from the prestigious Michelin Guide.

“For me, good food is one thing and Michelin is another. I just wanted to know if I could cook Korean food and if New Yorkers would appreciate really good quality Korean food,” he said.

Well, that turned out to be just so.

Lunch at Danji. Bulgogi bibimbap with Korean radish soup. (Courtesy of Hooni Kim)

Lunch at Danji. Bulgogi bibimbap with Korean radish soup. (Courtesy of Hooni Kim)

People were lining up to get a seat at his two, very different Korean diners. “Danji” is the general introduction of authentic Korean flavors presented in a aesthetic setting, while “Hanjan” or one glass in Korean, as the name suggests, is designed to share with his American patrons the unique Korean drinking culture by paring a Korean alcohol with the best anju, tapas-like small plates that go with alcohol, like makgeolli (unfiltered Korean rice wine) and pajeon (scallion pancake topped with usually seafoods).

“I wanted to show New Yorkers that Korean food isn’t always cheap and that we are about quality and ingredient, values and philosophy.”

His faith and pride in the cuisine of his native country, coupled with long-held principle about fresh and honest ingredients, have helped him lead a quiet culinary revolution, but he admitted Korean food isn’t mainstream yet, unlike ubiquitous Chinese or Japanese foods.

“I think we are on a good pace number-wise. Quality wise, we are just starting,” he said, adding that “You can’t suddenly make a hundred million people to like my Korean food in one year. It just doesn’t happen. For a small country like Korea to affect all the other countries, it takes time. Good quality foods would make it faster.”

Mapa tofu base at Hanjan (photo courtesy of Hooni Kim)

Mapa tofu base at Hanjan (photo courtesy of Hooni Kim)

Now, the genuine love for cooking has opened up a whole new opportunity for him. He has been one of the three judges on the Korean version of British cooking competition show “MasterChef” on Korean cable channel Olive TV.

Teaching and coaching contestants who have so much passion in cooking have been wonderful enough for him to endure a month-long stay away from his family.

“I want to show people what a great career this is and to teach them the philosophy but, at the same time, warn them how hard it is,” Kim said.

Through his two diners, he said he tells two different stories. When the time comes for him to be ready to tell yet another story, he might think about opening a new one.

“I don’t want to write the same book twice because it takes too much energy to perfect one book. I don’t have another story yet,” he said.

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