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Linus Kim has big plans for his ‘pop-up,’ Alabama-style barbecue business
By Kim Young-jin
It shouldn’t have been too surprising that Linus Kim discovered his lifelong passion for barbecue at the age of seven. After all, he was raised in Alabama, where cooking over a hickory wood fire is more a pastime than a technique.
Still, the boy shocked his family when he was offered, for the first time, a pulled pork sandwich at a school fundraiser.
“I was a really picky eater, but I remember I ate all of it. I was blown away,” recalls Kim, now 39.
The Korean-American is now introducing Korea to pulled pork and other Alabama-style barbecue through a popular series of “pop-ups” ― events announced via the internet and held in bars or restaurants for a short period of time.
Those who have tasted Kim’s pork sandwiches can attest to its extra-tangy flavor and tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture. But don’t expect him to rest on his laurels: the entrepreneur is out to expand the business while refining his craft.
He’s also out to prove that a good idea, even if it comes from a place such as Alabama, little-known to Koreans, can become a success with a bit of passion and elbow grease.
“All my life, I have kind of floundered from one type of job to the next, and it was me trying to fit into the world,” Kim said over dinner in Seoul’s bustling Gwangjang Market, Thursday. “But nothing ever held me long enough to really devote my life to it.
“This (business) was one of the first times in my life I was able to take something I truly love and really go for it. It’s worth it to me to take it as far as I can.”
To aid the process, the barbecue “enthusiast” leaves this week for the United States, where he will participate in the Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-off 2013, to be held in southern Illinois from Thursday. Kim says competitions are key to learning new techniques.
Upon returning next month, he is planning to expand his business, renting commercial kitchen space and taking steps toward a more permanent location around Hannam-dong, Seoul.
Despite growing awareness about the culinary value of barbecue, dishes such as pulled pork ― the slow-cooked shoulder of a pig ― come from humble beginnings.
“It’s comfort food. It’s a low-brow food. It does take a lot of technique to make it _ but it was developed by poor people using the worst cuts of meat possible,” Kim says.
The glistening final product, however, is miles from the tough meat it begins as.
Kim begins the process by injecting fruit-juice-infused brine into the meat to help retain moisture while cooking, and then applies a dry rub.
He then fires up a smoker using a mix of hickory and apple wood, which he lugs to Korea from the U.S., and fruit woods common to Korea such as pear, apple or chestnut.
It takes anywhere from 12 to 16 hours to cook a pork shoulder. Kim says he watches the meat “like a hawk” once it approaches its target temperature of just over 90.5 degrees Celsius.
The arduous process was validated Saturday, when a large crowd turned out at bar near Itaewon, for the latest pop-up.
“I am from Alabama and came from Bundang (Gyeonggi Province) when I heard about this on Facebook, said William, an English teacher. “This is really good.”
Something worth supporting
Despite the success, the idea for Kim’s pop-ups was born partly out of frustration.
When Kim was hired as a food consultant for a restaurant in Korea, he made a makeshift smoker from pans and tin foil to barbecue for an event. The response was positive, so he began plotting how to start a business.
He began smoking and selling pulled pork wholesale to restaurants, but was irked to learn that the chefs were “messing up” the meat by microwaving or boiling it; he responded by organizing his own pop-up to serve it properly.
“When the word got out, it was just bangbusters,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ So I tried it again, and again.”
Kim is planning to hold regular pop-ups on weekends at a fixed location, with an eye on expanding into the week and adding menu items such as brisket.
He says for now he will stick to his pop-up ethos, using space in a business that can benefit from the additional traffic. This model allows him to build up a high quality menu without plunking down massive capital to establish a restaurant.
“My advantage is low capital investment and being nimble, being able to stay on my feet and move anywhere I want.”
Kim says the help of friends and volunteers was instrumental in getting the business off the ground.
“I can’t say enough about my friends and even people who weren’t my friends but offered to help. I really feel touched that so many people wanted to help me without wanting anything in return. They just wanted to be a part of something, you know? And I feel really proud to be something that was worth of supporting.”
In speaking with Kim, one runs into an impasse when inquiring about specific ingredients that go into his barbecue sauce, a vital element to the cuisine.
But he admits to using some “Korean ingredients,” which he experiments with to keep costs down.
“It is more substitutions and slight enhancements; I’m not trying to do a fusion thing. I can’t import everything,” he says. “But what I found was, because I use Korean ingredients, it’s not easily replicated in the States. It has its unique flavor.”
The entrepreneur hopes the business will help raise the bar for foreign food here. While the restaurant scene is getting better, it is still dominated by owners who prioritize decor over food, he says.
“People get excited about the new pizza place or the new burger place. I ask them how it is, and they say it’s really good…for Korea.
“I don’t want to hear that anymore. I want people to say there is world-class (food). There’s no reason we can’t have that here. We are already a world-class city.’’