Why Korean Food Is Having its Moment
Chef Sohui Kim has been a pioneer in the New York dining scene since opening The Good Fork in 2006, an intimate, neighborhood restaurant featuring globally inspired cuisine. At the time, the Red Hook, Brooklyn restaurant was a precursor in bringing together disparate influences and techniques, from French and Italian to American and Korean. Kim’s latest project, Insa, is a good venue “for anything mainstream Korean culture.”
At age 10, Kim’s family emigrated from South Korea to The Bronx. Before venturing on her own as a restaurateur, Kim attended culinary school and worked at a number of famed kitchens like Blue Hill and Annisa.
Asia Blog recently chatted with Kim about why “you don’t mess” with the classics, her no-tipping experiment, and why soju doesn’t have to give you a hangover.
Your first restaurant, The Good Fork, has some Korean touches — but it is not really a Korean restaurant. What made you decide to open Insa?
When I opened the Good Fork 11 years ago, the restaurant scene was vastly different. There really wasn't a churn for global cuisine. The way we labeled food back then was a bit more strict. My brother was like, "No, you can't have Korean kimchi on the menu and wild boar ragu and dumplings."
Back then, I honestly didn't want to explore Korean food. I wanted to showcase it and accent it, in the same way that I would use an Indian ingredient or French techniques. Years later, when it came time for us to do a second restaurant, I wanted to do something totally different. It dawned on me when we started making lots of family trips out to Flushing to eat at these authentic, traditional restaurants, that Brooklyn had a void in Korean food.
As a chef, I wanted to go back to my proverbial roots and explore. We ate out a lot in Flushing. I grew up with Korean food so it was a way for me to rediscover it — not just as a food person but as a chef. Insa definitely was pre-meditated, very focused. I told myself I would bring flavors of traditional Korean food to this part of Brooklyn.
What was that research process like?
The Good Fork is open six days a week and Monday is our day off. Back in the day, we would take Mondays and visit this Korean placed called King Spa in New Jersey. Running a restaurant and cooking is such a physical sport, and we were just exhausted. And naturally, afterward, we would seek out Korean food.
Right around the time we were thinking about a second project, I had cravings for various foods, whether that was a big, hot, filling bowl of kimchi stew or maybe buckwheat cold noodles. We would throw the children in the car and drive 30-40 minutes to Flushing, a Korean enclave in New York City. It was like rediscovering the flavors that I grew up with and then some.
Because I'm "classically trained" in terms of going to culinary school and having worked at a lot of fine dining establishments, I saw how I might slightly improve some things without changing the dish. I knew that I didn't want to do “modern Korean” food. I didn't want to tinker with the styles and the old tradition of making fermented kimchi and stuff like that.
How do you navigate that challenge of staying true to Korean classics while innovating and experimenting?
If something tastes great, don't mess with it. But as a chef, sometimes you feel like something can be tweaked minorly to make it better. You start with the best ingredients and then you go into technique. For Korean tartare, they freeze the beef and they grind it or chop it up frozen because it's supposed to be ice cold. And who wants a warm tartare?
But there's something about eating frozen meat that I just didn't like at all. I looked towards the French tartare, which you serve cold, but you hand chop it and there is just something much silkier and more velvety about the texture. I was careful to keep all the flavors intact — Korean tartare is flavored simply with sesame oil, Asian pear, a little white soy, sea salt, scallions.
But I did add one ingredient: capers. You don't see capers in Korean cooking, but I thought it could definitely benefit and play really nicely with the sesame oil and some of the other flavors. If you close your eyes and you ate it, it would be the classic Korean steak tartare. Visually it is a slightly different presentation, but not to the point where you could say it's modern.
Because it tastes great! It has a lot to do with the fact that it's very flavorful, but it doesn't leave you feeling bloated. There's a certain lightness about the cuisine. Korean barbecue and the vast ubiquitousness of Korean fried chicken don't represent Korean food properly, but they have captured the popular imagination and taste buds. So those are some of the gateway food items.
Then people discover the funkiness of the kimchi and the myriad of uses for it, not just as a dish but as a condiment, as a seasoning ingredient. You get into the kimchi world, and then you get into the banchan world, which are all these little delectable side dishes that a great Korean restaurant would offer you.
A lot of young chefs are finding that there's room to play. Why not utilize ingredients that we have here that are not native to Korea in banchan. How delicious are red pickles, for example? Those restaurants you mentioned, as well as Rachel Yang’s restaurants in Seattle, are all led by chefs who are classically trained like me and are just having fun with it.
As a cuisine, Korean food is very well balanced. It's very much in my mind like Italian food. It's very accessible. There are just these few staple ingredients. Just like in Mediterranean and Italian food, you just have a really good base, olive oil, and a good base for making flour. For us, it's great soy sauce, pepper paste, pepper flakes. And then it's up to you to put those few ingredients together and come up with something very balanced and simple. It took people so long to discover true Chinese food and true Japanese food and the fact that Korean food is very popular today just makes sense to me.
Your training is in French cuisine. When did you start cooking Korean food?
In designing the menu for The Good Fork, I envisioned this dish that would be Korean in flavor but a play on a classic breakfast item: steak and eggs. I thought about marrying rice with a stir-fry kimchi that's really funky and adding pork to it. I then marinated the steak, not just putting salt and cooking it perfectly, but marinating it like a kalbi but a little spicy. So that's how it all started, by using kimchi in that steak and eggs dish.
I invited my mother for a kimchi seminar in the early days of The Good Fork and she taught me and the rest of the cooks how she does it. And then I adapted the recipe and have been making kimchi there ever since.
I owe a lot to my mother. I would say, "how do I make this," and she would say, "just put a little pinch of this and just a handful of that and that's how you do it." In Korea there's a saying, "taste of the hand" (son mat). Does that person have the touch? And she's always said that I had the touch. So I was relying on my hand as I was diving into Korean food. And it's working out okay for me.
You and your family moved from Seoul to the Bronx when you were 10 years old. What were some of your earliest memories of moving to New York City?
My fondest memory, which I think a lot of other Korean-Americans share, is going to a restaurant on Mott Street in Chinatown, Hop Kee. There would be all these Korean families and recently emigrated families there who were also exploring the food of the city. This particular Chinese restaurant just hit a chord with us. I have fond memories of eating Cantonese style snails, blue crabs in hoisin sauce. It was a family outing. Somebody got a good report card, we would likely celebrate by going there on a Sunday night.
Getting here at age 10, I thought the food was very strange and I just wanted a little bowl of steamed rice and seaweed and eggs and a little kimchi. There was a world of cheeseburgers, pizza, the proverbial American food. It took a little while, but once my taste buds adjusted to that we went nuts. I was a very skinny child when I moved. I think I gained five pounds in the first year. Just pure hamburger fat.
It was fun to explore as a family, as an immigrant family, and to have various other ethnic cuisines: Italian food, Chinese food, Japanese food, and also Korean food. I have fond memories of going to Flushing, the hub of Korean activity. It was so nice to explore a city that offered so much.
Insa brings together three very different spaces: barbecue restaurant, private karaoke rooms, and a bar. How did you settle on that format?
That format has everything to do with my collaboration with my husband, Ben Schneider. He is not a chef, but he is an amazingly talented builder. I just knew what I wanted the barbecue restaurant to be. You know, you go into a Korean restaurant and you just smell like barbecue for days. So I wanted great ventilation, a big room. And then we found this large space, 3,600 square feet.
It was Ben's idea to have karaoke. I knew that for a lot of people it was a packaged deal to have Korean food and then sing, and make a night of it. At first, I said, “oh no, that's going to dumb down the whole experience and the food.” But he did a great job in designing it.
Ben made up this funny saying sort of in jest but it stuck, and that is "the Korean place for fun time celebration." It is one-stop shopping for anything mainstream Korean culture for food and singing. It's definitely the vision that we had: the type of food, the type of service, the type of decor, and design.
Insa does not allow tips — checks automatically include gratuity. How is that experiment going?
Having owned The Good Fork for so many years and being in the restaurant industry for so long, the notion of tipping has always bugged me. The history of it goes back to slavery, and it just seemed like a very unfair system. The difference between how the front of the house gets paid and the back of the house gets paid, the fact that gratuity is not granted for the person who cooks your food, but simply delivers your food, just seems really archaic and unfair.
It affects the culture of the place in terms of being a family-run place. It's a team effort kind of place so if everybody is getting paid hourly plus overtime, just like you'd get at a corporation, why not? There's a certain freeing, “Hey I'm not beholden to you to give me my wage for the evening — this company takes good care of me.”
It took a lot of Excel spreadsheets and creating formulas, but the back of the house get paid better because of the way that we are restructuring things. There's no reason why a restaurant shouldn't be run like a good company in the sense of fairness. I hope other restaurants do it.
In Korea, Soju is similarly seen as a cheap staple one can buy for a couple bucks. What do you make of the recent trend of U.S. craft distillers like Van Brunt Stillhouse producing top shelf soju?
The story of Van Brunt Stillhouse is very intimate to us because they are our friends Sarah and Daric. He had this 9-5 job and just said, "I want to open this distillery in Red Hook." Daric hired this guy named Bran Hill who’s very talented. He spent five years in South Korea learning how to make traditional soju and makgeolli and other Korean spirits. He gave us a little sample of his homemade soju and I was a blown away. They said, “we could make you an Insa soju that is based on this Tokki brand that he was making. We could now feature in-house Insa soju.” How great is that!
The trend similar to all the microbreweries and all the artisanal brewing that's been happening for a long time. The cheap stuff is great on certain occasions, but oh my god, that could be so much better. Soju doesn't have to give you a massive hangover the next day because of all the additives and the added sugars and the chemicals. It really is nasty stuff. You don't realize it until the day after.
At the beginning, we started just with the top-shelf soju, because I pooh-poohed the whole "$5 bottles" crap. But you know, like I said, on occasion I do like it. We turned up our nose a little bit and just introduced the artisanal stuff and people were like, "you guys are snobby." So we had to give the people what they wanted. But it's so nice to have that option, to say, “hey, soju doesn't have to be cheap, crappy stuff; it could be elevated, it should taste like this as tradition has it.”