Chef Bill Kim
Le Lan |Chicago
Stylish, upscale Japanese restaurants are a given in today’s dining culture, but other East Asian cuisines – Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian, and even Chinese – are rarely found in that form. Bill Kim’s Le Lan is one of the notable exceptions, with elegant dishes inspired by his background, and shaped by his comprehensive, diverse training.
Kim was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States at age 7. His first formal kitchen duty was to roast and grind sesame seeds in a mortar and a pestle; sufficiently enthralled, he attended the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College after getting an undergrad degree, and spent the next 15 years working in some of the top French and Asian restaurants across the country.
His first apprenticeship was at Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights, Illinois under Chef Pierre Pollin. After graduating from Kendall in ’93, Kim took a chef de partie position under Jean Banchet, who was then at Ciboulette in Atlanta, Georgia. The following year he joined Charlie Trotter’s, and two years later was promoted to sous chef. After Trotter’s he spent a year as sous chef at Trio with Shawn McClain before joining Susanna Foo at her eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia as executive sous. After three years with Foo, Kim spent a year as sous chef at Bouley Bakery, then returned to Pennsylvania to open the Inn on Blueberry Hill as executive chef. The Inn closed after three years, and Kim returned to Chicago as chef de cuisine at Trotter’s.
In 2007 Kim became the executive chef of Le Lan, where his star-studded laundry list of culinary experience is manifest in the refinement of his creative, exciting Asian dishes, and the skill and dexterity with which he runs his kitchen.
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Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? When did you start cooking and why?
Bill Kim: I was 7 years old when I moved from Korea and had to take care of my brother and 3 cousins. When my mom made a dish she always asked me to taste it. My first job in the kitchen was to roast sesame seeds and grind them using a mortar and pestle.
AB: Did you attend culinary school? Do you recommend it?
BK: I do, definitely. It gives a foundation to students who don’t know how to cook or where to cook. I had a pastry teacher that really steered my career in the right path. [Because of school] I got the chance to work for Jean Banchet, and then Pierre Pollin.
AB: Have you done any stages?
BK: I staged at Cello in New York. That was a great experience.
AB: Are you involved with the business at Le Lan?
BK: Yes, I’m a partner in the restaurant. I had my own restaurant for 3½ years outside Philadelphia (Inn at Blueberry Hill in Doylestown, PA), so I knew what it took to make a restaurant succeed.
AB: Who would you consider to be your most influential mentor?
BK: Pierre Pollin – not just food-wise, but he’s also taught me how to balance my work and personal life. He was maybe 50% of the time in the kitchen and also doing gardening and spending time with his family. I consider Charlie Trotter and David Bouley to be mentors, but in terms of lifestyle and growing as a professional, I look to Pierre. We worked together at Le Titi de Paris – it was my first job out of school.
AB: How do you balance family life with being a successful executive chef?
BK: When I took over Le Lan, the first thing I did was find my replacement – he’s in the kitchen right now. At Le Lan we find great cooks – people who are motivated and want to make a difference, and want to make the place theirs. I don’t want the people who work for me to do a great job and then leave me. I rather leave Le Lan and bring them with me, or give them the opportunity to succeed by backing them and bringing them to own part of the business.
If you want to do something like spend family time, you have to just bite your tongue and do it, and let your sous chef rise to the occasion. You also need a spouse that understands what you do. I try to take one day off a week, and that is when I spend time with my wife, my nephews and my parents.
AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
BK: I see if they have a dream for themselves. Where do they see themselves 5 years from now? That’s my favorite question because it means they’re thinking about the next step and are motivated to get there.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
BK: Do the research, study, and develop your palate by just eating. Charlie Trotter let me run his kitchen at age 26 – I had never been a sous chef before.
AB: Where have you worked?
BK: I was in Chicago at Charlie Trotter’s and Trio, then went to Philadelphia and spent 3.5 years at Susanna Foo’s. I then went to Bouley in New York then returned to Philadelphia to run The Inn, then returned to Chicago.
AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized? Why?
BK: Fermented soybeans. Korean soybean paste is very versatile and good for soups and sauces. We use the fermented soybean paste in our lunchtime ssam – for people who have never had it, it almost tastes like a barbecue sauce. It’s underutilized and very healthy.
AB: Do you have any favorite flavor combinations?
BK: I like coconut and lime, curry and squash, and I love using chorizo in a lot of things we do here. I love chorizo, Brussels sprouts and mole.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
BK: The Vita-Prep blender. We puree a lot of things. It almost intensifies the flavor of whatever you’re making because you’re blending all of the product and focusing the flavor in that dollop of puree.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you employ in an unusual or different way?
BK: I really believe in having some kind of recipe prep sheet. Every station has their recipe book, and all stations have station charts. We have people rotating every 4 months in the kitchen. When a new person starts a station we have a mise en place chart. I’ve been here 8 months and all the cooks have at least worked 2-3 stations. It creates a fluid team – if something’s not working, we can take one part and move it to make the whole machine work better.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
BK: Nina Simon’s Noodle. She’s not a chef, but it’s the first Asian cookbook I bought.
AB: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
BK: I would go to Hong Kong, which I’m probably going to do next year. I spent 14 days in Shanghai and Korea with a writer from the Tribune – I hadn’t been there for 20 years. We ate at 60 restaurants in 14 days.
AB: What languages do you speak?
BK: Korean and Kitchen Spanish.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path –in your city?
BK: Arlington Heights has Japanese grocery store called Matsuya – we get the pork ramen. I get Korean food at San Soo Gab San. I get the short ribs and marinated beef.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the Chicago restaurant scene now?
BK: I think there’s less formal dining and more casual dining.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BK: The ingredient needs to speak for itself, and you only need to have maybe 3-4 things on a plate. In terms of service, my philosophy is to just be attentive. People want to go out knowing that someone is going to take care of them. There’s also the financial burden of what we do. I’m constantly looking at costs, budget. What we do is business – yes it’s artistry, but at the end of the day, you need to be making money for the restaurant.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
BK: Something in sports…though I was never good enough!
AB: If you could cook for someone alive or dead, who would it be?
BK: I would take great pride in cooking for my grandmother, because she never got to see what I’ve begun.
AB: Who would you like to cook for you?
BK: My nephews, if they ever become chefs. Alain Ducasse would be great too.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally? What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
BK: I do a lot of charity work with Common Threads – I just did something with them two weeks ago which involved an after-school program for underprivileged kids. It encourages them to eat healthy food. I work with farmers a lot. And I’d like to get this Korean-American program going – I want to get a bunch of people from the restaurant, or people who are really into food, and take them to Korea. There are so many sides of Korea that I want to show to people. They’re starting a slow food movement in Korea – I got to visit an organic soybean farm, and there’s Hanu Beef – an amazing beef breed that only has about 60 cattle. And they don’t want to take it to the states – they are proud of keeping it local.
AB: Where will you be in 5 years?
BK: I want to have 3 restaurants as well as other places that branch off, like a noodle place, a yakitori place and Soul (our new place opening in Clarendon this spring).
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