Koreatown might be a mainstay in New York City dining (and we’re happy to have it). But even while we get our fill of rice, noodle, and barbecue staples, chefs like Hooni Kim are quietly leading a revolution, bringing Korean food to a higher plane on American culinary shores with bold flavors and an emphasis on the quality of ingredients. It’s quite possible that Kim can transcend the bounds of traditional Korean cuisine because his own upbringing spanned continents, and hemispheres.
Born in Seoul, Korea, Kim lived briefly in London before settling in New York City when he was 10 years old. Kim grew up in New York, but when it came time to attend college, he headed west to the University of California at Berkeley, studying for a medical degree before a nagging passion for food had him drastically changing gears. Inspired to cook for a living, Kim returned to the East Coast to attend the French Culinary Institute.
Kim might have proven a capable doctor, but he was certainly a natural chef. He followed up his formal training with post-grad postings at not one, but two Michelin three-star restaurants,Daniel and Masa. With such sure footing in the culinary world, Kim was in the prime position to open Danji, a 36-seat restaurant in the culinary hinterlands of Hell’s Kitchen that brings the small plates’ mentality of the Japanese izakaya or Spanish tapas bar to modern, sophisticated Korean food. (Kim even consigned mixologist Vincent Favella, formerly of The Counting Room, to create a modern Korean-influenced drinks list.) With a four-star rating from New York Magazine and coverage from New York and Korean media, Kim is clearly succeeding for his homeland and hometown, one innovative dish at a time.
Interview with Chef Hooni Kim of Danji – New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Hooni Kim: Just being a foodie growing up in New York City and going to all the restaurants, starting in high school. My first upscale restaurant was Aureole back in the 80s. It was a very grown up place. I don’t know if it was me, but I thought it was where older 50-year-olds went to hang out. It felt like for me it was a grown-up thing to do. And then that’s where it started. And I’ve been a foodie since.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
HK: Not at all. Some of the best cooks that I’ve worked with never went to school. I went to culinary school. But the most important thing I look for in a cook is working hard. There’s no harder job, physically, than being a dishwasher in New York City. If you can do that and you can show up to work every day on time that shows me a lot. That shows me so much more than 95 percent of culinary school graduates.
EB: Do you regret going to culinary school?
HK: I’m glad I chose a very short program. My program was 8 months. While I was there, I was staging at Tocqueville and Cru. I quickly learned that school didn’t teach me much.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
HK: I would say save your money and start washing dishes or get into best restaurant you can. Let your chef know you want to learn how to cook. And I know that in several kitchens that I worked at, dishwashers became prep cooks, became line cooks—at Masa as well. And I personally have trained dishwashers to become cooks. And then you save two years or sometimes four years of going to school and at least $100,000.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Hell’s Kitchen isn’t your average culinary community.
HK: It’s funny, we are in Hell’s Kitchen, but we have a tight knit group of owners on 52nd street; we have Mandy Oser who runs Ardesia, we have Caselulla, Totto Ramen—we’re all on 52nd street. Two years ago none of us were really there. In the past two years we’ve almost become a dining destination on 52nd between 8th and 11th avenue. We’re still really proud we are drawing customers. You’re right, Hell’s Kitchen is not known for being culinary destination. But we are definitely trying to change that.
EB: How do you see your place in Korean cuisine in New York City?
HK: There aren’t any Korean chefs who run these restaurants. These restaurants are successful. They’re run by fine businessmen, but the focus is different. For me, it is about the food and that’s the bottom line. It is about the experience of dining in my restaurant, which I consider my home. If I was a business person that wouldn’t be the focus. The focus would be profit. That’s the difference. They’re probably making more money than me, but for me, as chefs, we just think of it in a different perspective. Most diners appreciate chef-owned and run restaurants. And I think the more Korean chefs there are who want to cook Korean food, I think my restaurant, or their experience in my restaurant will be the norm. Hopefully it’ll get there.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
HK: I would like to sort of say my food is almost natural. Nothing is overly manipulated. The plating is natural, it just looks like it fell on there. The combination of flavors is traditional. I don’t like to manipulate too much. What nature gives me I try to enhance—I don’t really like to change much.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
HK: Inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. My kimchi fried rice dish—we call a paella—came from my recent trip to Spain. And also having amazing fried rice in Hong Kong, where I thought the technique of making fried rice the Chinese way was best possible way, but then adding that soccarat at the bottom of any rice dish would make it better. Then we put it on paper. It took us about four months, having it on the menu, to enhance and make it better. Can’t say it’s perfect, but the dish we put on menu now is completely different than December. It’s all about making things better.
EB: So you test it live?
HK: Yes, yes, that’s the only way you can get feedback. We won’t put out anything we don’t think tastes good. We love feedback from our regular customers. New Yorkers are not shy of telling you what they think. Which I think is a good thing. The only reason they tell you is they know you can do better.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
HK: The balance of the business aspect and the consistency of keeping up the quality when I’m not in the kitchen as much as I want to be. Being the owner and the chef, I’m being stretched. I need to do some publicity and I have a lot of projects, especially my next restaurant, which I want to get started on. That means I’m not in the kitchen as much. I’m doing service every day. But prep-wise, it’s trying to hire the right people and train the right people so they can have a connection between me and the kitchen, they can almost be there in my place. And that just comes with time.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
HK: I think having a baby—that was two and a half years ago. Not being able to spend as much time initially with a new addition to the family. That was tough.
EB: Is your work-life balance better now?
HK: No, I spend more time away now, but at least he’s two and a half years old now. It’s just having my wife, who didn’t have anybody, to have a baby and have to take care of a child on her own, even though I was out making a living. It was a tough thing to do.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
HK: I have no regrets. I think I’ve been very fortunate working under some amazing chefs. And I think every job that I took as a cook I learned so much from. The one thing that I would like to say is the one decision I didn’t make, that I am very happy I didn’t make, was when I was at Daniel. After the first year, I wanted to leave because it was—and is—the toughest kitchen to work at in New York. And I didn’t. Because I thought there was more that I could learn. And what I learned the second year working at Daniel is so much more, exponentially more, than what I learned the first year. Having made that decision to stay was the most important decision of my culinary career.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
HK: I have a lot of Korean-American or Asian-American charities we’ve just started supporting. We’ve started supporting the Korean-American Family Service Center [KAFSC]. It supports Korean families who aren’t as well-off or who have just recently moved here, women who are abused, etc. This organization helps anything family-related.
EB: What does success mean for you?
HK: I would say if people eat at my restaurant. What I wanted to do was sort of cook Korean food with very good ingredients, quality ingredients, and sort of give it that respect that other cuisines are getting here. None of the Korean restaurants were respected culinary destinations. Not saying I am, but at least for me I wanted to use really good ingredients, where natural flavors were enhanced with spices of Korean cuisine and that brought out a better product. I think that’s what we have done.
In the second step, for me, running a business means I need to make enough money so everybody who works for me is getting paid and happy. I can’t just cook good food and lose money and consider myself a success. I need to cook good food, make sure people are coming, make sure employees are getting paid, and turn a profit. That has been my goal and fortunately, we are there so far.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
HK: I would like to take Korean cuisine to the next level. As Korean as my menu is, it’s still sort of Korean comfort food; It’s not upscale fine dining Korean food. And for me I don’t consider Korean fine dining “Westernized Korean food.” A lot of people think that. A lot of people think you have these Western techniques, molecular gastronomy, and Western-style plating, and you do that with a couple Korean ingredients and that makes it fine dining. Korean food is good in its own way. You don’t need to Westernize it; just modernize it. I think Korean food in itself—with all the flavors can be made into fine dining without Westernizing. That’s my next project.
EB: What would be your last meal?
HK: Right now it would be the Minetta Tavern Côte de Boeuf. That was the best steak I’ve had in a while. The only reason I don’t go more often is I’m trying not to gain so much weight.