David Chang might be the best-known chef in New York City with Korean blood, but Hooni Kim is hoping that’ll soon change. He’s just opened Danji, a tiny restaurant serving a menu of traditional and modern small plates (think fried rock shrimp tempura, japchae, barbecue pork belly sliders). We called up this Masa and Daniel alum to learn more about the state of Korean food in New York.
You promote the cuisine at Danji as Korean flavors with French technique. Do you think a French formation is still important for chefs today?
Yeah, I think most of the great chefs are classically French-trained. The only cuisine where that doesn’t apply is with Asian food, where they have their own techniques but not scientific recipes. Information is passed down from within the restaurant and from one generation to the next. With Korean food, you’ll have dishes that everyone is familiar with, but in every restaurant, they taste different. Coq au vin in France might differ here and there, but generally it’s the same. With Asian food, it’s not about technique; it’s how Grandma or Mom did it. I didn’t have experience cooking Korean food and there weren’t recipes. So that’s how I went about creating these recipes.
You worked at Masa, which is very intimate, and Danji is also small, with only 36 seats. As a chef, what’s the biggest difference between working in a large kitchen versus a small one?
For my first restaurant I couldn’t do anything over 45 seats. I’m definitely in control of the back of the house but also in front and can go and see what’s going on. I can see how the servers interact with customers, and I can taste the cocktails for consistency. With a restaurant that’s more than 50 people, I couldn’t do that. For my first restaurant, I wanted to feel comfortable in the kitchen cooking.
As a chef is it easier in the kitchen to do a series of small plates as opposed to appetizers and entrées?
Actually, it’s a lot more difficult. The average courses for a two-top [a table of two] is five to six, not including dessert. In a normal restaurant, it’s four dishes at most. Sometimes I’ll have two people eating 11 dishes. It’s more difficult because plating takes time. But for me, this is the way I like to eat. I’d rather taste seven to eight items than two or three. A portion size [at Danji] is eight bites with four bites per person. I think it was Thomas Keller who said after the fourth bite, palate fatigue takes over. After four, it’s not as good. Temperature is also important and the bigger the portion, the longer it sits and gets colder.
On your menu you have modern and traditional dishes. How exactly are you modernizing Korean cuisine?
On the traditional menu, each dish has a Korean name so you can see it and Koreans or people who know Korean food can recognize it right away. Korean food hasn’t gone through the sophistication process of other cuisines. The best chefs are still the mothers who learned form their mothers. There wasn’t really fine dining in Korea until recently, and presentation wasn’t important. The dishes weren’t meant to be plated. And the modern take is that I think New York restaurants have gone beyond the boundaries of French and Japanese. All French restaurants use Japanese ingredients like toro, hamachi, or mizuna. What was important to me was that the flavors are exactly the same and recognizable but presentation is modern. We have these sliders with all the ingredients for bulgogi but we put it in a bun and even the buns are the Korean-style buns. Even though it’s a slider, which is very American, it’s actually Korean in flavor.
Korean food still isn’t as well known as some cuisines in New York. What are some of your favorite Korean ingredients to use?
One of the ingredients we’re excited about is chrysanthemum leaves. You can’t buy them, but you can get them in Central Park. They start blooming the end of April and May.
So you just pick them in the park?
Yeah. Pick them, wash them. If you eat it raw, it’s got a medicinal flavor but it gives fatty dishes a freshness like parsley. You could also do a tempura or add them to seafood pajuns.
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of the interview, in which Hooni reveals his advice for aspiring chefs.
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