In 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded chef Sohui Kim’s restaurant, the Good Fork (391 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, 718-643-6636), in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Neighbors came by in waves of support. Her husband, Ben Schneider (also the design contractor and partner), worked around the clock on repairs with staff, volunteers, and friends. Two months later, they reopened to massive fanfare and a packed dining room. The next day? Nothing.
“People were still working on their own spaces,” Kim tells the Voice, “and by March, I was worried we’d made a mistake in reopening.”
The team had opened the Good Fork in 2005, when the area needed more neighborhood eateries. But years later, increased competition and the rippling effects of Sandy made the market tough. Kim held out, though, continuing because of “the love letters we were sent after Sandy, and customers who kept coming back year after year.”
“You have to do this for the love of food, of entertainment, and of feeding people,” she says. “This is a crazy business. That’s the only way you’re going to come out of it sane.”
The renewed sense of community and a devil-may-care attitude would come into good use when she looked to open her second restaurant in Brooklyn, Insa (328 Douglass Street, Brooklyn, 718-855-2620).
A spinoff of the Good Fork Insa is not. The massive 4,600-square-foot space combines Korean barbecue, karaoke lounges, and a sleek-and-sexy bar. Which means the first challenge was just how to divide the space into areas that were warm and welcoming but also vibrant and full of clean lines.
“Luckily,” says Kim, “Ben was like, ‘I got this.’ He knew I didn’t want tchotchkes. He knew I didn’t want kitsch. I gave him a bunch of adjectives, and luckily we had the same idea of what we wanted to create.”
For the kitchen, Kim hired people she’d worked with in the past and a few new cooks with a “gift for food,” focusing on traditional Korean and Korean-American flavors. “If people close their eyes and taste the beef soup, I want it to be as good or better than their grandmother’s,” she claims. “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel or make ‘new modern Korean.’ I want authenticity, with quality stuff.”
Focusing on Korean cuisine wasn’t an obvious choice for Kim. The Good Fork menu is a hodgepodge collection of comfort foods without restrictions: Roasted free-range chicken sits on the menu above Korean-style “Steak and Eggs” outfitted with kimchee rice, arugula, and apples. There’s braised boar shank, lamb curry samosas, and homemade pork-and-chive dumplings. “Everyone wanted to know what the concept was. There was no concept. It was the kind of variety I like to eat, so I just wanted to call it ‘a neighborhood menu with stuff,'” she says. “I guess that’s what we now call ‘New Brooklyn cuisine’ or something.”
With Insa, there is a concept. But, again, it’s centered around what Kim personally craves. “I’m getting older,” she says, “and there’s something about getting older and wanting to get back to your roots.” She’d found herself progressively feeding her kids more spicy soups and dried cuttlefish. She started exploring K-Town and Murray Hill in Manhattan, and Flushing in Queens, with her brother, looking for the kind of homestyle food they grew up with. Finally, after realizing they couldn’t keep trekking around the city when they had a restaurant to run, her brother suggested they open their own. “It clicked when my brother said that,” Kim says. “If we were craving Korean food in Red Hook, than others in the area were craving Korean food, too.”
Now up and running in Gowanus, Insa makes complete sense. Across the street is Threes Brewing, who “welcomed us as soon as we signed our lease,” she says. There’s the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, Brooklyn Boulder for rock climbing, and Gotham Archery. “The neighborhood is like an adult playground,” she says.
For her part, Insa welcomes all walks of life. “It was important that you could stumble upon us,” she says. “We’re banking so much on this restaurant, since we borrowed so much money to open. Opening a restaurant is a gamble for those who don’t have big pockets; it’s like going to Vegas and putting everything on the table and spinning.”
Large communal tables seat young families and rowdy parties. The menu covers Korean barbecue, bibimbap, soups, and a seafood “corn dog.” Gratuity is included because she’d “rather have fairness” in her company than make money. “This is why I’m not a very good business person,” she jokes. “I’ll always be proud of my restaurants. I may not be able to send my kids to college, but they’ll have great stories about having a mom and a dad who never stopped trying.”
While she claims that the Good Fork is by no means old and tired — “It’s still new and exciting, and our first baby,” she says — the fresh energy of Insa is doing right by Kim. “Having two restaurants is not easier, but it’s a lot more fun,” she says. “It’s been a crazy past year, but wonderful.”