Each month, Tasting Table’s Monthly Editions explores a single topic from a variety of delicious angles. Our October 2012 issue, Korea, explores the rich flavors of our latest culinary muse.
As a country, we’ve come a long way in our appreciation and understanding of Asian cuisines. For starters, the category, once a singular and offensively all-encompassing genre, has rightly splintered into a collection of nuanced cuisines. Continent has shrunk to country and, finally, to region.
Then there are the torchbearers: rising stars, mostly second-generation Asian-Americans, who have used this age of scrappy, irreverent dining to reimagine their own heritage.
We tapped four chefs who epitomize this trend. Each cooks exceptional, thoughtful food at the forefront of changing how America eats currently--and will eat in the future. Each chef is of Korean descent, a heritage they explore with culinary freedom, rather than with restrictive notions of authenticity.
In the spirit of their creative imaginations, we asked all four to work together to create a collaborative recipe: With minimal guidelines, the chefs all contributed a step, each picking up where the last one left off. The resulting dish, a riotous Coca-Cola-braised beef tongue served on pajeon (a savory Korean pancake), is nothing short of genius (see the recipe).
Read on for more insight into the minds of the men behind it.
Danny Bowien doesn’t cook Korean food and didn’t even eat it until he was a teenager. But the Korea-born, Oklahoma-raised chef of the wildly popular outposts of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York City thinks that Korean cuisine is nonetheless an essential part of his freewheeling culinary style.
You cook Americanized Chinese food. So how does Korea or Korean food influence your cooking? This first time I tried Korean food, it all made sense--even the weird stuff. It’s all about balance. Then I visited Korea for the first time after I met my now-wife. There the food is light, clean, bracingly spicy and fermented. That’s what we’re after in a lot of the dishes at Mission Chinese.
What was the inspiration for the beef-tongue dish? I wanted something awesome, and I wanted something approachable for the home cook. In Korea, one of my favorite things is grilled beef tongue for wrapping with lettuce and ssamjang (spicy bean paste).
What bores you to tears? I’m tired of all the negative energy, with chefs bashing each other and other restaurants. We chefs should stay humble forever.
It would be a mistake to write off the cooking of Dennis Lee as “stoner food.” To be sure, there is something crazed and indulgent about “gamja fries” (a sort of Korean poutine) and fried chicken--both menu staples. But Lee is also a master of balance, using punch flavors in bold, thoughtful ways.
It seems like Korean ingredients, perhaps more than those of any other Asian cuisine, are dominating current dining trends in the United States; why do you think that is? Really, I think it depends on the person executing it. But I will say that Korean flavors are super-diverse, and very strong: You have lots of elements, lots of umami, pickles--those things can stand up to Western ingredients.
What are we getting wrong about Korean food?
I’m just excited to see other people feeling comfortable using these ethnic elements; I don’t think there’s a right way. And it might be more exciting when someone pulls off something out of the traditional context than when someone executes something authentically.
Hooni Kim’s is a cuisine rooted in technique. The chef worked for years within the polished brigades of Daniel and Masa in New York City before he opened Danji--a tiny and, by contrast, casual restaurant--in Hell’s Kitchen. His peers have reveled in the strength of Korean ingredients, incorporating them in forceful dishes. But Kim exposes the soft underbelly of these same dishes, demonstrating their inimitable nuances.
Where was your last great meal?
In Seoul, at a restaurant called Ggu Mung. The specialty is black pigs from the island of Jeju, and the barbecue pork belly was the best I’ve had! The meat was unlike any pork I’ve tasted before.
Booze! I’ll be opening a new restaurant next year called Hanjan; it’ll be a joomak, a type of Korean tavern that pairs food and liquor. We’re hoping to introduce several Korean drinks that have been unavailable in New York until now.
Before opening his mini-empire of outstanding restaurants, Bill Kim trained under some of the best in the business, including Charlie Trotter and David Bouley. But he credits his family as his true inspiration. Kim, who immigrated from Seoul at age seven, describes his approach as “tradition, amplified.”
What are American restaurants getting right about Korean food? Kimchi! I’m seeing it appear on menus much more frequently than it used to. But it’s also what they’re getting wrong: More fermentation doesn’t always equal better. There is an art to kimchi.
Where was your last great meal in Chicago? My wife and I recently had the Kyoto menu at Next. It transported us immediately to Japan. It’s exciting to watch chefs go out and find these niches, and for the public to react so positively. That positivity feeds creativity.