It's 11 p.m. on a Wednesday in Seoul, South Korea, and Hooni Kim is in a contemplative mood.
"You know how the Japanese let the fish rest a couple days, so the muscles relax?" Kim, the chef/owner of Hanjan and Danji in New York City, ponders after a long day of shooting the current season of MasterChef: Korea. "Koreans like it where the tail is still whacking."
He pauses during our call over Facebook Messenger. Still musing.
"Koreans like to see how fresh their ingredients are, but I would take it to the next level," he continues. "Koreans like to eat things that are still alive; there's still kinetic energy there. It results in a lot of burned tongues, but it's our way, and I still haven't figured out why."
This all comes up, because we're talking about Korean barbecue, that wonderful style of dining where the table is crammed with shallow bowls of kimchi, gochujang-slicked crab, mushy potato salad and other banchan. There's a hot metal grill mere inches before you and a pushy but well-meaning waitress throwing on cold, thin slices of marinated meats. Harried servers rush around with trays of hot coals or platters of more meats, and somehow it's always someone's birthday—evidenced by Korean-accented birthday songs blaring jauntily through the speakers every so often. And the soju—and pitcher after pitcher of watery Hite—never stops.
The "Cirque du Soleil of barbecue," as Chris Oh, the chef behind Hanjip in L.A., likes to call it. It's all a formula for a good time, and it's been a solid one since the arrival of barbecue pioneers like Dong Il Jang in L.A.'s Koreatown more than 30 years ago, and the ensuing flood of barbecues throughout the States since then. With them, came a set, largely unchanged standard for Korean barbecue. That is, until now.
"Korean barbecue has been stagnant for so long," Oh says. "I'm first generation, and we're supposed to be doctors and lawyers. Being a chef or restaurateur was not the plan. But now Asian American parents are saying, 'You can be a chef,' and now that they're getting that, you're getting these people who are taking Korean barbecue to the next level. I guess it's a new movement."
What he's talking about is a rising generation of chefs recalibrating the art of Korean barbecue, from Deuki Hong pulling prime meats and aging them methodically at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in New York City to Peter Cho applying Southern barbecue techniques to the misnomer of a cuisine at the newly opened Han Oak in Portland, Oregon, to Oh churning out seasonally inspired banchan and smoky, sweet bulgogi (see the recipe) at white-hot Hanjip. They're straying from the standard in Korean barbecue—but all in their own way.
But before we go any further gazing into the future of Korean barbecue, we need to take a few steps back. How did Korean barbecue first become a thing in the U.S.? Kim points us to Nadia Cho, the CEO of Jeong Culture & Communications. Cho's job is to act as a liaison between Korean government agencies and chefs. She coordinated the South Korea episode of Parts Unknown with Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain, and is now working for the next installment of Chef's Table featuring sought-after Buddhist nun/chef Jeong Kwan. Before, Cho was begging chefs to come to Korea; now, they go to her.
"Other Korean food wasn't for the American palate, but Korean barbecue was," she explains.
With the initiation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the U.S. opened its doors to a new wave of immigrants: Asians nearly quadrupling their numbers after the bill's passing. A large chunk of this group were Koreans, equipped with little English and lots of entrepreneurial spirit. So they did as most immigrants do and made their own jobs instead of competing for existing ones. Enter Korean barbecue.
"They were like, 'Holy shit, we can make our kind of barbecue, and the beef is even better than what we had,' so beef barbecue became really popular in the 70s and 80s with Korean immigrants coming to America," Matt Rodbard, Korean food expert and author of the epic Koreatown, says.
"But it's also aligned with the Western palate as well, and it has a lot of flavors that Americans like: sweetness, a little bit of heat, but it's pretty mild, and, of course the convivial, visceral nature of grilling it at your table," he continues. "Ever since hibachi became big in the 80s, put all those things together and you get the proliferation of Korean barbecue in America."
These restaurants started to blend into the same Korean barbecue template of a restaurant due to limited resources.
"The first generation of Korean restaurants had the same suppliers of ingredients, because they were Korean, especially since they couldn't speak English," Cho adds.
The goal wasn't to dazzle with cheffy techniques or reinvent banchan, rather to survive—the same narrative you'll find with many immigrant cuisines.
"Unfortunately, there aren't many Danny Meyers in Koreatown. They open restaurants to get rich, retire, sell them and open spas," Kim says with a laugh. "But now, we're finally seeing what we haven't seen since the 70s: a chef making a barbecue restaurant based on what he is and what he likes."
One of the first in this group is Rachel Yang, a newly nominated finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Northwest award this year and the chef behind Trove, a sprawling four-in-one restaurant in Seattle she opened with her husband, Seif Chirchi, in late 2014 with one-fourth dedicated to the grill. Here, the meats are carried out elegantly on metal tiers, like seafood plateaux you'd find at any French bistro, and line cooks emerge from the back of the house, if you need assistance with the grill.
Chef Rachel Yang | Photo: Jackie Donnelly
"Yes, people can go to authentic restaurants where they're getting it for 10 bucks, but for restaurants by chefs who grew up in America, things are quite different," she explains. "It's not elevating or modernizing. It's that I've never cooked authentic Korean food in my life. The only way I know how to cook is blending flavors and bringing seasonal elements, so my Korean barbecue is very different. But that is very authentic to me, because that is how I cook."
But it's not active rebellion, according to Kim.
"I don't think they ever took into consideration this formula," Kim says. "It's not that they're trying to break away from this formula, but they never consider it. That formula is so opposite of what a chef wants. Just to be as good as the restaurant next door—that is not in our blood."
Yes, in Los Angeles, no neighboring barbecue joints are throwing tomahawks with pats of foie gras butter on the grill or sprinkling salty salmon roe and creamy sea urchin on top of that ubiquitous barbecue freebie, steamed egg. But Oh is at Hanjip, his now four-month-old restaurant in Culver City, far from Koreatown.
All the banachan at Hanjip | Photo: Rick Poon
"I'm not trying to revolutionize Korean barbecue. I'm just trying to bring it up to date," he says. "Even with the banchan, we do seasonal stuff, or even like these little nuances, like the foie butter, I'm trying to be playful with it."
The dearth in Korean barbecue in Northern California made this former real estate guy go into the kitchens nearly five years ago.
"In the Bay Area, when I was growing up, there weren't that many options like L.A. had," Oh says. "Most of my Korean barbecue experience was at home, where the whole family gets together and we have that portable butane."
However, for Oh who has a few more outposts of Hanjip already in the works, this is just the beginning—and it doesn't end with Korean barbecue.
"I don't want people to only think of Korean barbecue. Go eat some spicy soup. That was my main reason why I started Seoul Sausage Co. 'Hey, if you like these flavors, go try Korean barbecue. Now I opened a Korean barbecue place, go try bone-broth soup.' That's my goal," Oh says. "Chinese food had their moment, Japanese food has their moment and Korean food is here to stay."
"What Hanjip is doing differently is that they're packaging it in a way that is more understandable," Matthew Kang, the editor at Eater L.A., explains. "Chris is a very unique kind of chef. He's not classically trained—he openly confesses that he learned to make sausage on YouTube—but if you eat his food, he knows how to make delicious things. It wasn't just me; a lot of people were excited when he opened."
The hype comes from the fact that it was Oh, the guy behind ever-popular truck-turned-restaurant Seoul Sausage Co. But the hype also comes from making a familiar thing new again. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It makes renowned chefs long for recognizable, homely things like meat loaf—and it usually makes them back away from messing with it. However, this is not the case with Korean barbecue. Talking to these chefs, I keep hearing that they're not out to modernize or, that favorite food media word, elevate this style of dining. They're just doing it their own way, whether it's using Korean barbecue as a gateway to Korean cuisine like Oh or making a whole new genre of the restaurant like Peter Cho.
"I would take my chef friends to Koreatown, but they kind of didn't know what they're doing," Cho tells me over the phone. "They can't read the menu, and the staff keeps everyone at arm's length. I saw how I could translate Korean food in a way by taking them to a restaurant and tailoring their experience. Then I wanted to cook the food myself."
Inside Han Oak | Photo: Boris Zharkov
The plan all along for Cho, April Bloomfield's longtime right-hand man, has been to open a Korean restaurant in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. With the arrival of Han Oak last month, he's stripped away the excessiveness of the Korean barbecue spread, distilling it into a slimmer, more selective tasting menu with koji salt-baked pork belly and kale sprouts kimchi.
Cho explains, "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here. I'm trying to present it in a slightly different way. It's still to the core dishes that I love."
He's playing around with brisket, short ribs and beef tongue right now, smoking them over embers, and planning on installing a wood-fired grill and oven this summer.
"Peter's been cooking under April for quite a bit of time, but how can he not cook that food? He's Korean, and he's eaten that all his life; how can he not cook that?" Deuki Hong tells me over the phone from a D.C. book event for Koreatown (he's a coauthor with Rodbard). "My palate is American. I grew up eating burgers, fries, pizza, all that goodness. My food is not mixed. It's just American food. It's just Korean food. Why can't we do that?"
This lends insight to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, Hong's 15-month-old restaurant just east of Koreatown in Manhattan, where long lines dutifully wait outside and an abbreviated barbecue menu takes diners' hands through the succession of dishes. Hong, a Jean-Georges and Momofuku alum, brings that same zeal of fatty, meaty American food with beautifully marbled beef, some untouched by aging or marinades and others coated with Korean pears and soy sauce for a few days. He doesn't leave his meat up to chance to the diners: He trains his front-of-house staff for a month—"We're training them to be line cooks," he says. "That's the control freak part"—and their numbers double the actual cooks and dishwashers in the back.
"It always goes back to what I like eating," Hong says. "What you don't realize as a cook, whether you're Korean or not, you're eating a lot of Korean food after shifts. Our restaurant is a testament to that."
Grilling at Insa | Photo: Craig LaCourt Photography
"Whether it's about reinterpretation of the cuisine, I think it's a challenge for a lot of us," Kim says. "Can I make my kimchi better than my mom's? Can I make a Korean barbecue restaurant that can survive far away from Koreatown? And can I do it without dumbing down the cuisine and taking on challenges?"
Here, inside the muted wood-lined space, there are no disco balls or loud, clubby music (though you can find that in karaoke rooms in the back). That mushy potato salad is a pile of firm matchsticks, studded with raisins and apples, and the meat comes with endive and perilla along with the usual lettuces. It's been a big departure for Kim after a decade of slipping in Korean this and that at her Red Hook restaurant, The Good Fork.
"We all learn the French techniques in culinary school, pay our dues at various fine dining establishments," Kim says. "But for me, it's kind of like going back home."
Home looks a little different for each of these chefs as the next era of Korean barbecue begins. There are whispers of a new Korean barbecue from Erik Bruner-Yang, the chef who hosted Hong and Rodbard in D.C. at Maketto during their book tour, and Hooni Kim dreams of also doing his own Korean barbecue thing "if Manhattan prices go down."
"I feel like there are so many levels, and we can go higher," Hooni Kim says. "Yes, we can go with ingredients and service, because that's who I am, but all these other chefs are different. We can go street food or fine dining barbecue. Some chefs choose decor and stemware; some chefs, service and pacing; and other chefs, ingredients. But all of that doesn't matter, because it's such a personal choice."
And that's the point. Clearly, the kinetic energy continues to accelerate.
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