"People keep saying about Korean food, 'Oh, it's going to be hot this year, and then it won't be next year,' but we've been having that conversation for five years," chef Deuki Hong tells me over lunch at Her Name Is Han, a modern Korean bistro just outside of Manhattan's Koreatown. He and journalist Matt Rodbard, whose cookbook Koreatown ($30) just came out, have been waiting for this moment. This moment when the door to Korean food seems to be finally crowbarred open, welcoming curious diners who weren't raised on kimchi stews and endless small bowls of banchan (the appetizers served with Korean barbecue) to the Korean table.
"If you are among your friends, and you say, 'Oh, where do you want to have dinner?' It will probably be Italian, sushi, Thai, Chinese or some burgers. Korean food isn't in that conversation yet," Hong, the chef of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, admits. But he and Rodbard want it to be. "It's our simple goal," he adds.
They talk about pushing Korean food into common conversation with an almost-religious zeal. "Korean food's just been in that infant stage. Everyone has barbecue? All right, cool. We still got to evangelize the Midwest, where not many people know about Korean food," Hong says. "That's why we're traveling," Rodbard interjects, referring to their book tour. "It's a crusade," Hong chimes in. Despite the semi-joking verbal hyperbole, they are serious.
The two are determined—as are a small band of chefs in cities like L.A. and Chicago—but they are fighting against a way of restaurants that has been in place for more than a generation. The cuisine has remained relatively confined to Koreatowns around the country, serving a largely Korean population, embodying a "for us, by us ethic," restaurant critic Jonathan Gold says in Koreatown. "Thirty-Second Street is probably almost 40 years old," Hong says, referring to Manhattan's K-Town. "It was run by our parents' generation, [who] weren't like, 'Oh, let's get this critic in here.' It's purely survival. We made do; we're just trying to feed our kids; we just moved from a foreign country."
And though that mentality still exists to some extent along 32nd Street and in a number of older Korean restaurants around the country, there are small rumblings happening underfoot. Second-generation Korean chefs like Hong, who attended culinary school and worked under the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, are approaching the cuisine they were raised on in creative ways. "It's not survival mode anymore. So let's try to thrive," Hong explains.
That's happening at his restaurant, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, a more modern Korean barbecue spot just beyond the Eastern confines of Koreatown, and perhaps even more profoundly at Parachute in Chicago, where husband-and-wife duo Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark are serving a Korean-inspired menu of dishes like meuntang (a spicy Korean soup made with little neck clams and crown daisy). Their work has brought accolades from the James Beard Foundation and just about every major food publication (including this one). It's happening at Oiji in the East Village, which serves its own interpretation of Korea's hit snack, honey butter chips, for dessert, and at Baroo, a sort of Korean fermentation lab in L.A.
Ssam, kimchi and other Korean staples aren't new to many chefs who often grab a late-night meal in Koreatown after a shift. Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy in New York, Hugh Acheson in Georgia, and Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook in L.A. have all been reaching into the Korean pantry for several years, lacing their dishes with gochujang (chile sauce) and doenjang (bean paste). And David Chang, perhaps the most famous Korean chef outside of Korea (who refuses to call himself a Korean chef), introduced countless diners to bo ssam. But what this new pack of chefs is doing is different: They are claiming Korean food wholly, modernizing it and introducing it to a group of diners who may know Korean food only as barbecue and kimchi.
It's happening at the very lunch we are eating at Her Name Is Han, where the classic bibimbap is reinterpreted with farro (mixed in with the rice), lending its nutty nature to the dish. The entire thing is topped with a large dollop of house-fermented anchovy doenjang, which gives the whole bowl a creamy funky undertone. And, where cubes of cold and silky house tofu are topped with a sweet and nutty black sesame dressing and crispy onions, still hot from the fryer. "This place, it's not a barbecue restaurant; it's not an old-school soup restaurant. It's doing its own thing, which is classics done in a modern way," Rodbard says.
Hong hopes that this new momentum will ultimately lead to a time "when some American or European chef is doing not [just] kimchi here or there but a full-on Korean restaurant," he says. "You see Alex Stupak doing a Mexican restaurant. He's not Mexican. That's how far Mexican cuisine has come." The pair have fantasies of chefs opening juk (Korean porridge) stands and restaurants specializing in hoe, a raw fish preparation.
But neither is willing to compromise the cuisine's integrity to get there. Both at the restaurant (for Hong) and in the book, the duo is determined to put forward an honest yet modern interpretation of flavors without having to "bastardize or Americanize" the food, Hong explains. That being said, they aren't beyond some playful interpretations like a rich and craveable bacon kimchi fried rice (see the recipe). Still, nearly all of the recipes in the book are rooted in tradition and are remarkably approachable, interspersed with essays and humorous anecdotes from their research trips.
They've put a lot of faith in the book to draw readers into the kitchen to cook doenjang jjigae (a hot soup of beef, tofu and clams), haemul pajeon (a squid and shrimp pancake) and mukeunji kimchi mandu (or aged kimchi dumplings), hoping that by introducing diners to these dishes, a greater hunger for Korean food will rise up.
Like a true evangelist, Rodbard says, "We're not worried about once you try it; our job is to make sure you try it one time."
Find Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong here, or in our DINE app.
Find Parachute here, or in our DINE app.
Find Baroo here, or in our DINE app.
Find Oiji here, or in our DINE app.
Find Dirt Candy here, or in our DINE app.