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Korean Chef Hooni Kim On Cooking Who You Are

Hooni Kim is chef-owner of two Korean restaurants in New York—Danji on the border of Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown, and Hanjan in Chelsea. He also runs Yori Chunsa, a charity supporting orphans in Korea, and recently published a cookbook called My Korea.

I don’t know when I started appreciating Korean culture. Thinking about it now, my son reminds me so much of myself at his age. He’s 11 and he likes galbi-jjim, but he could not eat Korean food for years. He’s more into pizza and hot dogs. My dating life and appreciation for Korea and Korean culture’s emergence into the States all converged at some point in college. I became proud to be a Korean, and that became the foundation of who I am as a chef.

I left Korea when I was two—my dad died and my mom took me to England because she thought growing up in Korea without a father would be hard. She worked at the Korean embassy for a while, but her dream was to become a fashion designer. Most nights, she came home late and was tired. She never cooked. She always brought home take-out and reheated it. Her brother—my uncle—lived in the UK and ran a Korean restaurant, but I had no real desire to eat Korean then.

My mom didn’t pressure me into things. She opened doors so I could make my own decisions, and kept me in touch with Korea by sending me there every summer. I spent time in Busan with my maternal grandmother and went to see my dad’s mom on a small island near Wando. Busan was a bustling city with public transportation, taxis, and movies, but on Wando, electricity was out at 9 p.m. The whole island had two televisions and one telephone. The lifestyle was mostly farming and drinking and eating, and everybody seemed older. I dreaded those trips.

I was doted on and never had to do anything I didn’t want to, but the culture was so different then. There were no PC bangs, nowhere kids could go to be kids. If you weren’t studying, you were doing something wrong. To speak English in Korea at the time was a big deal, but in a lot of ways, it was like—you’re special, but you’re not part of us. I definitely blocked out experiences of people making me feel alien, and the hardest part of those visits was people thinking, “This kid’s a foreigner.” The way I dressed, the way I behaved—it was all different. I was a freak.

Photo: Kristin Teig.

Still, I understood the difference between Koreans who treated me like that, and the Caucasian racists. In boarding school in England, I was the only Asian kid in the whole city. There were grandmothers who had never seen Asians before, so they would come up to me and touch my hair because they had never seen such straight black hair. I never considered it racism, but I was like a zoo animal—a gorilla in the city.

That wasn’t the worst. There were times people would call me a “chink,” and I didn’t even explain I was Korean, because they’d say “same shit” and make slanted eyes at me. People didn’t know anything about Korea except the war. I remember I was 10 years old on a New York City playground, playing with a girl I liked, when an adult yelled at me. He didn’t like that I was playing with a white girl. I just froze. I remember this feeling of being so helpless.

My attitude on being Korean began to change when I went to Berkeley. There were a lot of Korean students, and I started learning Korean more because I liked these girls from Korea. My grandmothers had passed away by the time I graduated high school, but I continued to go to Korea because I met some yuhak-saengs—international students from Korea—who wanted to take me to all these dance clubs there. I liked this girl in Korea during me sophomore year of college. She introduced me to all this Korean music—Kim Gun-mo, Cool, Turbo. It was so new, and Turbo? That was like EDM but with lyrics!

Exclusive clubs targeting yuhak-saengs started to appear in the US. They had the money and could spend hundreds in a night. My white friends wanted to get in, but that was an absolute no. I started eating more Korean food in California, and Korean barbecue was starting to happen too. I had grown up in New York before it had a K-Town—when that neighborhood was public housing and people thought of it as dangerous.

Still, I wasn’t into Korean food, not even then. I didn’t get into Korean food until I started cooking. I thought of myself as a very knowledgeable culinary person—like those kinds of people who post about hot restaurants but can’t cook an egg. So when I took a year off medical school, I decided to enroll in a program at the French Culinary Institute because it was the only school that I could finish in time to go back to medical school. Culinary school was so much fun, but my first internship really made an impression on me. I never knew it was possible to cook with 12 pans at the same time and not burn a single thing! I never went back to med school.

Photo: Kristin Teig.

While working at Daniel, I realized that being a chef is more than just cooking. Daniel is a very French restaurant with very French chefs, and seeing all the pride these chefs took in their culture was inspiring. But whatever artistic energy I had was useless because I worked in the kitchen. It wasn’t until Masa that I started cooking Korean. Chef Masa Takayama was the first to ask me to cook Korean. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together since Chef Masa sort of lived at the restaurant. There was pressure for me to cook Korean well, because he really liked Korean food. At first, I relied a lot on the flavors I tasted back in Korea—recalling which restaurants had the best texture and which had the best flavor.

During my time at Masa, I started running pop-up dinners—back then, they called it a “private kitchen”—at my mom’s house on the Upper West Side. I wanted to cook a mix of French, Japanese, and Korean, but realized my Korean was better than most of what was available in New York. I started thinking—what does it mean to cook who you are? What does it mean to have a strong foundation?

The more secure I became about my Korean identity, the more I felt sure of my answers. I opened Danji in Hell’s Kitchen, and that meant that I would be introducing new flavors to non-Koreans. I considered how a Korean restaurant would work in this neighborhood and wondered who would even care about my interpretations of these dishes. My wife—who had grown up in Korea—influenced me a lot. We had started dating because we’re both foodies, and even now, she has a better palate than I do. She knows when something is wrong with the food and can give me feedback while pretending to be very “old-school Korean.”

Koreans can be the worst when it comes to questioning authenticity. When Koreans go to restaurants, they compare every dish to their mom’s. Some Koreans that complain my food is too salty would never say anything to a French chef, even if it meant drinking a gallon of water with their meal. They will think, “This is the chef’s vision!” Italians might say that their mom’s version is the best, but Koreans will say, “This is wrong. This is not Korean. Come to my mother’s and she will teach you real Korean.”

I still struggle with it, but I’ve had good experiences too. Once, this guy—45 or 50 years old—told me that my doenjang-jiggae was the second-best he’s ever had. “First best is my mother’s, but she passed away a long time ago, and I don’t think about her. Your doenjang-jiggae reminded me of her. Thank you.” That’s when I started thinking about what Korean food means for Koreans abroad, and how much nostalgia most Koreans have to connect with their mother country.

Photo: Kristin Teig.

I started coming to Korea more often before opening Hanjan, which was meant to be more of an authentic Korean restaurant. I spent a lot of time researching and finding ingredients. That’s when I received the opportunity to judge MasterChef Korea. It was a paid vacation—learning from the contestants I judged, and talking to the producers who knew a lot more than I did. After that, I came for media appearances and interviews, and could sometimes even bring my whole team. I would be in Korea more than two months out of the year and eventually was asked to write a Korean cookbook.

I accepted the offer to write My Korea for financial reasons, but that changed as I found the story I wanted to tell. I was trained in Western cuisine and know a lot about delicious food, but I wanted people to know that Korean food isn’t only about being delicious. Some people say Suunjapbang, a food text from 1540, is a cookbook—not like a Julia Childs recipe book, but a guide to preparing food that’s nutritious. Anyone can make food delicious, but to me, Korean food is about a mother’s heart, about wanting to create good food for a healthy life.

I also began to see what aspects of Korean culture were problematic. Having a son, and perhaps my own experience growing up without a father, opened my eyes to the world of orphans, and I started Yori Chunsa with some chef friends in 2015 so kids could have a place to work once they turn 18. I thought that the family-like environment of kitchens would be a great place for them, but since culinary schools are expensive and not supported by student loan systems in Korea, I thought we could teach them to cook. It was hard when we started because we realized, speaking with the 20 kids, that none of them like food. They didn’t have the experience of enjoying it. We decided it’s not our responsibility to teach them how to cook yet, just for them to experience the power of food. So for now, we are just taking them out to eat and cooking for them.

As much as I am considered a “leading interpreter of Korean cuisine,” I am comfortable as a student—not just in Korea, but even in my own restaurants. I love finding out more about the culture of people I work with, and I get a lot out of my conservations with them. In terms of Korean food, I know I can learn about it for the rest of my life and not even come close to mastering it. There is no need for pride when you are passionate about something this much.

I’m fortunate to connect with Korea this way. There are some people who are treated like outsiders in Korea, and that can be difficult to overcome. I was lucky that my positive experiences in Korea outweighed my negatives ones. When you’re Korean-American, people always ask—who do you root for during the World Cup? And even the question itself offends me! I consider myself a Korean living in America. And my son? I want to leave the doors open and let him decide how he wants to define himself.