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Hooni Kim, deconstructed

Danji owner-chef’s focus on food, not Michelin stars

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Published : 2014-04-30 20:21
Updated : 2014-04-30 20:21

Danji and Hanjan owner-chef Hooni Kim is in town to star as a judge on cable channel Olive’s third season of “Master Chef Korea,” in which aspiring chefs from around the nation compete to make it to the top.

Already knee-deep into filming, the famous New York City-based Korean-American chef looks comfortable in his role as mentor-judge, ready to dish out constructive criticism and help contestants grow with some tough love.

“I think I am very highly critical about food and cooking,” Kim, 41, confessed, adding that he believes there is “a wrong, right and better way to do things.”

Decked out in a gray T-shirt and hoodie, Kim radiates a laidback vibe that goes against how he describes himself, and even Olive senior analyst Cho Hye-ryoung explains that one of the reasons why he was brought on board “Master Chef Korea” was because “the chef was very smart and nice and talented.” 
Danji and Hanjan owner-chef and “Master Chef Korea 3” judge Hooni Kim. ( Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Then she revealed that when the chef gets down to business, he gets down to business.

Indeed, the more he discusses his approach to food, how he launched not one but two highly praised Korean restaurants in New York, one can sense that lurking underneath the cool, relaxed veneer is someone who morphs into a no-nonsense culinary savant in the kitchen.

Now that he has gotten the hang of running two establishments, he is ready to try his hand at another medium ― television.

This is not the first time Kim has been on television. The prominent chef guest-starred on the cooking competition program “Chopped” this year. That was when he realized he could do food on the small screen.

“I knew that I could sort of critique food in front of the camera,” he said, adding that his gig on “Master Chef Korea” not only requires him to evaluate food but also involves a great deal of mentoring as well.

“I need to tell them how it’s fixed,” Kim elaborated.

While Kim is not at odds with his new job, he is still very much, first and foremost, an owner-chef, with Danji and Hanjan topping his list of priorities.

His unwavering loyalty to his restaurants, in fact, may be one of the reasons why Danji garnered a much-coveted Michelin star for 2012.

While it might sound cliche, Kim admitted he never saw that star coming.

“Our price point is less than $40,” he says, continuing to seem puzzled by the honor, a couple of years and many miles away from that moment, in Seoul. “We are a very casual bar that serves food.”

Then, he said, in earnest, “I think we got it based on the food.”

The food that he is talking about, the food that earns serious praise from the critics is, by Kim’s definition, Korean. 
Danji’s poached sablefish with spicy daikon (from top left, clockwise); kimchi bacon fried “paella”; “Danji” braised short ribs with fingerlings and pearl onions; spicy yellowtail sashimi; skirt steak Korean barbecue style; steak tartare with quail yolk, toasted pine nuts, Asian pear; “K.F.C.” Korean fried chicken wings; bulgogi filet mignon sliders. ( Melissa Hom)

Some might be a bit skeptical, pointing to the way Kim puts bulgogi in buns at Danji as not quite orthodox, a smidge or more different from the way the beef is traditionally served.

Kim, however, is adamant about his food. For him, putting bulgogi in mini buns does not make it fusion food.

“For me Korean food is the flavors,” he explained. “I am not trying to fuse one cuisine with another cuisine.”

Since he opened Danji with the purpose of catering to New Yorkers, some of whom may not have tried Korean food like bulgogi before, he created those sliders to initiate newbies to the authentic flavors of Korean marinated beef in a more familiar between-a-bun format.

“It’s a slider,” he said. “Who doesn’t like a slider?

“Korean food is my favorite food,” he added. “I want them to see me as a Korean chef.”

So, as a Korean chef, how does Kim create his dishes?

“Cooking is a very cerebral experience,” he explained. “At a chef-owner level, you have to think about a dish on many, many levels.”

For example, when Kim developed his popular tofu dish, he thought about the experience of eating bean curd very carefully before finally putting out a tofu that boasts three different textures: “crispy on the outside, sort of doughy in the middle and the really soft texture inside.”

His fried rice alone “has gone through 20 transformations at Danji.”

“To make it perfectly, there’s a lot of thinking involved,” he iterated.

Thinking is only part of Kim’s equation. Ingredients also play a key role.

In fact, Kim is so dedicated to the quality of his meat, his produce and his seasonings that “because of these ingredients I will honestly say we still rent.

“It’s not like we make a lot of money,” he confessed.

Yet without quality ingredients, Kim says, “it’s difficult to get really good flavors.”

To deliver authentic Korean flavors to his diners, Kim sources artisanal doenjang (soybean paste), gochujang (hot pepper paste), soy sauce, sesame seed oil and red pepper powder from Korea.

Then there is his training. Originally a medical student, he started off his career by enrolling at the French Culinary Institute, now known as the International Culinary Center and alma mater to famous chefs like David Chang.

There he realized his calling was in the kitchen.

“I love the fact that it’s a no-nonsense curriculum,” Kim said, recalling that his “aha” moment in school was learning basic French techniques while also being able to intern at restaurants, getting field experience within his third month of school.

For him, the primary draw of his formal culinary education was that it taught him the basics right away, allowing him to go on and get direct experience at Michelin-starred restaurants like Daniel and Masa.

So, was it the triple combination of creativity, ingredients and learning in top-rated kitchens that clinched a Michelin star for Kim?

Kim shies away from pointing out an exact reason for that much-talked-about star.

“We didn’t work on it,” Kim said. “When you want that one star, when you want those two stars, you lose focus.”

The key, Kim believes, is to “cook the best food” within one’s means.

What does that really mean for Kim?

It seems this is the very thing he will be teaching “Master Chef Korea 3” contestants as part of a master class this Sunday.

There, he plans on showing them the technique behind making a dish, letting them make it their own way, then picking those dishes apart, getting them to ask themselves, “How do I make this better?”

By Jean Oh (oh_jean@heraldcorp.com)

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