I’ll never forget the fateful night in 2012 when a first date walked us a mile in the rain in pursuit of a Bulgogi Gogi bowl. Our goal was a supposedly life changing combination of Korean Beef, rice, fresh veggies, fried egg, carrots, green onion, sesame oil, and spicy gochujang pepper sauce from the Korean “fusion” restaurant about a mile from my school in St. Louis, Missouri. When we entered the kitschy décor nightmare and got in line, my meticulously applied makeup running down my face, I was resolute that this boy would not be getting a second date. Then… the food arrived, and I realized that the expedition had been completely warranted. I tasted Bulgogi for the first time and my diet was irrevocably altered.
Since that night, cheap Korean food became a major part of my diet and that of my peers at school. Seoul Taco, the grab-n-go restaurant at which I discovered my love for Korean cuisine, is a student staple. There is a food truck called “K-Bop” that serves Korean Barbeque in a cup and stops by Midwestern college campuses on a relatively frequent basis. Although I had initially only experienced Korean food in my college bubble, I soon realized that the rest of the country was on board the Korean food train as well. I kept hearing about new Korean restaurants from friends and family, all across America. When I was working in Miami over the summer, my boss insisted we eat lunch at a hole in the wall Bibimbap restaurant at least once a week.
These days, every trendy, newly gentrified arts district seems to have a Korean food truck. Korean Barbeque restaurants where you grill the food at the table yourself have revolutionized date nights across the nation. Even T.G.I. Friday’s now offers what are (charitably) referred to as Korean Steak Tacos. In a few short years, Korean food has become embedded into the American way of life, and with any luck, it’s here to stay.
The reason for Korean food’s seemingly sudden rise to fame goes beyond the wonderful salty flavors of Kimchi and Bulgogi. There seems to be a sort of entertainment factor to the way American people have come to know Korean food. Internationally renowned gourmet Korean Chef Ho Young Kim believes that the fun of Korean food has helped it gain traction with American people. Whether it be the novelty of cooking one’s own meal on a grill or in a stone bowl, the novelty eating your meals out of a truck, or just the trendy fun of “fusion,” the American experience with Korean food is often casual and fun. This is perhaps a product of the fact that high end Korean food is a new concept, even in Seoul. Historically, Korean food has been associated with inexpensive, fast, everyday eating as opposed to fine dining experiences. However, Korean flavors’ potential influence on fine dining in America should not be ignored. Lucky for us, it hasn’t been — in recent years, high-end Korean culinary sensibilities have been harnessed by Kim to create an entirely new kind of cuisine.
As a distinguished Sous chef, first at Jungsik Dang in Seoul and then at Jungsik NYC, Kim’s innovations have brought him international attention. Jungsik NYC earned two Michelin stars during Kim’s time as Sous chef, making it the highest rated Korean restaurant in America. Now Executive Chef at Jungsik NYC, Kim provides an authentic Korean voice and flavor to the New York restaurant scene. This authenticity is particularly important in high end Korean, as the art of high-end preparation of Korean food is still only beginning to take form, even in Korea. Historically, gourmet Korean food has been largely unavailable to the masses, but the opening of Jungsik Dang in 2009 effectively created a new style of regional culinary artistry. Kim expertly fuses Korean and Western cooking styles to create food that is simultaneously foreign and familiar to the American consumer.
While working directly under Chef Yim Jungsik, first at Jungsik Dang in Seoul and later at Jungsik NYC, Kim helped coin the “New Korean” style of cooking, which introduces molecular gastronomy (a modern cooking technique that uses scientific innovation to manipulate physical properties of food) to Korean traditional ingredients. The fusion of molecular gastronomy with traditional cooking techniques is not an entirely foreign concept, but Jungsik Dang was the first restaurant in South Korea to introduce molecular gastronomy into Korean cooking. With dishes like Korean Style Ceviche and Korean Style Bouillabaisse, Kim’s food goes beyond bridging the cultural gap between American and Korean food preparation, and has united cuisines from all over the world.
Kim makes his take on Korean food accessible to even the most stubborn of Americans through his fearless embrace of western preparations and ingredients. Scallops with Chorizo, for instance, is more of a global phenomenon than a regional one.. This universality allows Kim to introduce Americans to Korean food in such a way that the foreign and exotic become novelties that customers are eager to explore as opposed to something that scares them off. His signature ingredient is citrus, because it brings a light freshness to all of his dishes. By using influences from all over the world, Kim is able to subtly introduce Korean flavor into international palates without alienating patrons not used to traditional Korean eats. . Kim has emphasized the importance of imparting cultural understanding onto consumers. According to Kim, “foreign culture and exotic ingredients can easily create a barrier of prejudice and preference to those who are unfamiliar. Once they get exposure and start understanding the cultural background, however, the barrier becomes curiosity, and eventually curiosity becomes affection.”
The intrigue of Kim’s recipes allows them to transcend a consumer’s fear of the unknown. Kim emphasizes that cultural backgrounds influence how we understand tastes, making Kim’s Korean identity important to his cooking. He brings facets of Korean culture to America beyond just food. Kim believes that regardless of background and culture, people can recognize yummy food. In his own words, “deliciousness is universal.” While this observation may not necessarily be true across the board, the universality of Kim’s recipes and innovations makes it even more so. Beyond his prestige within the New York food scene, he has proven his culturally transcendent cooking abilities in high-profile culinary events all around the Western world in Italy, Paris, and Madrid. The fusion of Eastern and Western cooking methods in Kim’s work facilitates an utterly unique culinary experience for any eater anywhere. Now i’m just waiting for Kim to open up a restaurant near me, and revolutionize date night forever.