Chef Bill Kim has always brought a sense of inclusivity to his food through flavor choices that mix cultures and now, he's bringing home cooks into the fold with his new cookbook, Korean BBQ: Master Your Grill in Seven Sauces. —INGRAIN, Summer 2018
STORY / Jesse Valenciana
Bill Kim, the chef behind Chicago’s Urbanbelly and BellyQ, recently published his first, and long-awaited, cookbook. Korean BBQ: Master Your Grill in Seven Sauces lays on the heat, fire, and spice. But this guy is all soul.
Jesse Valenciana: Your family moved to Chicago from Seoul when you were in elementary school.
When you’re seven years old, you don’t know what it really means to pick up and move to a new country when you don’t even speak the language. All the kids at school made me this big goodbye book. When we got to Chicago, my brother and I felt like aliens who’d landed on some new planet.
I was so scared, I ditched school the very first day. I got my younger brother, and we hid in this cubbyhole in the store where my family worked. The whole school was looking for us. They thought we were kidnapped. I was in big trouble at home.
I bet. Where were you in Chicago?
We were living in India Town, like Devon Avenue and that area. There weren’t any Asians or Koreans around, really. I had to be the one to break the mold, I guess. Eventually when other Asian Americans came to the neighborhood, I became the person to take those kids around, make them familiar with the area and culture.
There was always food as the one constant. After school, when we were hungry, I’d be the one to make my brother and cousins something to eat. A mix of whatever American and Korean things were around. Bologna and all these new things we never had before and leftover rice from dinner. Hey, I’m not ashamed to say my mom made fried rice with Crisco. That’s part of why I liked fried rice. And, like my mom, I equated cooking to taking care of people. That’s what I loved about cooking and still do.
A lot like your cooking today, a mix of cultures.
Yeah, but it took a long time to get back there. When I was in middle school, my family moved to an all-Italian neighborhood. I really wanted to assimilate to the culture around me, to lose my culture and adapt.
For a long time I was like that. When I finally got my American citizenship, I chose the plainest name possible. I wanted to fit in. Nobody was going to mess up how they said “Bill.” When I went to culinary college, it was so easy for me to assimilate because I had an American name. None of these people knew I had a Korean name from elementary through high school and didn’t speak the language at first.
Funny thing is, in culinary school and in a restaurant kitchen, you’ve got to do the opposite. You need to stand out. And because I was Asian, the other students and later chefs assumed I could do certain things. Like one time a sous chef came up to me and asked what to do with the lemongrass in his hand. Koreans don’t know what to do with lemongrass. I learned that I’d better know what to do with all of these Asian ingredients, not just the American ones.
After school you worked for the legendary Charlie Trotter, who helped put Chicago’s fine dining scene on the map.
Early in my career, I started seeking out the best American techniques in food. Charlie Trotter opened my eyes to food. Even more, he really opened my eyes to the world. So many people at the time were only thinking about Chicago. Charlie was different. He took me on his travels to Europe, which was when I realized how much more was out there. Growing up in Chicago, I was pretty sheltered, very Chicago focused. I only had maybe one suit jacket, I was around 2 years old, and Charlie said, “Hey, listen, we are going to Michelin-star restaurants in Europe, all these places. I think you need a few more jackets.”
We Chicagoans aren’t exactly the suit jacket types. That had to have been a great experience.
I learned so much from Charlie in the kitchen and from traveling. After that, I wanted to know more about Asian food, so I wanted to find the best Asian chef in the country. I met Susanna Foo, the Philadelphia chef, at the Masters of Food and Wine, maybe twenty years ago.
She was uncomfortable making her dumplings in front of these big, intimidating Michelin starred chefs. She’s Taiwanese and saw me, this Asian guy, and that’s basically why she asked me to help her. I went with her husband up to their hotel room and made dumplings right there in the hotel room.
Making dumplings in a hotel room—love that.
That was the great thing about Susanna. It wasn’t just her food. It was like cooking with my mom. I knew right then that I needed to work for her. I moved to Philadelphia and spent almost ten years on the East Coast. After three years with Susanna, I opened a place of my own, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. I wasn’t mature enough to understand what I wanted to do or done getting things out of my system. We all have to go through a maturation process. I saw so many train wrecks throughout my career, people I admired. I didn’t want to head that way.
When the restaurant didn’t work out, I picked myself up and went to New York. I think all chefs need to go to New York at some point in their careers. I worked for David Bouley for a while, then Charlie called me to come back to Chicago. I wanted to come back home. I stayed with Charlie for another year and a half. By then, I felt like I’d already laid the foundation I needed for my cooking and myself. It had been a long time, more than ten years. I had picked up what I needed to know on different types of cuisine, the best ingredients, all that. But mainly I had gotten to a new place myself.
It feels like so many people are moving so fast today, not interested in laying that kind of foundation.
Charlie was really the one who got me to that point, to work for that foundation. The other thing he taught me, and that I still think about every single day, is how to give back. He was amazing in that way.
One of the things he did was invite ten to fifteen kids to the restaurant every Tuesday through Thursday. He’d bring them into the kitchen, talk to them about excellence, and then we’d serve the same menu to the kids that we would serve to people paying hundreds of dollars apiece later that night. He didn’t give the kids something different and cut corners like most chefs would have. We would be able to speak to the kids about excellence and show them right at the same time.
Think about that. A kid from an underserved neighborhood being served the same truffles that you’re cooking for corporate CEOs. Maybe that stuff is more common today, but it wasn’t then. And it really worked. Since then, I knew I had to be part of the community and give back. That’s a big thing that my wife and I try to do with our restaurants. There’s another world outside of cooking beyond just learning recipes. It’s time to pay it forward.
That’s one of the things I love about working for a company like Goose Island—the encouragement to work on projects that help others and to give back to the community.
My true dream is to put a very small footprint, not a full-blown restaurant, in a neighborhood like 57th and Ashland on the South Side. A restaurant run by the people in the neighborhood that people there could afford. We would help give them a blueprint for being successful, and they would actually own the restaurant. I don’t mean fancy food, but even taking a can of beans and doing it in a different way by adding fresh ingredients.
With the relationships we have at our restaurants with different companies, hopefully we could do something really special down the road. When you have a great team of people willing to go above and beyond, you see how hard it is somewhere else.
You’ve got to dig in to do something great. That can take a while.
I’m forty-nine now. The magic age for me wasn’t until I hit forty. That’s when you don’t give a fuck. You know this is what you want and this is how you want to do it. I am. If people don’t like it, that’s okay. We opened Urbanbelly in 2008. Ten years ago, it wasn’t a great time with the economy to open a restaurant. And this wasn’t a high-end place, like chefs mainly got into back then. I wanted the opposite, a place where I wanted to eat after a long day in the kitchen.
One restaurant turned into several. You’re doing something right.
Look, my food isn’t for everyone. It’s not Korean, it’s not Chinese or Vietnamese. It’s the melding of different flavors from different parts of the world. The word fusion drives me mad. My intent is not to fuck things up. I think of it more as cooking without borders. I’m not trying to steal bits from places; you’re trying to find the commonality. It’s looking at things a little differently.
Mostly, though, my food is really a reflection of my life. Obviously, my wife had a huge impact. I think of our restaurants as a love story told through food. Without her, I wouldn’t have the Latin influence. I’ve gotten to go to São Paulo, London, Switzerland, and so many other places. But Vietnam and Thailand really made things clear for me. They are so lush—do you know what I mean? When I met my wife, who is Puerto Rican, there were such similarities in the food from those two Asian cultures and her Latin culture. They’re both so tropical, herbaceous. Who doesn’t love those flavors? Basically, today I take the leftovers from my mom and put it with my mother-in-law’s flavors.
That’s what I really love about what we’ve done at our restaurants. We try to find the commonalities in different cultures. Wow, you could make a pesto out of kimchi and sesame oil instead of basil and pine nuts. That’s cool.
And here we were supposed to be talking about your new cookbook. I guess we should.
Right. I wanted to write a cookbook for how people actually cook—meaning, how they go through the process. We all get to the point where we open our pantries and use pretty much the same things over and over.
When you’re cooking Asian food, you’ve got your bases like soy sauce, sesame oil; you might have a sambal or Sriracha. Seeing those sauces in your cupboard, you’re like, “Shit, what am I going to make with this?” The whole idea for a cookbook was building around our own bases like spice mixes and sauces to make my cooking accessible. You don’t have to go to the Asian market all the time when you have this stuff ready to go. And once you make a sauce, I want you to think about what else you can do with it. Like you would with anything you had leftovers of in the fridge.
I don’t want to just tell you how to cook my recipes. I want my recipes to be adaptable. It’s your recipe now. You create it. I don’t think I would have been okay with that five years ago. I would have said, “Don’t fuck with my recipe!”
That sense of inclusiveness really permeates everything you do.
I’m where I need to be myself. Now it’s time to water everyone around me, to let them grow. It’s about the next generation, about making a difference in the community. I’m not the player anymore. I want to coach.
Ready to cook like Chef Kim? Check out his recipe for Sesame Hoisin Chicken Wings.