Food, beer, music, and culture: Won Kim, Chicago-based chef and DJ and brewer and artist and all around dope person, talks about his world. —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Zac Connelly & Christina Perozzi
Warning: This article includes explicit language that may be offensive to some readers.
After a couple of rounds with Won Kim, you’re going to want to rethink that whole f-ing life plan thing.
Won Kim is a phenom in Chicago. He’s one of the (if not the) leading graffiti artists in the city (his art has also been showcased in galleries). He’s an acclaimed chef who has redefined fusion cuisine by blending two large Chicago diaspora cuisines, Polish and Korean, at his Bridgeport neighborhood restaurant, K I M S K I (960 West 31st Street). But that’s just a part of who Won Kim is. He DJs at major events, he’s a winner of the Food Network show Cutthroat Kitchen (2015), and he’s a champion of homebrewers (whom Kim describes as the “under-underdogs”). He is a man of contradictions. He’s an obsessive who doesn’t give a shit, a loudmouthed introvert. He’s got a rebellious streak that runs deep, yet he is also deeply reverent of his family’s traditions and what it means to be a Chicagoan.
We met Kim pretty late one evening at the Sportsman’s Club (948 Western Avenue) and discussed how he got to be Won Kim over several very well-made classic cocktails.
Zac Connelly: So every time I come here, I have to order at least one whiskey sour.
I got food poisoning from an egg white whiskey sour before. It was just the worst fucking 24 hours. Thankfully, I shit it all out, all of it. Food is so fucking dangerous. That’s why I always tell people to buy art. I’m like, “You know that extravagant dinner you just bought for your shitty girlfriend that you’re going to break up with in a month? You could have saved all that money and had something tangible in your house that you could look at and be like, ‘Man, I’m really glad I spent $400 on this thing that’s still here, that I didn’t flush down.’" That’s how you buy furniture, right? You save up, and you’re like, "Oh, I’m going to invest in this thing that I’m going to have to live with every day.” That’s how art should be considered. Because most of the time, artists are getting paid $6, $7 an hour to do a piece. I hate hearing the old “Oh, if I had the money.” I’m like, “Bitch, you have the fucking money. You have a goddamn roof over your head. We’re out in public socially, which means you have the money.” My house is full of art that I’ve bought.
Christina Perozzi: That’s great, because it just seems like the millennial focus is all on experiences, whether it’s vacation or going out for food, but you’re not really left with anything tangible.
Well, that’s where Instagram comes in, right? That’s when social media comes in. That’s the tangible thing now. They record their experiences, and they lie about their experience.
ZC: Yeah, make it shiny.
It’s that one fleeting moment of happiness that they captured, but they’re going back to their mom’s basement, and you’re like, “God, you’re a fucking loser.” That took a dark turn, but it’s kind of true.
CP: So what is it about graffiti for you? You’re doing that for free.
Sometimes. But, see, that’s the passion thing, right? It’s something you want to do, something that you just don’t care if you get paid for. It’s not rational. Someone just told me about a woman that married a fucking carousel. It makes no—
CP: I’m sorry, what?
Legit, married a carousel ride. I know. In our minds, that’s so fucking ridiculous, right?
ZC: Good thing she’ll always have that carousel.
Yeah, she rode it once and fell in love with it. That is absolutely 1,000% insane.
CP: What do you think their kids will be like? Half plastic centaur?
Yeah. I can’t even imagine.
ZC: I mean, people say that love is a form of insanity, right?
Yeah. And I think graffiti becomes an obsession. You do it as something juvenile at first, and then you become a narcissist about it. You’re like, “I just like seeing my name up everywhere, and I want to do it constantly.” And there’s this weird insecure thing that comes, like, “Well, I don’t want anyone to know who I am, but I want them to know my name, this moniker I picked for myself,” and no one will admit that. Some people will, but it does become an obsession, and it’s a very selfish kind of art form.
CP: So it’s hypocritical.
Yeah, it is hypocritical, because you don’t care if it’s lawless as well. It’s partly a crime that fuels that passion as well, the lawlessness of it, because it is really easy to put your name out there. You could go out there right now and tag a pole, and you’ll get away with it.
CP: And is there a rush in creating that?
Yeah, absolutely. Every crime has a rush. Any time you do anything that you’re not supposed to do is fucking awesome. It feels great, if you get away with it. And then you offer something for the public to see. I’ve gotten away with other crimes, not just graffiti but, like, minor crimes, and it felt kind of like, “Hey, this is kind of fun.”
CP: Is there a guilt associated with graffiti?
Sometimes. I have my own set of rules. I don’t hit not-for-profits. I don’t hit churches or schools or organizations that are doing good. I just try to hit, like, things that people don’t care about or something ugly. That’s why the train lines are always hit. And backs of buildings no one ever sees, except for commuters. It doesn’t really hurt anyone, necessarily.
CP: Have you ever maliciously tagged anyone?
No, I never hate-graffitied anything. I leave that for swastikas and fucking gangbangers.
ZC: Do you remember your first time?
Yeah. It was stupid. I think it was on a slide, at a park, with a Magnum marker. It was just like, “I want to try to write this name in bubble letters, so let’s see what it looks like on a slide.” I was, like, about eight. But it felt good, you know?
ZC: So now I want to ask you two questions, circling back to social media. One I already know the answer to, but I just want to ask it anyway. What are your thoughts on Yelp?
What’s the second question?
ZC: The second question is, Do you think the Grubhubs and the DoorDashes are a good thing for food?
I think so. But you have to take it with a grain of salt. Consumers should know that it’s not going to be as good as going to the restaurant, obviously. I hate it when people Yelp about a delivery they got and it was a little cold. I’m like, “You’re a lazy fuck. That’s why it’s cold.” I think Yelp is an extraordinary tool for information, but once you give people a platform to speak on, it’s ruined.
ZC: Lowest common denominator.
Yeah. And the people that use Yelp to threaten a business, to get on their high horse, in a profession they have no idea about, is so aggravating to a small business owner. I have issues with it. It’s giving them this platform where they become self-appointed experts about things that have nothing to do with the experience. You can’t give a restaurant one star because you can’t find parking. You ever see the Yelp reviews about state parks? Yosemite got a one-star review because there were too many mosquitoes. These motherfuckers are reviewing parks and nature. They’re going to start reviewing thunderstorms: “It’s too wet. I give nature one star.” We could post a rebuttal, but it only makes us look bad, because there’s this notion that the customer is right.
CP: They’re ten times more likely to complain about something than actually go on and write a good review, right?
I’ve had terrible meals in my lifetime, but then I’m just like, “Oh, this really sucks. Let’s just go somewhere else.” I don’t get to review their jobs, and they’re basically reviewing our jobs. It’s not the level of expertise you have; it’s the amount of power you have and the followers. People will buy a backpack because some influencer said to, and they just buy it because they’re like, “Oh, this person sounds cool.”
CP: People consider you an influencer. How do you feel about that?
I don’t like the title, but I will say, the more I find out about what influencers are actually supposed to be and what they do, yeah. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve connected with many people all across professions, and they’re all good friends, and they all work together now. And, you know, dude, I’ve linked chefs with artists, chefs with other chefs, restaurants, and I get things in motion. Now they all call each other and hang out.
CP: So you’re saying that influencers connect people to create new things?
Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do and not hit up places for free shit? And to better the community as a whole. Like, there’s this bar I painted up north. They knew I DJ, and they needed DJs. I couldn’t do it, but just because I can’t do it doesn’t mean other friends should miss this opportunity, so I do the bookings for them.
Yeah. Whenever they ask me, I’m like, “Let me ask these three guys that could do it for you.” And now they can go to this place and DJ whenever they want.
ZC: And you don’t take 10%?
No. No. I should. But I just like seeing people work together, utilize each other’s talents and do something cool with it. I feel like we, as creatives, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right, as decent people? I mean, you’re supposed to always look out for one another and not be culture vultures, which is another young person’s term.
CP: So almost like appropriation?
Yeah, in a way. That’s my issue with social networkers and influencers. Every single one I’ve ever met thinks they have something new. But they’re not creating shit. Remember pre- social media? It was all word of mouth. It was awesome. You learned about something cool via talking to people. I’m guilty of playing into the game of reaching out to people, but I don’t want to exploit them or have any weird agenda. I just want to smash people together, in a nonsexual way, in a very creative field. This is also how a city functions. It’s a small big city, Chicago.
CP: So were you born here? You’re from here?
I was born in Korea, and we came here in 1980 when I was one. Well, we lived in Cleveland first and then moved to Chicago. I went to high school in the burbs and then moved right back to the city.
ZC: You cooked a lot with your mom, right, as a kid?
I did. She’s probably my main influence in food. It’s funny, because I was just talking about this yesterday. I remember she was talking bad shit about some of the Korean restaurants that we went to when I was a kid. I was like, “I know you can make it better, but you don’t feel like doing dishes. I totally fucking get it.” She was the one that really was the streamliner for cooking and showing me shit and why you do certain things to make food taste good.
CP: What were your favorite meals of hers?
It was very simple shit. Rice, kimchi, eggs, and she always had a soup. I think that’s way more impressive, the fact that she worked, like, 50, 60 hours a week and still made dinner for the family. That’s juggling. That’s gangster shit. That’s never sitting down.
CP: What did she do?
Like every other Korean in the ’80s, they worked at a dry cleaner. My dad actually did embroidery by hand, on hats. He also worked in a flea market. He did well, because he was the only one that did it in the whole city. And that’s where I learned what graffiti was. A lot of graffiti guys would get their names on their hats, embroidered, and my dad was like, “What does that mean?” I’m like, “I have no fucking clue.” Or gangbangers would come and get, like, their colors.
ZC: So your dad is embroidering gangbangers’ signs.
Yeah. He had no idea. I’m like, “Dad, stop ordering Pittsburgh Pirates hats. Stop ordering black and yellow.” So, yeah, we were on the edge of West Rogers Park, so we would get gangbangers, which is good, because we got exposed to all of them, so we knew all the colors.
ZC: Were they tagging the shop?
No, surprisingly, they didn’t. They gave my family some shit, but that’s where I learned that work was just normal. You work every fucking day, that’s just it. When I saw the kids going off to college in other towns, I’m like, “Well, I’ve got to stay to help my parents.”
CP: I read that you went to Le Cordon Bleu, but you did it just because your friends were doing it. When you were cooking with your mom, did you ever have that epiphany of like, “Oh, I want to do this,” or was it one of those things that just happened?
You know, it’s funny, because I have another weird memory of how we grew up on government cheese and—
Government-issued food, which is, in my opinion, fucking delicious, and I will to this day defend the cheese. I would pretend I was a short-order cook and make grilled cheeses. But I never, ever wanted to open a restaurant, or if I did, I was like, “I just want to open something that has four seats so I don’t have to deal with that bullshit.” Like the little stand my mom used to have in Korea.
CP: Oh, what did she cook?
Street foods, snacks, stuff like that. And then when she moved here, she was like, “That’s not going to make it here.” She actually had an opportunity to open a Korean restaurant back in the early ’90s—in Wrigleyville, of all places.
Yeah. This was when Thai food was really popular and people didn’t know the benefits of Korean food. I was like, “If you open it, I will fucking quit school and work there.” My brother was like, “I’ll manage the numbers.” And she was like, “Oh, it’s too much of a gamble. I want to make sure you guys have money.” And then once I opened, she was like, “All right, now I can live vicariously through you and tell you your food sucks.”
ZC: So now I want to talk about beer a little bit. I met you back at Whole Foods, in the late 2000s, and you were doing Brewhaha even back then, right?
Yeah, I was doing home-brew events a while ago, and it was just another weird, creative, illegal way to showcase my friends. I had their beer, and I was like, “How do we get this beer to my other beer-nerd friends?" This is when craft beer was on the brink of explosion. Brewhaha started off with one brewery, Lodi, and we did it in my friend’s backyard. No one else was highlighting these guys that work super hard. Again, we go back to no payment, just passion, right? I was like, “Because you guys are doing it out of pocket, I’ll make some food for it, and we’ll invite our friends and see where it goes.” We did the first party, and a lot of people came out, because I think they were tired of drinking crap beer like blueberry-maple stout with, like, a duck’s dick in it. They just want a good fucking beer. And all of a sudden I became this weird unofficial curator for home-brewed beers. And then it blew the fuck up. It got too big for this guy’s house in Humboldt Park, so I found art galleries to host these illegal parties. Greg Koch from Stone Brewing was like, “This is the best beer rave I’ve been to.” Living my best influencer life again, I held a home-brewing competition, and the winner brewed a beer with Stone and Two Brothers. That’s how the Dayman IPA came about, and it’s insane that we went from, like, fifty attendees to, like, 400, and it was still an underground event. And then what’s unfortunate and fortunate is all these homebrewers started working with each other, and now they’re all fucking co-brewers—Spiteful, 18th Street Brewery, Aleman. Brewers went to Revolution, some went to Goose Island, some went to fucking Half Acre, and these are all guys that used to do my events.
CP: My husband is Latvian, Eastern European, and we have a lot of Polish friends. You’re not Polish at all. So how did Kimski gel?
It really was easy, as my business partner is Korean-Polish. Maria’s had these Monday things where they cooked packaged Polish sausages, and if you bought a PBR, you’d get a free Polish. Other cooks would come in and be like, “I can make my own kimchi, or I can make mustard for you,” blah, blah. They ran with the idea, and then I jokingly “deconstructed” a Polish sausage dish for them, because there were freeloading assholes who were taking three or four sausages. I’d plate it for them, and that would be the only thing they’d get until they bought another drink. I regulated that shit, and they were like, “We’re opening a spot and we need a chef.” I was like, “Hell no.” And then I went back, and they were like, “You know, we’re still opening this thing.” I’m like, “I have no desire to open a restaurant.” Then I got fucking hammered, and they asked me again, and I was like, “Yeah, okay, fine. I have nothing going on. Sure, let’s do it.” That led to a lot of pop-ups, and the idea was to put it out there to showcase this weird hybrid.
CP: To me it’s not super weird. Russia borders Korea, and the food—the pickled carrots with a little bit of spice that is Korean influenced—is quintessentially Russian.
That’s what I thought, too. I mean, every core culture has a dumpling, has rotting vegetables that are salty and vinegary, and they utilize everything they can. That’s how creative food is, you know? I think it’s great what Korean food has become. It’s like fucking upscale. I remember a Polish friend was like, “Man, thank you for making Polish food popular again,” because, as you know, we’re the second-largest Polish population outside of probably Warsaw. But all these Polish restaurants have been around for decades but never get highlighted.
[Ordering another round of drinks.]
ZC: What’s the most gratifying part and the least gratifying part of Kimski?
Knowing that people can live off of working there. I’m an advocate for fair wages and good quality of life, and I think I provide that for them, hopefully. And I love feeding friends. The least gratifying is—I don’t think there’s anything really that bad. Well, I hate customers still—I mean, the general public. They’re the fucking worst.
[Drinks are delivered.]
ZC: Were you guys popular immediately?
There was a lot of hype built around this. There was an onslaught of fusion restaurants. Then we presented this weird concept. People really bought into it, because they loved Maria’s already. No one knew who the fuck I was. I was the help. I was never in the forefront. I never wanted to be. You know, the graffiti mentality, where it’s, like, you know, you do baller shit but don’t let anyone know who you are.
CP: It’s so strange to think that graffiti mentality and the chef mentality are exactly the same.
I don’t like being in the spotlight.
CP: Up-and-coming chef/restaurants in Chicago that you’re a fan of?
Bayan Ko (1810 West Montrose Avenue). Lawrence is definitely not an up-and-coming chef, but he opened up a Filipino-Cuban restaurant, which is fantastic. I like S.K.Y (1239 West 18th Street) and Entente (700 North Sedgwick Street)—fucking awesome restaurant, Brian Fisher. I worked with him a lot as well.
CP: Your favorite cocktail in Chicago. Where, and what is it?
Can I give you a couple? The Old-Fashioned in Maria’s. Sportsman’s—best cocktails, I would say. Victor Bar (4011 North Damen) up north. Delicious.
ZC: What’s the best fast-food restaurant, and what’s your standard order?
Redhot Ranch (2072 North Western Avenue), half pound of fried shrimp and Chicago dog, everything.
CP: Your thoughts on hot dogs in general?
I’ve softened up over the years about people that aren’t from here that put ketchup on hot dogs, but if you’re from here and you rep Chicago hard as fuck, you can’t put ketchup on it. I’m sorry.
ZC: Who do you really respect with what’s going on currently with craft beers in Chicago?
I do like Marz (3630 South Iron Street). They’re the quintessential DIY success story, I feel, like, of getting the word out. And Middle Brow (2840 West Armitage Avenue, Logan Square). I fucking love Middle Brow.
ZC: And then what’s your go-to big beer? Don’t say Goose Island. Are you, like, a High Life guy? Are you a PBR guy?
I don’t drink beer as often these days, but I fucking do love High Life. I do love a good sour. Sours are my go-to these days. Marz makes a lot of good sours, or Berliner Weisse. I like Berliners. Anything that’s kind of tart and acidic is my favorite. They’re way more accessible.
CP: Who are your favorite purveyors in Chicago?
I like the small farms. I like guys that have that DIY spirit. Those are the guys you have to support. I mean, those are the guys that are really struggling, that really have a passion, you know? You can’t make a lot of money growing fucking arugula. But if you make good arugula, because we use a lot of arugula, I’ll buy it in that garbage bag. It looks weird, but hopefully the garbage bag isn’t used. We’ll have to wash it. It’s not a big deal.
CP: Who has the best Korean barbecue?
Pro Samgyubsal (3420 Milwaukee Avenue) in Northbrook.
CP: What’s your definition of a Chicagoan?
Over-prideful of their city, blue-collar. These are things that come to mind, rather than describing—blue-collar, overworked, always the hardest-working person, no matter where they are. Yeah, and just extremely prideful in general, and kind of thick-skinned, and sarcastic.
ZC: Back to the DJ thing. Tell me how that started.
I went to a lot of hip-hop parties when I was younger, and it was one of those things that, as a youth, you find a niche and you roll with it, right? Punk rock kids go to punk rock shows. I went to break dancing things, did graffiti, hung out with a lot of black kids and Latinos, and they all made fun of me for being Chinese. That’s what they thought I was. Talk about being thick-skinned, man. And my friends were all DJs when I was doing graffiti. They didn’t break dance and shit. I chose to go that route.
CP: So how did you—why and how?
We threw a party at my apartment, as college kids do, and my friends left their turntable on the kitchen floor. My brother and I were looking at it like cavemen, just crouching and touching it. I was like, “Oh, my God, what is this?” We set up the speakers around it on the kitchen floor. We just didn’t know what it was. And then my brother and I went out and bought records. (Long before that, by eighth grade, I was already working in my dad’s store to save up, and go to the next stall over, which sold mixtapes and graffiti mixtapes.) And I got obsessed. We set up the turntable in my brother’s bedroom, and I literally would buy a record almost every day, because at the time, singles were, like, $5.39 at Gramaphone. This whole other world opened up. It was a fake-it-until-you-make-it type thing.
My first real DJ gig was a loft party that my brother threw. I DJ’d on Gemini turntables and a Gemini mixer, on a washer and dryer, and luckily no one was doing laundry. That was a fucking train wreck. I didn’t know how to blend records but I already loved music and the joy it brought people.
ZC: So one thing informed the other.
A little bit of effort, a little bit of dedication and obsession, led to gigs and being like, “How do I get to the point where I might die from not sleeping and just constantly mixing?” It was an epiphany when I actually blended two records together. That’s when everything I ever made money-wise was like records, records, records, records, records, records, records.
ZC: Where do you think hip-hop is now?
It’s honestly just, like, having fun. I mean, they look a little weird, but I don’t want to be that old guy that’s like, “Yeah, music these days sucks.” Commercial music and pop music has always been the same to me. It’s always been shit. It’s always been for the masses. But these days, at least it’s a little catchier. Even as an older person, I appreciate Drake.
CP: So what are you going to do next?
I don’t know what’s next, honestly. I think these days I’m just living by the opportunity, and if something presents itself, that’s awesome. I just take it, you know, as it comes.