Why Kimchi Is the Ultimate Blank Canvas for Innovative Chefs

A wave of young Korean-American chefs are revolutionizing classic Korean food, and putting their own creative stamp on these dishes, using kimchi as if it were a verb.

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Aug 25 2016, 4:00pm

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.


I paid little attention to the breathless coverage of the July closure of the Four Seasons restaurant, a 57-year-old relic and power lunchroom located in midtown Manhattan. Nothing against reliving memories of Sam Donaldson slicing his Chateaubriand—it just wasn't my thing. But I did read Tejal Rao's final night tick-tock in the New York Times, and something jumped out at me right away. "Kala Sung, a sous-chef from South Korea, prepared a meal of pork ribs, beef bulgogi, and fresh kimchi for the staff to eat after the second seating," observed Rao. Apparently, kimchi had stolen some of owner Julian Niccolini's well-choreographed thunder, which made me intensely happy. But the kimchi Sung made wasn't the kimchi that basically defines all kimchi—fizzy fermented cabbage called baechu kimchi. It was made from peaches that had been found in a corner of the walk-in. Peach kimchi: Talk about the American South kissing South Korea on the lips. It sounded incredible.

From established voices like New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells and Anthony Bourdain, to the pileup of grilled meat imagery on your Instagram feed, it can feel like everybody is on the Korean food train these days. This makes a lot of sense. A cavalry of young Korean-American chefs—previously toiling in the arts of classical European and refined Japanese cuisine—have begun to look inward and serve dishes rich in historical context and traditions rooted in the East Asian peninsula of 75 million people. But instead of simply serving classic Korean staples like kalbi jjim (short ribs braised with soy sauce and orchard fruits) and platters of friend mandu, these chefs are putting their own creative stamp on these dishes, and in the process, opening some of the most original and significant restaurants in the country today. (Check back this fall when I drop a list of 20 of them).

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The interior at Han Oak in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the author.

"I call it the magic sauce." I've phoned Sung a couple weeks after the final service to find out about her peach kimchi. It turns out that the chef, a Culinary Institute of America grad who worked at Gramercy Tavern before a three-year run cooking at the Seagram Building, was a bit of a kimchi savant—she has taught a kimchi 101 class—and kept a stash of her kimchi marinade (the magic sauce) always on hand in the walk-in. "I would kimchi ramps, green mango, king oyster mushrooms, purslane," she says, declaring kimchi the "new sushi." Sung's paste includes traditional kimchi ingredients like gochugaru (finely ground Korean chile flakes), ginger, lots of garlic, and pureed Asian pear. Sometimes she adds dehydrated porcini powder for a punch of umami. And she reserves funky fish sauce and shrimp paste for the cabbage kimchi. "I want my kimchi to have a cleaner flavor," she says of her restraint.

As for the peaches, which she served to a dozen or so staffers along with braised baby back ribs seasoned like the classic Korean stew gamjatang, they were hard (the East Coast is having a particularly shitty peach season), but the flexible chef used the crummy produce to her advantage. "The peaches were like a rock, with the texture of a radish," she recalls. "And after a few days in the walk-in, they were just about perfect."

In Korean households around the globe—from Seoul to Schenectady—kimchi is a sort of religion, like tomatoes in Italy or corn in Mexico. There are over 200 types of kimchi, according to the Kimchi Field Museum, a tour bus stop located in Seoul's Insadong neighborhood. And in Korea, kimchi is made differently in each province, similar to regional barbecue styles in America. So in the mountainous Gangwon-do region bordering the ocean, you'll find kimchis prepared with wild mountain herbs and seafood. In Jeolla-do, spicy ponytail radish is the move. But not all kimchis are spicy, and before the chile pepper was introduced to Korea in the 1600s by Portuguese traders, there was no such heat.

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Gathering at Han Oak. Photo courtesy of the author.

The more I have wrapped my head around the idea of kimchi as a cooking technique, the more I've learned that kimchi is all about trial and error, and that while you can kimchi anything you want, it's just not all going to taste very good all of the time. Peter Cho knows this well. "There's been a lot of failure," says Cho, who worked in New York City, serving as April Bloomfield's director of operations, before moving back home to Portland, Oregon. There was a batch of winter squash last year that didn't work. He tried to make kkakdugi, traditional radish kimchi, substituting kohlrabi for the traditional daikon. It failed.

At his restaurant Han Oak, a weekend-only pop-up in the Kern neighborhood that offers multi-course tasting menus through tickets, he serves a variety of kimchi as the opening "banchan" course. Cho's disparate styles of kimchi, from stuffed cucumber and napa cabbage to scallions, change with the seasons, and he oftentimes pulls things directly out of the earth with kimchi in mind. A bunch of spring onions from his garden ended up a fresh, salad-like kimchi earlier this year. Cho has observed a drastic change in restaurant kimchi over the years. He sees chefs trying to one-up each other with "funkier and funkier" versions, with extreme heat and saltiness. But at Han Oak, Cho's 67-year-old mother is in charge of the kimchi and makes a self-described "old school" style that references his mom's days in Seoul.

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Photo courtesy of the author.

"There is not a lot of salted shrimp and fish sauce, and it ferments for only a couple of days," he says. Cho does ferment some of his kimchi for over a month, and reserves it for cooking. During brunch he serves a waffle shaped with mung bean flour—a riff on the classic bindaeddeok pancake—and folds in the overaged kimchi. "When kimchi is cooked, it loses flavor, so you need the really funky stuff to break through," he says.

RECIPE: Magic Kimchi Paste

While on tour this year to promote Koreatown, the book I wrote with Deuki Hong, we had some fun with kimchi ourselves. As a challenge, at each stop we served a dish called walk-in kimchi, which had Deuki scouring the restaurant's cooler for inspiration like Kala Sung. Sometimes there were failures; a version with shaved Brussels sprouts failed to stick with guests (they left most of it on the plate). But for the most part, kimchis made with potatoes, pineapple, many types of radish, and, yes, grilled peaches were slamming successes. The lesson is: Kimchi is a verb, with many conjugations.