Korean BBQ | Bill Kim
Master Your Grill In Seven Sauces
By Bill Kim with Chandra Kim
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Bill Kim: Bill Kim from Chicago. Own two restaurants called Urban Belly and BellyQ, and we have a cookbook called "Korean Barbecue Master Your Grill in Seven Sauces".
Suzy Chase: You were born in Korea and raised in the Midwest, now how hold were you when you moved to Chicago?
Bill Kim: I was seven years old.
Suzy Chase: I would love it if you could describe your first day of school.
Bill Kim: Oh my God, traumatic. That's the first word that comes out.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Bill Kim: It wasn't even a first day of school, it was my very first day was I ditched and I didn't even know what that meant because I was so horrified to go to a new school or just even an American school. I'd convinced my brother who was I believe he was six. We took a year off so we started at eight and he was seven and I was like, "Let's not go. Let's go hide in the alley," and there was like almost like a basement that we could walk down and we hid there. What happened was the whole school was looking for us.
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh.
Bill Kim: My mom did not know where we were. I've never done that in my entire life. I was so horrified because I was no longer with my parents. We were going into a strange situation and we didn't speak the language and that's the first reaction I had, "Let's go hide. Let's not go." That was my very first day of school.
Suzy Chase: Reading in the book about how difficult the transition was for you, I kept thinking about how hard it must've been for your parents.
Bill Kim: Yeah, my parents just moved here because they wanted a better life for us. I didn't know what that meant for us being so young but they had to give up a lot. My mom had part of her family here but a lot of her family in Korea and my dad had all of his family there. For some reason, that they felt compelled to drop everything and give us an opportunity and it really was an opportunity for us because in Korea, there were three or four major universities and if you did not get into those places, you could not move up in the world. The American dream is you work hard, you achieve, and you become successful. It doesn't work like that in the majority of the world where you work hard, if you're not educated and you don't reach a certain class, you stay there no matter how hard you work.
For my parents to come here and take that chance, take that opportunity and give us a chance to succeed. I lived the American dream. I worked hard, I didn't speak the language and I love what I do and I have a choice and that was important to them to give us a choice to do what we wanted to do.
Suzy Chase: When you cooked at home growing up, your food was Korean with American touches. What were some of the American touches?
Bill Kim: We would do fried rice with hot dog and kimchi. That was my mom's way, her way of kind of giving us some kind of protein, if you call that a protein, which I love to this day. She would also take Spam and batter it like an egg wash and kind of toast it and saute it and give it to us in that way. We would, believe it or not, and this is not combining any cultures, my mom used to love making lasagna. I don't know why, but we would eat lasagna for days.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Bill Kim: She would make big pans and we would put it in the freezer and we would take it out. That was one of our things, she made lasagna. I don't know where she learned the recipe but we would always have lasagna in our freezer.
Suzy Chase: It had to have been a neighbor?
Bill Kim: We had an American family next to us and we had an Italian neighbor next to us and two of my friends growing up, one was like hardcore Italian and another was a Southside Irish person. I would go to their house and I would pick days, because I knew Friday, my friend Joe McDermott's parents who were both police officers, and I knew every Friday was pizza day. I was like, "Awesome." We, in our household, was whatever's left over, we're going to eat. There was no menu. There was no planning. It's like, "Hey, we have a lot of this and we have to use it," or it would go to waste, which was never happening in our house but Friday, I was always at Joe's house and Wednesday was spaghetti day at my friend Tony's house. I knew those two days, I knew what I was going to get.
At my household, never knew what we were going to get. It was probably leftovers from two days before, but you would never find me at our house on Fridays because I would go at Joe's house.
Suzy Chase: That's hilarious.
Bill Kim: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: Then your junior year of high school, you went to a college night at the local junior college and that's when it all came into focus. What happened when you told your folks that you wanted to attend culinary school?
Bill Kim: I thought my parents' reaction, I thought it was going to be like, "What are you thinking," because nobody in our family, no friends, nobody I looked up to never did anything like this. My parents are, "If you want to do this, you got to study hard and you got to do this." I was kind of like, "Okay." I thought I was kind of living a dream because my parents said, "Go do it. If you're going to do it, you got to put everything into it and put your heart into what you do and you got to love what you do." I'm just like, "Okay, I'm going to try this," and I'm not, back then I wasn't a risk-taker so in order for me to go to this school, I found the cheapest way possible, which was to go through a junior college.
I loved it because I just have to kind of memorize recipes. There is this cookbook to this day, and it's like torn apart, it's got tape on it, it's called Wayne Gisslen of Professional Cooking I read that cook book from one to 128 pages. You know what those were? They were the mother sauces and it really made an impact and really, it was the starting point for this book because that's how I learned how to cook. That really made it easy for me because it put it into focus of five mother sauces that you had to remember. From there, you get derivatives of these sauces, I'm psyched. "Wow. I just have to remember five, then I can remember 85?" I just kept on putting that into my career. That's how we cook at the restaurant, that's how I teach people how to cook. I'm just like, "Why can't we put it in book form?"
Suzy Chase: As a home cook, I find Korean sauces baffling and it made me feel so much better to know that even Daniel Boulud called Korean sauces mystifying.
Bill Kim: Yes.
Suzy Chase: You do, you describe the Korean sauces like the French mother sauces. Describe some of the Korean sauces.
Bill Kim: Sure, like I think one of the very basic and pronounced is like the Korean barbecue sauce. It's predicated on sweet, tangy, but it's multi-purpose, right? You also have a thing as a tenderizer, which is fruit is used a lot in Korean cuisine. Either Asian pears or apples, or sometimes to kind of tenderize the meat, because there's enzymes that kind of break down the meat, there's kiwi used, or a soda, things like that because in Korea there's not a lot of pasture land, so a lot of the meat that I grew up eating as a kid was usually a tendon or a big hunk of meat that needed to be braised or marinated to break down the toughness.
When we talk about Korean sauces, these are some of the earthy, the gingery, the garlicky, some spice but it's not always spicy. It's really earthy flavors that really haunt you and having those tastes linger throughout after you have eaten it, and it's really, it's whole-flavored. That's what Korean cuisine and using some of those ingredients gets you.
Suzy Chase: After culinary school, you met a game-changer in your life, Charlie Trotter. Talk a little bit about that.
Bill Kim: I had this bright idea that I wanted to travel, which I certainly did, but I'd moved to Atlanta. The day of my graduation, me and my brother drove to Atlanta to work for a French chef, whose name is John Banchet. Pretty well-known in Chicago. He used to own a restaurant called La Francaise, and that's where a lot of the chefs trained in Chicago and had work and passed through to get their training. I also wanted to go to Atlanta because the Olympics were happening back then. I'd lasted a year, and I was so homesick. I came to Chicago back and I had these contacts, I'd talked to these chefs and basically asked them, "Hey, if you were me, young and only wanted to focus on just cooking. Didn't matter how much I was getting paid, I just want to be a sponge. I wanted to work with the best."
I talked to three chefs. They all pointed to the same restaurant, and it was Charlie Trotter on 816 West Armitage.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, I remember that.
Bill Kim: Yeah, and I'm just like, "What is he doing or what is he not doing that makes everybody point at the right direction," and when I got there, my mind was blown. We were doing like fresh crab from Maine, using Maine [inaudible 00:11:49] and crushed water chestnuts. I mean I was used to making crab cakes, heavy butter sauces, and here we are doing something totally foreign to me, and I'm just like, "I'm going to eat this up, and I'm going to take this opportunity and I'm going to ride it 'til I fall off." The thing that I'd learned beyond cooking, and still to this day that I have learned, was being part of a community, which means giving back. That has taught me and molded me to who I believe that I believe when I became a chef to be able to say, "Charlie, yes, he taught me about cooking, but he really taught me about giving and giving back." That was the lesson that I took away.
To this day, I give back and give back to the next generation and also give it to people who need it and give them an opportunity to grow and that's a very important lesson that I took away and honestly, with all the chefs that I respect that I work for, they couldn't even come close. All together, they couldn't come close to what Charlie did for the community and people who needed help that he would reach out and lend a hand. That was a very important lesson that has molded me and grounded me to this day.
Suzy Chase: You wrote about your time with Charlie, "I never got to meet the customers and missed the feeling of taking care of people by feeding them." Do you think you had to do the French food thing to realize that really where you wanted to be and where you felt comfortable was at a less formal restaurant that paired your Korean heritage with your Chicago upbringing?
Bill Kim: I wanted, it's partly true, I wanted to never look back on my career. What that meant was I had to work for the best, no matter what, and I had to start with a classic foundation of cooking that I really wanted to learn, because if I went straight to Asian food, I would always wonder what it felt like to do something classical. I have to get these things out of my system. What I've learned when I was working in fine dining, I did meet some of Charlie's customers and I know them. They were so elevating in what they did and how they did it, and I was just like, "Wow," I never know what a CO of a company does. I've always wondered about it, but the only thing we had in common was food.
That was okay for a time, but I wanted to know about people's [inaudible 00:14:47]. I wanted to know about how these people met. The only way you get to do that is sit down and you get to really talk to people, know them, and as our restaurants got casual and we got to meet people, like you hear the stories, and to me, that is the essential part of a restaurant that you connect with your customers and get to know them. I've seen so many babies that once somebody has dated, gotten married, some of them at our restaurant, and ha their first kid and they have their first bite of [inaudible 00:15:31] at our restaurant. That is something that stays with you, and you're like, "Wow."
You don't really see that at the high-end restaurants. You see it, you celebrate it and it might come once a year, but I see some of these people that are our customer, our supporter, and many ways our restaurant family and we see them twice a week and we're right by a preschool, I see a same girl, I think she's probably like five years old and she came up to me and was like, "Oh, I love your restaurant." A five year old, come up to you and say that, you're just like, "Wow, that is connecting in a whole different level." I see her every Friday, and I'm going to see her today and I know what she's going to have and we usually give her a little soft serve ice cream when she's done and you know, until she finishes preschool, I know she's going to come back every Friday. I know what time she's going to come. I know the parents are going to come.
That kind of emotional connection, it's different, it's on a different level than a lot of the high-end restaurants.
Suzy Chase: It's funny because at the beginning of our chat, you said that you didn't think of yourself as a risk-taker but I definitely think you're a risk-taker.
Bill Kim: Now I am, but when I was a kid, it was so important for me to give back to my parents what they had given to me. I'm looking at how my parents took the chance to come here and I didn't want to take a chance and not be successful so I just put my head down and went, picked up as many cook books as possible for me to work endless hours and I just did what I was shown. They were the example of, if you want to talk about work ethic, 35 years, six days a week washing people's clothes, it's very humbling to see them do what they didn't want to do but they did it for us. It was very important for me, I had a choice, they didn't. In order for me to not succeed, I'd have been a failure, but I said, "There's no way in hell, I grew up here, I speak the language, I got educated here, I'm going to make it happen. No matter what."
With that knowledge, with that example of them doing what they did, yeah, I'm going to take a risk, I'm going to go. Obviously, part of that risk was my wife that basically what she said to me when we opened up our very first place with no investors, she was like, "You know, we're going to do this together, and we're going to jump off the cliff together." She's of Puerto Rican descent, a very strong-willed lady and we did it together and that was also very important for me. She is the risk-taker, I'm the risk-taker passenger and she's really kind of made me come out of my shell. She is a strong lady that I love dearly and she's part of our success.
Suzy Chase: She was the first female captain at the legendary Daniel restaurant here in New York City, right?
Bill Kim: Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzy Chase: I mean that is incredible.
Bill Kim: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: Talk about how you've blended culinary cultures together?
Bill Kim: Yeah, I mean I think it was just natural. I think there was that same moment when we started putting things together was, I asked this question 1993 to a French chef that I worked for, and I said, "If you go out to a Vietnamese restaurant, how does that influence your food, chef?" He kind of laughed in my face and said, "Hahaha, I am French, why would I put anything else in French?" I light bulb came out and there was another incident where another French restaurant I used to work at, and a chef gave me lemongrass. I was like, "What do I do with this?" I'm just like, "I don't know nothing about lemongrass because I'm not Thai or Vietnamese. I'm not Southeast Asian, I'm Korean. I could've got mad at that but I'm just like, "Man, I should know what this is and I'm going to know everything what this lemongrass is made with and I'm going to be the guy who knows how to use this more than anybody else in the kitchen."
That was the opening that I needed. That was the push that I needed to find out what I could learn doing research and knowing other ingredients from other parts of the world because not a lot of people are open-minded, so I started seeking out all different types of cuisine and learning the techniques and almost interchanging ingredients, which meant example, water chestnuts is used in Asia all throughout and farm fresh. Here, it's used a lot of times, used canned and it's not even close to what the fresh water chestnut tastes like but what can we find an ingredient that kind of is similar. Then we started to do research, [inaudible 00:21:09] was the perfect example of that.
As I got to know my wife's culture, eating plantains, tostones, in Puerto Rican culture, the tostones, or tubers or anything like that is used instead of potato and the plantain is used like a bread in a sandwich. I'm just like, "Wow, that is so crazy that it's right in my face," and we opened up a restaurant called Belly Shack and it was a love story told through food and we did what's called a jibarito sandwich which it was just basically pressed plantain sandwich with Korean barbecue and like sticky brown rice and that started it.
I wanted to kind of express my love for my wife through food and Belly Shack was the restaurant and those memories, those dishes, is still in part in our current restaurants and we are doing what's called the mofongo but it's boiled plantains and in the Puerto Rican culture, they actually take bananas and fry it but they also add pork skin and lots of garlic so we're going to lighten it up by adding, we're going to boil the plantains, we're going to add like tofu in there to kind of give it creaminess and we're going to add tortilla for the crunchiness, but we're actually going to season it with one of the mother sauces from the boat, nuoc cham which is light, zesty, tons of flavor, tons of umami, so we're kind of doing that dish take on our version of Asian Latin barbecue.
Suzy Chase: In the cook book, I love the idea of starting out by choosing the sauce or seasoning powder you want to make and then the list of the recipes that it pairs with is right on the same page. That's brilliant.
Bill Kim: I think that really made the book. Really, and a lot of people think that Asian food to be all technique and how do I get all these ingredients and once I'm done and this is the most important part, once I'm done, what do I do with all these sauces that I have two cups of or these bottle sauces that I could only buy in 32 ounces? I thought about that because I cook at home and I do it professionally, I just don't like having a lot of condiments all over. Why can't you have some of these master sauces prepared in the freezer or refrigerator and use it maybe in your hummus, which I have in my refrigerator every single day. Sometimes I just don't want to have the taste of beans and garlic. Maybe I'll add a little bit of Korean pesto and kind of liven it up.
Then we could also, if you're making canned soup or chicken broth or whatever, why can't we add two tablespoons of the pesto in our broth? You want to have pasta salad? Okay, there you go. It was using these mother sauces being multi-purpose and also being part of your daily life and this keeps on giving you kind of the guidelines how to do that with the matrices that's in the book where you have the leftovers and you're adding and subtracting, you're having the mother sauces and having the map of these mother sauces in the front with the recipes that accompany that and also in the back that you don't have to go back to, it's like seven different pages. It's right there.
Really, really we focused on the end users, and how they like to cook, and how you could use this as a template for your cooking. My purpose was to have the book, the binder be broken because you're using it so often.
Suzy Chase: Over the weekend, I made a few of the recipes out of this cookbook. First, was your Corican sauce on page 41, incredible. How did this sauce come about?
Bill Kim: I asked my mother-in-law, because my wife does not cook. She's a critic but she does not cook. My mother-in-law's a great cook and she's actually, I dedicated a recipe to her but she makes this like sauce, we have it for Thanksgiving all the time. She's calls it lechon turkey, it's a lechon-style, which just means lechon is a pork but it's usually that lechon is marinated in vinegar, oregano, garlic. Obviously, we have to put our kind of take on it but we ass a little curry powder to make it a little bit different but I've never used vinegar prior to meeting my wife in a marinade, because that's going to be too overpowering, it's going to make things sour, but honestly, like it brings the proteins alive. It also makes it juicy and the penetration with the vinegar through the marinade, it's just tasty. I could even taste it in my mouth right now.
It's so easy. It asks for things that you probably have. I have oregano in my pantry all the time. I have garlic powder, oregano, we always have vinegar, and we always have olive oil so I'm already there.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, so then, I marinated the pork chops, your Ko Rican pork chop recipe from page 85 and I marinated it all day.
Bill Kim: That's right.
Suzy Chase: I also made your nuoc cham sauce, is that how you pronounce it?
Bill Kim: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.
Suzy Chase: From page 43 and I drizzled that over the pork chop and that was amazing. Those Thai chilies really gave it some heat.
Bill Kim: Okay, yeah. Then you know what you could also do? Prior to it, you can take some of the marinade before you put it in the meat, and the nuoc cham, then get whole bunch of cilantro or parsley and you could put that in the food processor and you have your chimichurri also.
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh.
Bill Kim: Yeah, so if you have some left ...
Suzy Chase: I do.
Bill Kim: ... That's what you could do. All right, you gotta do it.
Suzy Chase: I also made your kimchi potato salad from page 174, which was crazy. I've never eaten potato salad like that and I think every Korean barbecue place should have this potato salad instead of the regular mayo one.
Bill Kim: Oh my God, that is my complaint. I'm like, "Where did people learn how to make potato salad with mayonnaise?"
Suzy Chase: From my mom haha.
Bill Kim: Why? You have this beautiful kimchi at your restaurant that you make and you guys are already doing potatoes so why, that's the thing that drives me crazy because everything is there to do the kimchi potato salad, right?
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Bill Kim: Everything's there in a Korean kitchen or Korean restaurant. Why does it have to be mayonnaise paste potato salad? I don't understand it.
Suzy Chase: I don't get it.
Bill Kim: Maybe after the book comes out, maybe they'll switch to kimchi potato salad.
Suzy Chase: Hopefully the word will get out. Where can we find your restaurants?
Bill Kim: The restaurant, obviously, it's in Chicago. BellyQ and Urban Belly is in the same building, 1400 West Randolph, then we have another Urban Belly, it's in the Wicker Park area of Chicago. Sometimes I pinch myself to see if this is all real and it's very humbling for me to be at this point in my life where I could kind of tell our story through a book and hopefully people who are listening to the podcast that could come and join us and taste a little bit of love story told through food in an urban setting.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on social media?
Bill Kim: I'm on Instagram. It's ChefBillKim, Facebook, BellyQChicago on Facebook and UrbanBellyChicago on Facebook. Same thing for the Instagram, BellyQChicago and UrbanBellyChicago on Instagram.
Suzy Chase: Thank you for telling the story of Korean barbecue your way and thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Bill Kim: Thank you so much, Suzy.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram at CookerybytheBook, Twitter is IAmSuzyChase, and download your Kitchen Mixtapes music to cook by on Spotify at CookerybytheBook and as always, subscribe in Apple podcasts.