After training at Daniel and Masa, chef Hooni Kim opened two of his own New York City spots, including Danji, the first Korean restaurant to earn a Michelin star. His cookbook, My Korea, has earned numerous accolades since its April 2020 release.
So it may be surprising that this Seoul-born chef, a leading force in modern Korean cuisine, didn’t really start cooking until culinary school. Or that his career choice wasn’t a direct result of some deep-seated passion. “I became a chef because I knew I was going to be a bad doctor,” Kim says.
Medical school was the plan for Kim, who has spent most of his life in Manhattan since moving there with his mother at age 10, following a short time in London. But growing up surrounded by the city’s rich food culture, he was subconsciously being pulled in another direction. “I went out to eat so much,” Kim says. “I fell in love with the restaurant scene.”
He explored everything from pizzerias to shish kabob stands, and recalls a particularly formative meal at chef Charlie Palmer’s now-closed Aureole in high school, his first fine-dining experience. “I love musicals, and it really was theater: The elegance of the servers, the routine of even just the showing of the menu was very dramatic.”
A robust restaurant scene also drew him to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue his medical degree at the University of California at Berkeley, where he picked up a part-time job just to have enough money for dining out. About two years in, once it clicked that a career change was in order—“I hated hospitals; every day I was trying to figure out a way to shorten my shifts”—he returned to the East Coast and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute.
Kim didn’t draw much culinary influence from his mother, a fashion businesswoman whose idea of making dinner was picking up takeout. But on his path toward becoming a chef, Kim unlocked memories of his biggest influence of all: The summers he spent enjoying his grandmother’s food in Korea as a very young child in the 1970s, starting at age 4. “I had completely forgotten about that whole experience until after I started cooking.”
His grandparents lived on a small island with a single store that mostly sold ramen and alcohol, so farming was, out of necessity, part of the culture. Also, in post-war Korea, greater emphasis was placed on vegetarian, nutrient-dense meals. “[In Korea] they’re a lot more conscious about where certain things came from, how it was raised,” Kim says. “And as a chef, I know all of that does translate into flavor as well.”
What stuck with him most was the foundational use of jangs, Korean fermented bean pastes or sauces (doenjang and gochujang, for example). Kim says traditional Korean jangs lend fermented flavors unlike those in any other cuisine, partly because they are naturally fermented—meaning the probiotics spontaneously kick off and grow during the fermentation process rather than being added. “Like with wine, no one bottle really tastes like another because there’s so many different variations, and it’s alive.” This also means the funky aromas are much more intense and complex.
Due to globalization and industrialization, it’s now hard to find naturally made jangs in restaurants, even in Korea. And outside of Korea, Kim has found that the very thing that makes this cuisine distinct is often further muted. “The practice of a lot of restaurants and chefs, in the U.S. especially, has been trying to neutralize those very aggressive aromas and flavors, and I felt like that defeats the whole purpose,” Kim says. “I want people to like Korean food because of that funk.”
Sourcing natural jangs became the basis of his restaurants and the driving mission for Kim, who characterizes his style of cooking as embracing those unapologetically bold and funky flavors. While it’s still in the planning stages, his next restaurant, slated to open in December, will be completely centered on fermentation. And though it will be an upscale concept, Kim notes that Korean cuisine didn’t evolve in white-tablecloth dining rooms. “It wasn’t chefs who really built or helped the cuisine grow, it was the moms and the grandmothers cooking for their family.” To this day, the best meals he's experienced in Korea have been in family homes.
For Mother’s Day, Kim shares a recipe that celebrates the taste memories of his early childhood and the produce-driven nature of Korean cooking: Savory scallion pancakes (pajeon) with vinegary dipping sauce. “It’s very springy—there’s that acid and the sweet scallions, the freshness, the green, but it’s also balanced by a little bit of earthiness from the doenjang, a little bit of funkiness.” It’s not uncommon to find scallion pancakes on the menu at Asian restaurants, but Kim says this version stands apart. Rather than the typical, more pizza-like construction with a base of doughy crust and the other ingredients on top, Kim’s has “just enough batter to hold those scallions together.”
Scallions are the unequivocal star, and spring is the ideal time to spotlight them. “They’re cheap, they’re sweet and the more local, the better,” Kim says. He notes that the batter is a versatile canvas that would work with many other seasonal vegetables as well, from peppers to asparagus, “as long as it’s not too leafy or woody.” For seafood pancakes (hamul pajeon), rather than vegetarian ones, simply mix 6 ounces of bite-sized pieces of raw squid or shrimp into the batter.
The batter can be made up to two days in advance, but once the pancakes are cooked, Kim says to eat them as soon as possible—with individual bowls of sauce to allow for double dipping. “Maybe have people gather around your kitchen and, as soon as it’s cooked, cut it and share it, because the texture does start to soften up pretty quick because the scallions have so much moisture,” he says. “It’s delicious even when it’s 30 minutes old, but it’s so much better and crispier when it’s straight out of the pan.”
He recommends serving this with a “natural” wine to complement the fermented flavors, and a sparkling wine to cut through the fat from the pan-fry. “It really pairs well together. It’s not the Korean food completely dominating over a particular wine because you’re getting funk from both ways.” Plus, the philosophy behind natural winemaking, with the goal of avoiding additives, echoes the ethos of his cooking.
For a Champagne pick he says was “just amazing,” go with Ruppert-Leroy 11,12,13… Brut Nature. Or for a non-Champagne natural sparkler from elsewhere in France, Domaine des Marnes Blanches Crémant du Jura. “It had just enough good funk and vanilla and caramel that really worked well, not just with the doenjang, but with the sweetness of the scallions.” Below, Wine Spectator recommends nine other recently rated sparkling wines from Spain, Australia, France and beyond (including a Champagne), that are suited for the springtime feast.
Excerpted from My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes. Copyright (c) 2020 by Hooni Kim. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 6 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean red chili flakes)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Use immediately, or store for up to 2 weeks in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Shake or stir well before using. Makes 1 cup.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups ice-cold club soda
- 1 medium egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 3 bunches scallions, cut into 2-inch batons (if the scallions are thick, cut the white parts lengthwise in half before cutting into batons)
- About 5 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil for frying
1. To make the batter, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, sugar, doenjang and pepper in a medium bowl and mix well to blend. Add the club soda, egg yolk, and garlic and mix gently using a whisk. Do not whisk too much, or extra gluten will form in the batter, making it too thick and doughy. Whisk about 10 times, then let the batter rest for 10 minutes in the freezer so any remaining small clumps of flour can dissolve and blend into the mixture by themselves.
2. When you’re ready to make the pancakes, line a sheet pan with paper towels and set aside. Fold the scallions into the cold batter.
3. Set a 10-inch nonstick sauté pan over high heat and add about 1 tablespoon of the oil. When the oil begins to shimmer and just barely smoke, add 1 cup of the scallion batter to the center of the pan. Using a spatula, spread it out to form a 7-inch pancake. (You don’t want the pancake to touch the sides of the pan, or the edges may burn before the center is cooked through.) Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the bottom of the pancake has set.
4. Once it has set, gently slide your spatula under the edges of the pancake and lift them, tilting the pan, so some of the hot oil runs underneath the pancake. Then cook for 2 to 3 minutes more, until the bottom is a deep golden brown and crisp. You can check the color by gently lifting an edge of the pancake with your spatula. Flip the pancake and cook on the other side for 3 to 4 minutes, until it is golden brown on the second side and cooked through.
5. Transfer to the prepared sheet pan to drain. Wipe out the pan, set it back over high heat, add another tablespoon or so of oil, and repeat until all of the pancakes are cooked. The finished pancakes can be kept in a low (200° F) oven on a clean sheet pan while you cook the remaining batches, but it’s best to eat them right away. Cut each pancake into quarters and serve with small bowls of the sauce. Makes 4 or 5 pancakes.
9 Spring-Suited International Bubblies
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
Brut Carneros 2016
Score: 93 | $33
WS review: Vibrant and refined, with elegantly rich Asian pear, brioche and strawberry blossom accents that take on polish and richness on the lingering finish. Drink now through 2022. 30,660 cases made. From California.—Tim Fish
Brut Rosé Anderson Valley NV
Score: 91 | $32
WS review: Vibrant and festive, featuring bright rose petal, cherry and spice flavors, finishing on a snappy, refreshing note. Drink now. 11,000 cases made. From California.—T.F.
Brut Franciacorta '61 NV
Score: 90 | $32
WS review: A rich and creamy Franciacorta that remains fresh and graceful thanks to a backbone of mouthwatering acidity. Offers a crowd-pleasing mix of baked melon, lemon-infused pastry cream, chopped hazelnut and candied ginger. Drink now through 2023. 80,000 cases made. From Italy.—Alison Napjus
Premium Cuvée Pipers River Tasmania NV
Score: 90 | $27
WS review: Succulent, with a thread of saline that mingles with plump notes of lemon curd, tangerine and melon, showing some richness. Finishes crisp, with fresh acidity. Drink now. 5,000 cases made. From Australia.—MaryAnn Worobiec
JOSEP MARIA RAVENTÓS I BLANC
Brut Blanc de Blancs Vino Espumoso 2017
Score: 90 | $25
WS review: A sleek, finely knit sparkling wine, with a backbone of mouthwatering acidity and a delicate mousse carrying flavors of crunchy green pear, salted almond and dried white cherry. A touch of briny mineral chimes in on the finish. Disgorged January 2020. Drink now through 2023. 30,000 cases made. From Spain.—A.N.
Brut Rosé Trento 2014
Score: 89 | $20
WS review: A lively rosé, with a delicate though energetic mousse carrying flavors of black currant, apricot and blanched almond, with hints of grated ginger and oyster shell. Fresh finish. Drink now. 2,500 cases imported. From Italy.—A.N.
Brut Champagne Carte Blanche NV
Score: 88 | $35
WS review: A crisp Champagne, with a salty, minerally underpinning to the flavors of crunchy pear, white peach, lemon pith and spring blossom. The firm, chalk-tinged finish is moderate in length. Drink now. 8,000 cases made. From France.—A.N.
Brut Rosé Franciacorta NV
Score: 88 | $25
WS review: Fresh and balanced, this lively Franciacorta rosé displays hints of blanched almond, dried white cherry and pink grapefruit pith. Clean-cut and minerally on the finish. Drink now. 22,500 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.
RUGGERI & C.
Brut Prosecco Treviso Argeo NV
Score: 88 | $15
WS review: Fresh and fragrant, with aromas and flavors of crushed nectarine, star fruit, ground ginger and wet stone set in a well-balanced and lively frame. Drink now. 40,000 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.