A Korean Chef Refines Traditions for Fine Diners

Miyeok guk (Photo courtesy of Café Boulud)

On a recent night at a classic restaurant in a neighborhood of Manhattan lined with Beaux-Arts style limestone townhouses, a well-groomed server carefully poured a porcelain tea kettle of hot broth into a ceramic bowl. As steam rose, tangled sea vegetables such as green wakame, kelp and sea moss mingled gently in the bowl.

“It’s seaweed soup,” the server proudly explained. “It’s made from dried seaweed, assorted sea vegetables, mussels and sesame oil to add flavor to the broth. We also add shaved raw beef wagyu!” And at that moment, one could see the hot broth begin to brown the thinly sliced raw beef, cooking it in the bowl.

The dish is a fine dining makeover of miyeok guk, the traditional Korean soup, at Café Boulud, a one Michelin star-rated, classic French restaurant on East 76th Street in Manhattan, prominent chef Daniel Boulud’s first restaurant location in New York City. Though the restaurant has a reputation for high-end, classically cooked French cuisine, its chefs often surprise patrons with inventive and eclectic non-French dishes, such as miyeok guk.

For lunch and dinner, the menu includes La Tradition (French classics), La Saison (seasonal), and Le Potager (vegetables) and the special of the day. The last menu, Le Voyage, is devoted to non-French cuisine from all over the world, borrowing authentic recipes from chefs of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. And it just so happens that a recent Le Voyage menu was made up of Korean cuisine.

As more and more Korean cooks began to join the kitchen at the restaurant – from Korean-born individuals to Korean-Americans to Korean adoptees – Aaron Bludorn, executive chef, wanted to open the kitchen to the Korean cooks in hopes of bringing their motherland’s cuisine to tables.

“It’s so different than anything you might see in French cuisine,” said Bludorn, who fell in love with Korean food while hanging out with his fellow cooks in Koreatown for late night food. “The flavors are so bold; the techniques are so sound. I love the idea of communal cuisine where everyone is centered around the meal and conversation is abundant as every participant enjoys the food. Korean food has such a hospitable nature to it. I couldn’t help myself to want to tell that story at the tables at Café Boulud.”

Unlike many modern Korean restaurants in New York City, where traditional Korean dishes are often transformed with western flavors, Bludorn had one principle for the Korean Le Voyage menu: to translate Korean peasant dishes into elegant, Café Boulud styles while preserving authentic flavors.

Executive chef Aaron Bludorn (second from left), Kiran Kim, chef de tournant (center), and other chefs and cooks in the kitchen of Café Boulud. (Photo by Joeun Lee for Voices of NY)

In the kitchen, Kiran Kim, 35, chef de tournant at Café Boulud, was a gatekeeper to the traditional flavors of Korean dishes. When Bludorn first brought up the idea of having a Korean Le Voyage menu, Kim, as the most trained Korean chef at the restaurant, naturally took on the job of making sure that the dishes achieved a high standard of quality but didn’t stray too far from the original flavors of the motherland that she left nearly seven years ago.

For her fellow cooks, Kim was the sole source for secret recipes of Korean foods that they have been curious about, such as makgalbijjim, the Korean beef stew showcased in the Korean Le Voyage menu. (The dish’s savory taste came from braising beef in soy sauce and boiling down onions, carrots, pears, apples and dates.)

Making kimchi soup

“Our jobs in the kitchen normally end after midnight, so Koreatown at 32nd Street is the perfect place for chefs like us to go for late night food because many Korean restaurants are open until 4 am!” said Kim. “By nature, as chefs, they start to wonder how to make Korean foods they try there. But, the recipes often remain mysterious because many recipes are not discovered through Korean cookbooks.”

She joined the kitchen at Café Boulud about three years ago upon graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Citing the kitchen’s uniqueness, in that chefs are always encouraged to regularly create their own specials and dinner menus, an instructor at the culinary school recommended that she try her hand working at the restaurant. Although it’s normal that many recent graduates from a culinary school often end up working at high-end restaurants like Café Boulud (since chef jobs are in demand in the city), Kim’s resume with varied experiences in food styling, coloring, and nutrition back in Korea, caught the eye of the head chef, which made her a more competitive candidate at Café Boulud.

One day, only six months after joining the kitchen, she felt the moment was right and suggested making kimchi soup for her special menu, a bold idea at a restaurant where patrons are not used to spicy flavors. But, nevertheless, the next day, 30 batches of napa cabbages were delivered to the kitchen. “Try it,” Bludorn said to her, referring to kimchi soup. She said, “yes, chef!”

Filled with excitement about her first trial of making a Korean dish in the kitchen, she shopped for secret ingredients, such as red chili pepper powder and fermented shrimp, to make kimchi, at Hmart, a Korean grocery market in Koreatown, where she used to shop only to prepare her own meals before then.

After brewing the kimchi soup, the tiny red chili pepper powder flakes and roasted shrimp shells were filtered out, leaving kombucha, bean sprouts and mushrooms in a rich broth, and the Café Boulud version of kimchi soup was born; a clear but savory soup garnished with colorful spring vegetables. Its appeal was rewarding. One of the chefs noted that an elderly Caucasian patron regularly visited the restaurant to take out the kimchi soup for lunch. It was the biggest compliment from customers, she said.

Since then, she was awarded with a proud, informal nametag from her fellow cooks, “a lady making kimchi at a French restaurant.” She became more confident in reinterpreting a Korean dish into a Café Boulud dish.

A grandmother’s influence

Kim was born and grew up in a bustling part of Seoul in South Korea. It was her grandmother who first introduced her to the Korean culinary world.

Her family’s two-story house, where she lived with her grandmother and parents, was well-known in the neighborhood not only for its traditional architecture, but also for the yard full of big clay jars that her grandmother attended to. The jars, as big as Kim was when she was a little girl, were each filled with her grandmother’s homemade fermented foods – from kimchi to fermented soybean paste called doenjang to fermented red chili paste, gochujang. The yard was like her grandmother’s treasure chest, and for Kim, it was where her first culinary training took place.

In addition to learning the science of fermentation, the core of the Korean culinary culture, she learned two principles by watching over her grandmother’s shoulder: First, that burying jars of fermented vegetables underground is the best way to keep them at a steady temperature, and second, that there is no better way of cooking than to do it with all your heart.

The path to becoming a chef was not always straightforward for Kim, however. After her grandmother contracted diabetes, she dreamed of becoming a nutritionist to cure her grandmother’s ailments. There was little she could do, however, as her grandmother passed away from diabetes when Kim was just 17 years old.

After studying nutrition in college and acquiring numerous certifications in cooking and coloring in Korea, Kim took a turn as a food stylist who made food “look more delicious and healthier” in commercials even if the food, in fact, was made with unhealthy ingredients. She always had a thirst, however, for making “real foods made out of honest and healthy ingredients” with the craftsmanship her grandmother had taught her.

She eventually quit her food stylist job in Seoul after almost six years, and alone and in her 30s, without a family of her own, decided to move to the U.S., surprising both family and friends. “I merely wanted to start a new chapter of my life far away from home in Korea,” she recalled. At that time she had no relatives or friends in the United States but thought she might want to study nutrition and food science here.

After nearly three years of what she would later consider preparation for her true quest, (her time included researching culinary history, taking English and art classes, and debating whether to enroll in graduate school for nutrition), she ultimately went to the culinary school with a dream of becoming a chef.

A “Little Korea” at home

Kim now lives on the Upper East Side, which she shares with her Korean-American roommate, Jackie, who was born in Brooklyn. She met Jackie at Café Boulud when Jackie worked as a sommelier. Although Jackie now works at Jungsik, a modern Korean-American restaurant in Manhattan, they maintain a family-like relationship bonded by Korean foods and dining culture – shopping at Hmart (Kim usually shops at two grocery stores at once – Hmart for Korean ingredients and Whole Foods or Fairway Market for fresh vegetables and meats); cooking Korean traditional meals together such as soybean paste soup, rice, and kimchi; and having a meal sitting on the floor on a low, traditional Korean meal table.

Makgalbijjim (Photo courtesy of Café Boulud)

“Jackie learned Korean culture through her parents who immigrated while I learned by growing up with it,” said Kim. “But, surprisingly, she loves Korean culture or some products, which I think are outdated, more so than I do, so I’m confused sometimes: Who’s from Korea?! Our apartment is like Little Korea.”

“Wherever I go in my life, there always seems to be Korean food around me on every level,” said Kim. “My childhood dream was made through Korean food; I made new friends in the States by making Korean food for them; Korean food anchored me in New York while it enabled me to dream more.”

Kim’s love affair with Korean food hasn’t ended. From modernizing Korean fermentation techniques to translating a Korean traditional medicine-inspired dish into a modern livelihood, she has more to explore in New York. In her mind, she didn’t just want to be a chef; she wanted to break the bounds of Korean culinary tradition.

“People in Korea and overseas talk a lot about the globalization of Korean cuisine, but, I think globalizing it shouldn’t be confused with just promoting it,” she said. “Adapting it in a refined way according to modern culinary culture while preserving the authenticity of the dish should be prioritized, and this process should take hundreds of recipes just like it did when we were creating the Café Boulud Korean dishes.”

The Korean Le Voyage menu at Café Boulud ended, and New Orleans cuisine and Lebanese cuisines were introduced in its place, respectively. But, Kim’s quest for translating her motherland’s cuisine continues.

Recently, as Bludorn suggested, she made kimchi by using seasonal, spring ramp to integrate with an upcoming special menu; and by using brussels sprouts, which are not typical Korean ingredients. Applying leftover vegetables to kimchi or pickles became another routine for Kim, and they are often used as vital sources to create new dishes, especially as cold appetizers.

In her apartment, she prepared a simple meal for her and her roommate: doenjang guk, Korean soybean paste soup, a bowl of brown rice, pickled garlic, and kimchi. “A perfect meal for me,” she said. “Too bad I once failed at making doenjang here.” She hopes one day to keep jars of fermented vegetables in her apartment, her own personal supply, cultivated by her. “Like my grandmother’s secret garden,” she said. “Full of the craftsman’s spirit.”

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