Korean chef wins over New Yorkers’ hearts
Danji receives first Michelin star as a Korean restaurant
By Yun Suh-young
His love for Korean food had sublimated into a yearning for its respect overseas. His yearning, at last, turned into reality recently when his restaurant received international recognition ― being given one star by the Michelin Guide.
It was not until Danji got a star last October that a Korean restaurant was placed in the strict and picky annual food guide, and Danji was barely a year-old when it got it.
Following the news, the restaurant’s chef visited Seoul last month. It was not to boast of the good news, but to eat and eat and eat.
“I’m a foodie before a chef,” said Hooni Kim, the chef and owner of Danji. “I love food. I come to Korea once a year every year. Every time I come here, I eat and walk. That’s how my day is filled.”
He eats four to five meals a day while in Seoul. He tries new food but most of the places he visits are places he had been to previously.
“There are some restaurants that make me keep thinking about the food over and over again even when I’m back in New York. Those foods, I have to taste again,” said Kim. Those that leave a deep impression, he tries to make on his own.
When asked whether he remembered the taste, he said, “It’s like taking a picture. For me, flavor profiles are like a picture. That’s how I’ve been able to build the menu at Danji. It won’t be a copy of that dish. As much as I like to mimic Korean food, any dish I make has to be my own. My personality has to come out. So it won’t be exactly the same ― it never is ― but the inspiration is there.”
He tries to bring “the real Korean flavor” to New York.
“I really have the respect for Korean cuisine. We try to use the best and authentic ingredients as possible. We’re not a fusion restaurant. We serve traditional Korean flavors,” said Kim.
Other Korean restaurants in New York try to do the same but fail to attract local diners. What makes New Yorkers tempted to this one is the “atmosphere.” The interior is modern and the food is served in tapas style ― something that can be very foreign for Koreans.
“People may think: where’s the Korean flag? But I didn’t want it to be cliche. I have so much of authentic Korea on my plate that the décor doesn’t have to be Korean. It would be too much to do that,” he said.
The reason why meals are served in small portions is also out of the appreciation for the food’s individual taste.
“The flavors have to be in crescendo which is why our food comes out in order. Koreans aren’t used to it because Korean food comes out all at the same time. But I don’t like everything coming out at the same time because then the tastes get all mixed up. Besides, I want to taste as many things as possible. That’s how people like to eat in New York,” said Kim.
He also charges separately for the side dishes.
“In most of the Korean restaurants, the banchan (side dishes) are all free. But I don’t think that’s fair for both our customers and the people who make it. People wouldn’t want to be charged for something they don’t want to eat and I don’t want the kimchi my mother-in-law makes to be thrown away,” he said.
This chef is a hard-worker. He creates new menus every week.
It could be hard to create something new once a week but Kim said it was “all in his head.”
“I want to excel and push the boundaries,” he said. “Every day, every morning, you build up your steps. You begin at the bottom and work your way up. Every day is a new start.”
What makes him so passionate about work is because he found something he really loves to do.
A former medical school student and a biology major, Hooni Kim initially worked towards becoming a doctor. But his health failed and he took a year off school. During that time, he traveled, ate and went to a cooking school.
He worked for the some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York such as Daniel and Masa and built his career. After three years, it was too late to go back to school and he didn’t even want to.
“I realized cooking was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “There are so many similarities between doctors and chefs. Not only do we also wear gowns, but we wear clogs because we’re standing up all day. We always wash our hands ― same with doctors. We handle knives and get little cuts.”
The difference is that the stress in the kitchen is more positive, he said.
“The stress in the kitchen is good stress because ultimately what you’re doing is making people happy. They come to my restaurant ready to have a good time. In medicine, however, it’s a negative situation because somebody’s there because they’re sick. In a lot of cases you can’t help them. That stress would affect me more,” said Kim.
The hard-working chef was modest about his reputation.
“I think people were interested in how I would interpret Korean food because a lot of Korean restaurants in New York are not chef-owned. I think the Michelin star means that we’re different from other Korean restaurants. But they didn’t tell us why they picked us so I don’t know why we got it and how we got it,” he said. “We can always lose the star but there’s no pressure. I think we can retain the star if we continue doing what we’re doing.”
Danji, without doubt, is blessed with one of the most devoted chefs in the world.