Bringing Socrates into the Kitchen
"I'm not American, I'm Korean. I'm not Korean, I'm American. I'm all of these things and not at the same time and this maturation process extends to the Asian food scene."
Chicagoan Chef Edward Kim's career has boomeranged through culinary school in Los Angeles, stints at Per Se and in Seoul, and now back to the Windy City where his debut venture, Ruxbin, was named one of the year's best new restaurants by GQ, Bon Appétit, and Time Out Chicago. Mott St, the edgier brother of Ruxbin, is Chef Edward's second venture. From Kimchi & Oaxaca Empanadas to Pharaoh Quail, this casual spot features family style dining and globally-inspired cuisine paired with a pointed beverage selection. In this episode of LUCKYINSIDER, we delve into the mind of one of Chicago's shining culinary stars:
LUCKYRICE: Do you think your background in law and the late start of your culinary career has affected your approach in the kitchen?
Edward Kim: Definitely. Our experiences help shape us into who we are and how we view the world. Having been a political science major in college, I've been greatly influenced by applying the Socratic method in the kitchen and trying to develop ideas by questioning ourselves, and each other, to stimulate critical thinking and spark inspiration.
LUCKYRICE: What was the inspiration behind the communal tables at Mott St?
Edward: At Mott St, it's important for us to send a clear message that we're a food driven establishment. In doing so, we're trying to constantly figure out how to make the experience more immersive and how we can bring the kitchen into the dining area. I feel our communal tables, which are literally pastry butcher block prep tables and are functional during our prep before dinner service, accomplishes this goal.
LUCKYRICE: Have you found any similarities between French and Korean cuisines and cooking techniques?
Edward: Definitely. Despite our insistence of defining ourselves as different behind the veneer of cultural differences, the fact is we're all human. Korean food doesn't have a tradition of dairy and French food has no tradition in cultivating soybeans. Fermented red miso might seem to have no relation to Gruyere or Roquefort from afar but up close, on an intrinsic level flavor-wise, they're not so different. They both pack a ton of umami, are aged/fermented, and are pretty stinky and off-putting, especially to someone who isn't familiar with them. Both cultures ended up making something incredibly funky, nasty, and delicious with what they had. That weird universal thread that runs amongst us and cultures that might seem so different from one another is one of the aspects I find most beautiful about cooking, food, and people.
LUCKYRICE: How do you think the Asian food scene in Chicago has evolved throughout the past five years?
Edward: When we opened Ruxbin roughly five years ago, I still had a huge hang-up about the word "fusion", possibly from being scarred by wasabi-mashed potatoes and a child growing up in the 80s. If you look at almost any exciting restaurant right now in Chicago, you would be hard pressed to find a menu that doesn't use Asian ingredients in many of its dishes. As a second-generation immigrant, we have an advantage that the first-generation did not: our struggle is not so much about assimilation but about creating harmony from two disparate cultures that, paired together, initially might seem dissonant. Having to deal with these issues in our personal lives, it is only natural that, as chefs, it is expressed in our food. It's not about smashing two different things together just because it would be cool or different.
LUCKYRICE: You've worked on the East, West, and Mid-Coasts - how do you think the food scenes of each area varies?
Edward: East Coast (New York City): It's more hardcore and everything is going full throttle. Everyone else is as hungry as you are. There is so much energy and you feel like you're in the center of the universe when in fact, its more of a bubble. The produce is good and there is a huge respect for craftsmanship. With so much competition the city is a crucible for craft but, at the same time, the food scene can feel somewhat stagnant.
West Coast (Los Angeles): It's more laid back and open to innovation, trendier, and seemingly superficial. The produce is so good that sometimes you'd have to be a jerk to add anything more than olive oil and salt to an amazing fruit or vegetable. Food, as it often should be but especially here, is a celebration of product. They also have fun cooking supposedly seasonal food in what is basically a perpetual summer.
Mid-West (Chicago): It is landlocked so the produce is not nearly as good as either coast but you have four seasons telling you what you should be eating and craving. The fact that the quality of the produce isn't as good provides chefs the chance to work more closely with purveyors to challenge us. Many chefs adhere to the idea that your food is only as good as your product but there is also truth to the fact that a good cook needs to know how to cook. I feel that this greater necessity to "cook" inspires innovation and craftsmanship.
LUCKYRICE: If you had to describe the dining experience at Mott St in one word, what would it be?