Most days there is always a chance that Korean food will play some role in my day. It is pretty predictable that I will be eating at least some Korean food every day. It’s as ingrained in my life as the Italian food of my childhood. Last night, though, Korean food provided me with a unexpected evening of intellectual discovery and culinary innovation.
I began the night at the Time Life building for a screening of Marja & Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new PBS show, The Kimchi Chronicles. The show which can be seen Sundays at 4pm on WNET NY and is about the amazing personal journey of Marja, as she rediscovers her Korean roots. Her love and respect for her birthplace and the foods she only became aware of after reconnecting with her Korean birth mother at age 19 are profound. The show jumps back and forth between her journeys in Korea and her NY kitchen where she and JG (as she affectionately calls him) instruct and experiment with Korean foods.
I found the show doing exactly what the show’s producer, Eric Rhee, commented on during the subsequent Q&A; bringing a heightened awareness of Korean cuisine to the masses. Their desire to take Korean cuisine off of 32nd street and into the mainstream is coming at exactly the right time.
Directly from the screening we headed to Danji, a new Korean tapas restaurant oddly placed in the theater district. My mind was still filled with the images of Korea and bubbling cauldrons of stews and steaming bibimbap, so I was dubious of the slickly appointed non-traditional layout of the restaurant. My doubts were quickly laid to rest as I spooned that first bite of crusted tofu into my mouth. The flavors of Korea were all there but with a refinement and flare that belied traditional preparations. It was the exemplar of what Eric and Marja and Jean-Georges have set out to do…bringing Korean food the next level.
Some would say that this is what David Chang has been doing at his now monolithic Momofuku franchise but he has staunchly refused the label of Korean chef. Chef Hooni Kim has no such reservations, and it shows, as he flawlessly marries the classic French training he received at FCI, his baptism by fire in the kitchen at Daniel and his Korean upbringing.
His food is a revelation as he plays fearlessly with Korean ingredients and flavors, French preparations and even the Spanish tradition of tapas. His “paella” is one of the most inventive takes on classic bibimbap I have yet to encounter. He wok fries the rice then adds the kimchi and chorizo for heat and protein, tops it with a fried egg and serves on a searing platter. He pulls influences from all over the globe to make this a truly international bibimbap. It was fantastic. The short rib, pork belly sliders, and especially the whelk salad are equally revelatory.
The revolution is indeed underway. Korean food is coming of age in America and people like Marja & Jean-Georges, Eric and Hooni are on the front lines. Tune in to the show….get hungry…and then check out the beginning of the future at Danji…it will open your eyes.
Marja was invariably asked if her husband intended to open a Korean themed restaurant. She did not rule it out. His experimentation with the ingredients and flavors on the show lead me to believe this is a distinct possibility. That may just be the push that truly brings this cuisine the respect it rightly deserves.
PHOTO CREDITS: PBS and The Village Voice