Q&A: Chef Hooni Kim of NYC's Danji and Hanjan

Chef Hooni Kim of Danji - New York, NY Hooni Kim was set to be a doctor when his obsession and passion for food took over his medical studies as an undergrad at University of California at Berkeley. The NYC native packed up his books and headed back East to enroll at the French Culinary Institute. Born in Seoul, Korea, Hooni moved to NYC at the age of 10 and it's where he decided to set his roots by opening Danji in Hell's Kitchen and more recently, Hanjan, in the Flatiron District. Following graduation, Hooni did rigorous stints in the kitchen at Daniel and Masa, two three-star Michelin restaurants, where he learned to perfect his technique and style. But he couldn't leave his Korean roots for long...

What are you great at?

I am proud of the fact that there are so many popular Korean dishes now where I think the American palate took a long time getting used to. I do a good job interpreting these Korean foods to meet the American palate. I think of  it as translating Korean food so people who aren’t used to exotic flavors can be introduced to it and want more. Korean food is so much more than Korean BBQ.

In your opinion, what food culture is going to be the next big trend?

I look at Korean food now and Chinese food now and there is a trend where chefs are trying to make it right. Five to ten years ago it was cheap. These restaurants weren’t run by chefs who had pride in their business and it was tough for food to get to next level. Whoever can interpret halal food, Middle Eastern food, and take it to the next level, that would be interesting. I hope [Middle Eastern cuisine] will be the next trend…that would be fun.

Photo Courtesy of Danji

What do you want to be better at?

I just opened my second restaurant [Hanjan] and I'm still trying to balance not being in the kitchen everyday and knowing all that is going on. Balancing between two restaurants and doing PR and work outside the restaurant in all aspects is still not doing enough. There are chefs that run 15 restaurants that get it done so there is a fine balance. It’s about being content because you have one body but I still go to sleep frustrated because I didn’t get to do all that I wanted to that day. I need to change who I am instead of do more…there are chefs who are never content and that’s what drives them. I take that to heart and I still feel like I’m young in my career and being content is a bad word for me. Eventually I need to get there and I hope that one day I will be happy and content and live in peace.

We use the term Soul Food Remix a lot around here, to highlight how chefs and home cooks are taking traditional recipes and putting their own spin to them. What does that mean to you?

I was wired early during the Daniel days where I learned how to cook. He was always telling us you have to master the five mother sauces before you can make any other modern sauce. We always knew at a modern French setting like Daniel, the five mother sauces were what Daniel really emphasized. Even in French we knew a classic technique was valuable. When I opened Danji I really wanted to respect the traditional flavors of Korean cuisine. I didn’t feel like I deserved to cook modern interpretations until I perfected traditional flavors. Not a lot of Koreans would take me seriously if I didn’t respect tradition.

Photo Courtesy of Danji

Difference between Danji and Hanjan?

At Danji, it's more modern and interpretative. At Hanjan, not only did I go traditional, I went back to how I remember Korean food in the 80s, the way it was served in the markets and the streets outside the capital city. It’s funny how it went that way, and that is the soul of Korean cuisine. The city of Seoul is so modern, trendy and fad-y that the traditions come and go. The countryside has the mothers and grandmothers who are making the food…Korea doesn’t have a history of restaurants but it does have a long history of home cooking. Hanjan is inspired by rural Korea.

Danji was a good way to introduce Korean flavors, where the vehicles vessels took out the exoticness and visually made it easier for people to try the Korean, which is why I have the bulgogi beef sliders and the kimchi and bacon "paella." I knew I needed to hook guests on the flavors; once you had that trust they will eat anything. Hanjan serves pig feet and intestines the way it’s supposed to eaten, it's what the construction men eat. It's blue collar unfancy Korean food that we are making with the best ingredients possible.

What do you think is the best thing about chefs who are turning traditional food upside down?

There's definitely a sense of pride especially for the chefs like Danny [Chang] and Andy [Ricker]. Where traditionally Thai, Chinese and Korean restaurants have always been cheap because they've been using cheap ingredients, it hasn’t always been respected. No one would ever thought Thai and Korean food deserved these fine ingredients but for those of us who worked at the likes of Daniel and Masa, we only ever used fine ingredients. It's all I know and it would depress me if I worked with subpar products. This mindset is changing and I think we all appreciate that.

For Chef Hooni Kim's recipe for Dak Tori Tang "Spicy Chicken Stew", click here