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

Q&A: Moriah Cowles, Orchard Steel Knives

knives, Brooklyn, Moriah Cowles,

When you use something repetitively everyday, after a while you seldom seem to wonder who made it. For chefs and home cooks alike, a great knife means everything. The durability of the blade, the weight of the handle in your hand as you are slicing and dicing away, and the sharpness are major factors when handling a knife. You want a knife to best fit you, and Moriah Cowles, of Orchard Steel does just that. I had the pleasure of being introduced to Moriah recently and chat about her love for being a blade smith and creating the perfect balanced knife.

Name: Moriah Cowles

Job: Bladesmith and Owner of Orchard Steel LLC.

Large brown knife

Where did your love of knives come from and what made you get into creating knives?

It is sort of a round about story. I have always been in love with art and food. I grew up on an apple orchard in Vermont in a community of farmers and food loving people very connected to the land. I also have always loved art and had a need, not just a desire, but a need to make things with my hands. I found blacksmithing by accident while fulfilling an art credit at Colorado College. In the class I was able to sculpt red hot steel into table legs and hinges, providing the perfect marriage of art and function. I fell in love.

After college I went back to Vermont to work on the family apple orchard. Over the next three years I acquired a forge and anvil, took a couple classes in blacksmithing and spent 6 weeks apprenticing with a bladesmith during a bicycle trip through Mexico. It was during one of those moments of limbo, trying to work out my next step in life when I received an email from a friend living in Brooklyn. She connected me to another friend of hers, Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn, who makes beautiful high end kitchen knives in Gowanus. A month later I was in my truck, apple boxes packed with clothes, heading to Brooklyn. I worked with Joel for two years, learning so much from him and having a blast. I now have set up my own metal shop in Sunset Park where I make my own kitchen knives from start to finish, all in house. I forge, heat treat, grind, sharpen, make and fit and sculpt the handle pieces, epoxy it all together and finish the knives in the shop.

Moriah Cowles

A lot of knives are sometimes too heavy to handle accurately. How do you find the perfect balance?

I don’t have a formula, I think it’s just been a matter of practice and feel that only comes with time. Since my knives are all forged, each is a bit different, even the handle wood and its weight affects the balance. At first I had to work with each knife’s handle and blade weight to balance them piece by piece. Somehow after working through many designs and just making knife after knife, I have come up with a design and handle to blade ratio that produces a balanced knife. There are so many people out there with different preferences for knife designs, styles, weights and handle sizes. All I can do is make knives that feel good to me, that is my constant. Using my own preference as a base, I am then able to shift the design and add or subtract weight and bulk to the knife and handle upon request.

Examining the blade

Does your love of food effect how you construct and build a knife?
I think it would be hard to make a good kitchen knife without loving to cook; there would be too much disconnect. Food has always been a part of my roots, as well as my family’s livelihood. Since there’s not enough time in the day to be both a chef and a knife maker, I had to choose one. Fortunately I have been able to get friends and customers who take my knives into the kitchen with them and give me their feedback. It is a unending learning process, which I love. Plus, now when I cook at home, I have a great supply of sharp knives to use!

Where can the readers purchase your amazing knives? 

There is an online shop on my website where I post knives I have made already. Folks can also order knives from me by sending me an email with the size and handle wood preference. For now, my knives are on my website www.orchardsteel.com. If I decide to sell at any retail stores in New York or beyond, I will post it on the website as well!

The makings of the perfect knife

Where do you go for a no fail meal?

Honestly… home. If I can make it home when both of my roommates are there, without saying more than a couple of words about what we’re going to make together, we dance about the kitchen, talking about the day, chopping veggies, sautéeing onions, baking pastries...you name it. Somehow an incredible feast lines our table every time, and that blows my mind.

Smoothing out the blade

Check out some other Q&A Stories from the blog:

Local Inspiration: CUT Brooklyn

Q&A: Chef Alfred Green

Q&A: Alison Cross of Boxcar Grocer

Q&A: Chef Sylva Senat

Q&A: Jack Summers of Sorel Liqueur

Sorel. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Summers) Last week at the Slow Food NYC Event, “Spirits of New York”, I was lucky enough to catch up with Jack Summers, the creator and distiller of the hibiscus liqueur, Sorel. His concoction nods to the Caribbean island’s celebratory beverage drank by natives for hundreds of years. Sorel’s spicy complexity and multifaceted flavors make it a versatile mixer or a thirst-quenching refreshment served best as a slushy, over ice, or warm in a mug. I was fascinated to know how Jack got his start to create such an interesting libation, so I asked. Here's what he had to say.

T.M.: Where did the idea for Sorel came from?

J.F.B.: Traditionally, in the Caribbean islands, kids on their way home from school pick hibiscus flowers. When they get home they make hibiscus iced tea and drink it while they do their homework. Then, when the children go to sleep, the adults put rum in the tea and drink it to relax at the end of the day.

Sorel. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Summers)

T.M.: Does Sorel hail from a particular region of the Caribbean?

J.F.B.: Every island does it differently, and includes their particular local horticulture. If you go to Jamaica, it’s hibiscus with allspice, cardamon, and orange peel. Trinidad uses ginger and nutmeg. Barbados, where my grandparents came from, uses cloves. My version has cloves on top, cinnamon in the middle for warmth, ginger to mask the heat of the alcohol, hibiscus which adds a floral, acidic note, and then lastly just a wee note of nutmeg. I wanted to get a version that pulled the sugar back, and do what all the islands do best, spice it up.

T.M.: Were you the first to market this sort of liqueur?

J.F.B.: This drink has been around for hundreds of years but no one thought to bottle it before me. I was the first person to figure out how to make it shelf stable, and I did it in my very own kitchen.

T.M.: Why is Sorel great for the mixologist?

J.F.B.: It’s not a flavor people are used to drinking. Sorel is aromatic, spicy, savory, sweet, layered, and complex. One sip of it tells you there is clove on the front, then hibiscus, and finishes with cinnamon and nutmeg. To the mixologist it is the 65th crayon in the box. If you mix it with vodka, gin, tequila, or rum you will get something no one else makes, something completely new.

Check out Jack From Brooklyn’s Sorel website for more information and check out the variety of different recipes that include the liqueur and pick yourself up a bottle to sip on a hot or cold day.

For more Food and Drink Stories:

Alison Cross of Boxcar Grocer

Smorgasburg Stories: Jack's Chedbread

The Health Benefits of Avocados

$165 Billion in Food Waste: What Can You Do?

Q&A: Alison Cross of Boxcar Grocer

alison cross, atlanta, boxcar grocer I was lucky to have the chance to talk with Alison Cross, co-founder of Boxcar Grocer last week. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, the store partners with local farmers and producers to offer high-quality products in a neighborhood with few food stores. She and her brother Alphonzo Cross make an inspiring team, driven by their desire to make an impact and how much they care about their community. Read the text of my conversation with her, below, and check out Boxcar Grocer's website for more information.  

A.F. : You've described the store as a convenience market—could you briefly explain what that means? What makes this business model beneficial to the community?

A.C. : When my brother and I came up with this, we very much thought of a convenience store that sells healthy food. There’s not a problem with healthy food, obviously, but people have preconceived notions about what a convenience store is. A lot of that is environmental, a lot of it is product-based, and every time people would walk into our store, they would literally tell us, “You are not a convenience store.” And we’d ask people, you know, "Why are you feeling that?" And they’d say, "Well, this is nice business here, products are good products, there’s healthy food, high-quality food," just the antithesis of what people think about when they walk into a convenience store, which is overly-processed food, the cheapest ingredients--the lowest common denominator in terms of where food comes from. And we’ve changed that model. We work with local farms. We try to get Georgia-grown produce, and if possible, Atlanta-grown produce. We work with local urban farms as well as with organic distributors. A convenience market is our answer to what we think the convenience store of the future should look like. It should empower communities; it should strengthen communities; it shouldn’t contribute to declining health and contribute to people’s low expectations of what we have in our community. 

A.F. : When you talk about your customers' reactions to the store, I'm curious-- what kind of support have you received from the community since you opened?

A.C. : People have been really excited to see us here, and we were surprised--there’s always gonna be a stigma around healthy food. We were surprised by the number of people who came asking us about it. When we opened up, we did a soft launch. We did not tell anybody about it; we had a Facebook page we’d put up, and we’d been Tweeting about it a little bit. We were surprised that 700 people showed up for our grand opening. And on our very first day, when we hadn’t told anyone about it, we didn’t make any announcements, it just got out that we were opening up a store here.  We hadn’t done a formal press conference or anything like that, and people were lining up at the door before that even happened. And that just goes to show how much demand there is, first off, just for food, because there’s really nothing on this side of town. But the area is probably 92 percent black, very mixed income, a lot of students. So, we’ve been very well received. This is the model prototype store, and we’re trying to get everything right here to open up more.

A.F. : Do you think you’ll open up more in Atlanta?

alison cross, marcus samuelsson, red rooster, boxcar grocer

A.C. : We really have created a format, a model, for a number of stores, and our goal is to have at least four stores by 2015. We hope to have stores in 20 different cities by 2020, and we’ve identified the top cities. New York is definitely one of them, Philadelphia, Atlanta...

A.F. : Great to hear for a Philadelphian. Now I have a question about the work itself: What is it like working with your brother on a regular basis? Any sibling rivalries?

A.C. :  It’s actually been really good. We also have a really good relationship, and we’ve grown up like twins: we’re just a year apart. But we also have a really strong understanding that my brother’s strengths and my strengths are very different.  And that has been huge. My brother’s always been extroverted, and there’s such different careers that we had before. I had a degree in architecture, and I worked in philanthropy, and I worked in an architecture firm. And we both worked in advertising, or aspects of it, but we really lean on each other. The things that he’s really good at are not my strong points, so we can really pick and choose what we wanna do based off strengths. So we’ve watched each other grow, as it's hard not to develop parts of yourself that you really didn’t get to work on before being you’re in business, because when you’re in business you use your energy, your brains, your everything. The people who are around you become part of your business. But it’s been a really good time. I’ve always respected and admired my brother, and I’m really happy that now we’re able to do this for each other, and we’re able to build something from the ground up.

A.F. : Last question. Do you have a favorite item that is on sale in Boxcar Grocer?

A.C. : Me personally, and it probably doesn’t sound healthy, but we have these pizelles that this guy makes locally. They're these waffles cookies and you can buy them packaged, but this guy makes them fresh here in Atlanta. They are so amazing.

Be sure to check out the great work Alison and Alphonzo are doing in Atlanta at Boxcar Grocer.

For more Interview Stories:

Swedish Filmmaker Teddy Goitom

Interview with Chef Michael Symon

Musician Fred Ho

Q&A with Chef Sylva Senat

chef, CCAP

You never know where you will end up in life and who you will meet along the way. This stands true for Chef Sylva Senat, who worked with Marcus at Aquavit. With lots of guidance and determination, Chef Senat explains how Marcus was a influential part in his success today, and what an honor it is to be a chef.

Q: Name?

A: Sylva Hudson Senat, Executive Chef at Tashan Restaurant in Philadelphia


Q: What was it like working with Marcus? 

A: After working at The Sign Of the Dove, I was working the grill station at an Italian restaurant called Cibo. It was during this time, I volunteered for the annual Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) event where I met Chef Marcus Samuelsson. I was so delighted to be at his table serving his food, I nervously asked for a kitchen trail. Marcus was so young for a chef at the time, yet he was so wise and talented. I wanted to push myself and be like him. I got to spend the better half of the beginning of my career helping and being part of that Aquavit team through the guidance of Chef Samuelsson. Even all these years later, I still very much looked to Marcus as a mentor. As my time was coming to an end at Aquavit, Chef Marcus and I spoke about my next restaurant. “ You have to work twice as hard then anybody else in that kitchen" he would tell me. Then he introduced me to Gabriel Kreuther, who was then theg Chef de Cuisine of Jean Georges Restaurant at the Trump Hotel. And a new adventure began, but throughout my career I looked to Marcus for advice and guidance on the next move in my career.

Q: Congrats on the Food & Wine Peoples Best New Chef nomination. That is such an amazing honor. How did that feel? 

A: You know, it’s still surreal to be nominated for Food and Wine and James Beard Best Chef Mid-Atlantic at the same time. I remember looking at those two lists and saying "I have that chef’s books and his book, I love that restaurant …"  When I met chef Marcus at the 2013 C-Cap event I thanked him He said, "Don’t be silly, it’s your hard work.” I was seriously just happy to be a list with such great chefs that I admire.

Q: It's spring. What menu changes are you excited for on the menu at Tashan? 

A: I just recently changed the menu after my visit to Japan in late February. I am most excited about a banana steam bass with a Honshimeji mushroom - Poha Crust “flat rice “ with curry foam …

Q: What's next for you?

A:  I've always dreamed of having my own restaurant(s). Food with a passion for inspiring flavors, bringing a little light to my Caribbean-French cuisine. How fun and inviting a small chef driven kitchen can be!

Take a look at TASHAN restaurants menu and also Chef Sylva Senat's website

For more Q&A's:

Teddy Goitom

Michael Symon

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Efva Attling