No one's food tastes quite like chef Bill Kim's. Now we know why. "Korean BBQ" details many of the genre-bending dishes that make his restaurants, BellyQ and Urban Belly, so irresistible.
That said, if you're looking for an introduction to the basics of traditional Korean barbecue, the kind originally from South Korea and now popping up all over Chicago, then this is probably not the book for you. Sure, there is a recipe for Korean barbecue sauce and a lot of grilled food, but approximately 95 percent of the recipes stray from what could reasonably be defined as authentic or traditional Korean barbecue.
Most recipes feature ingredients from other Asian countries and even other continents. That includes such offerings as Korean pesto sauce, Seoul to Buffalo shrimp, and hoisin baked beans with bacon barbecue crust. But Kim is still confident about the book's title. "It's Korean barbecue, but it's our family's way," says Kim over the phone. "Someone can always do a traditional Korean barbecue book better than me, but I can be me."
In other words, the book, co-written with Plate magazine editor and Chicago food writer Chandra Ram, and being released on April 17, reflects Kim's own remarkable cooking journey, starting with his family's immigration from South Korea to Chicago. He was 7 years old at the time, and it wasn't an easy move. "I struggled to find my identity when I moved here," says Kim. In the introduction of the book, he writes, "I didn't speak the language, and I missed my friends in Seoul." He also hadn't yet changed his name to Bill, and he goes into detail about what people thought of his Korean name, Bum-Suk: "Imagine going to elementary school and trying to fit in and make friends with (a name) like that!"
But he did enjoy helping his parents make traditional Korean dishes like kimchi, and loved when they would make Korean barbecue at local parks. "We used to have family gatherings at the (Cook County) forest preserve," says Kim. "There was always a free grill, which was important for us."
He made friends with other recent immigrants, including an Italian boy named Tony Bruno, who helped him realize that different cultures also had surprising connections, as he relates in the book: "Tony's family was as Italian as mine was Korean, but there were some similarities. ... Tony's family had a garden like ours, but they grew tomatoes. Instead of drying fish on a clothesline, they would dry, salt and cure their tomatoes in wicker baskets under the sun."
He'd later explore those cultural similarities when he decided to become a chef. For example, Kim's soy balsamic sauce is a staple of his kitchens, and while combining soy sauce and balsamic vinegar sounds unexpected, it makes perfect sense to him. "My mom always made a soy and vinegar sauce," says Kim. "But why can't we add the subdued deep, rich flavor of balsamic vinegar? It helps mellow the soy sauce out."
Of course, Kim didn't immediately start out cooking this kind of food. Instead, he immersed himself in what he thought all great chefs had to learn: French food. So he got a culinary degree at Kendall College in Chicago and worked under some of the best French chefs in the country, including Pierre Pollin at Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights and Jean Banchet at Ciboulette in Atlanta. He eventually landed a job as chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter's, the most acclaimed restaurant in Chicago at the time.
But he was restless to cook food that was personal to him: "I wanted to cook food that reflected my heritage of Korea and Chicago, of kimchi and hot dogs." That led to opening Urban Belly in 2008 with his Puerto Rican wife, Yvonne Cadiz, whom he'd met at Charlie Trotter's. (Their marriage also explains his Korican sauce, which he learned from his mother-in-law, Dolores Alicea.) Eventually, he also opened Belly Shack and BellyQ, though the former sadly closed in 2016.
Considering his fine-dining pedigree and globe-trotting style, you'd think the book would require half of Whole Foods to cook all the dishes. But instead of recipes with dozens of hard-to-track-down ingredients, the book is based on a compact collection of "Master Sauces and Seasonings," which can be used throughout the book. Kim got the idea of structuring this book from his fine-dining experience. "In traditional French cooking, it's embedded into your head that there are five mother sauces," says Kim. "In Asian food, there are foundational cooking techniques, but I wanted accessibility."
Whip up a batch of lemongrass chile sauce, and you're halfway to making nine different recipes in the book. Nouc cham sauce, which takes all of five minutes to put together, pops up in 22 recipes. (If you wanted further proof of just how un-Korean this book is, the lemongrass chile sauce is based on Kim's visit to Thailand, while nuoc cham is a staple in Vietnam.)
That's a lot to throw in a book ostensibly about Korean barbecue. But if that's what it took to get Bill Kim's story and astonishingly original recipes in a book, then it's all worth it. Plus, putting the book together helped his own family reconnect.
"My parents and I grew apart over the years, as I moved around," says Kim. "But this year, we've been meeting up. I'm actually organizing a barbecue this summer where we are going to reserve the same grill at the forest preserve from when I was a kid. I can't wait."
KORICAN PORK CHOPS
Prep: 10 minutes
Marinate: 20 minutes to 12 hours
Cook: 6 minutes
Feeds: 6 people
From "Korean BBQ: Master Your Grill in Seven Sauces" (10 Speed Press, $28) by Bill Kim, who writes, "I like to say my food is Korican – half Korean, half Puerto Rican – the perfect balance of Zen and fuego. You can taste it in how the Korican sauce is used in this recipe, as a marinade for the pork and as the basis for a punchy, bright, acidic Korean chimichurri." Kim calls for thin pork chops here; if you cannot find them, he suggests grilling thicker chops a couple minutes longer per side.
6 (1/2-pound) bone-in pork chops, \-inch thick
2 1/4 cups Korican sauce (see recipe)
1/4 cup nuoc cham sauce (see recipe)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon sambal oelek
1. Place the pork chops in a large, shallow dish, pour 2 cups of the Korican sauce over the chops and turn the chops to coat evenly. Cover and marinate at room temperature for 20 minutes or preferably in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
2. While the pork is marinating, make the Korean chimichurri. Combine the nuoc cham sauce, remaining 1/4 cup Korican sauce, parsley, cilantro and sambal oelek in a food processor, and process for about 1 minute, until smooth. Set aside at room temperature.
3. Heat the grill for direct-heat cooking to medium-high (400 to 450 degrees).
4. Remove the chops from the marinade, and shake off the excess marinade. Place them on the grill and cook, turning them once, for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until lightly charred. Remove the chops from the grill, and let rest for 5 minutes, then serve with the chimichurri.
Prep: 10 minutes
Makes: 1 1/2 cups
From "Korean BBQ" by Bill Kim, who writes, "Once I married a Puerto Rican woman, my food became what we call a little Korican, and that's what this sauce is all about." He learned the recipe from his mother-in-law, Dolores Alicea, whose Thanksgiving turkey lechon was transformative.
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons Madras curry powder
1/4 cup salt
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
26 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
Combine the paprika, oregano, chili powder, curry powder, salt, vinegar, garlic and oil in a small bowl, and whisk until well mixed. Transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks, or freeze for up to 2 months (see note).
Note: This sauce won't fully harden when frozen, so you can spoon out as much as you need whenever you want to use it.
NUOC CHAM SAUCE
Prep: 10 minutes
Makes: 1 cup
"Nuoc cham is a Vietnamese dipping sauce with big, bright flavors; it's tangy, funky, sour, and sweet all at once'" writes Bill Kim in "Korean BBQ." He adds green Thai chiles for heat.
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup water
1 clove garlic, minced
2 green Thai chiles, minced, with seeds
Combine the brown sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, water, garlic and chiles in a small bowl, and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 2 months. Or freeze in standard ice-cube trays, then transfer the cubes (2 tablespoons each) to plastic freezer bags, and freeze for up to 2 months.