Korean BBQ Chef Shines Spotlight On Korean Food Culture
Jenee Kim studied food science in South Korea, apprenticed at a friend’s restaurant in Seoul and opened her first restaurant in L.A.’s Koreatown in 2003.
Since then, Park’s BBQ has become one of L.A.’s best Korean restaurants, known for the quality of its meat and for its banchan, or side dishes.
- Jenee Kim, owner of Park’s BBQ in Los Angeles.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And you can tell a little something about where today's immigrants are coming from by the restaurants that exist across this country. For example, no matter where you live, you probably aren't too far from a Mexican restaurant and you probably can find a Chinese restaurant, maybe even a sushi place.
But what about a Korean barbecue? Well, if you don't have one now, you may be getting one soon because according to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of Korean immigrants in the U.S. grew 27-fold between 1970 and 2007 and has grown significantly since. And no U.S. city has more Koreans and Korean-Americans than Los Angeles.
I went to Koreatown to a place called Park's BBQ for a visit and met with chef/owner Jenee Kim. Each table in the restaurant has a grill in the center. But before you even start throwing meat on to it, the table is filled with tiny plates of side dishes.
JENEE KIM: These are all the side dishes. We call it banchan. So traditionally, you know, in Korea, we have, like a variety of banchan - side dishes - that comes with the barbecue. And if there's - if it's not - non-barbecue restaurant, we still have, you know, a lot of banchans variety. There's like hundreds of, you know, different kinds with good nutrition.
HOBSON: Well, this one, I recognize right away. That is kimchi, right?
KIM: Kimchi. Yeah. That's kimchi. And, you know, in different areas, they have, like, all kinds of different kimchis. So it depends on what kind you like.
HOBSON: So how do you do it?
KIM: We marinate - I mean, we salt the cabbage and leave it for, you know, five, six hours. And then, you know, we add all these ingredients, like red pepper. It's, like, kimchi is good for you because it's fermented food.
HOBSON: It's fermented.
KIM: Yes, fermented. And you leave it for three to five days. Some kimchis are, like, you know, six years old.
HOBSON: OK. Well, I have to try some while it's sitting here in front of me. Let me have a little bit of this. So how old is this kimchi?
KIM: Well, this is only, like, two, three days old. Good?
HOBSON: Mm. Very fresh and spicy. Tell me about some of the other things here.
KIM: Well, OK. This is, like, radish kimchi, a kimchi made out of radish. And this is eggplant. And, of course, when you go to Korean restaurants, we always do, like, potato salad. Even in some places, they have, like, Korean-style potato salad. This is, like, potato salad.
HOBSON: And it almost looks like a scoop of mashed potatoes.
KIM: It is mashed potato, but, you know, with mayonnaise and like carrots and cucumbers, onions. We chop everything in there. That's Korean-style mashed potato. And this is rice paper, and that's radish with oyster.
HOBSON: And what are you supposed to do with the rice paper?
KIM: You can wrap the meat with the rice paper. We call it ssam. We wrap most like meats with lettuce or sesame leaf or rice paper. That's our traditional way to eat the meat.
HOBSON: OK. Show me how you do that.
KIM: I have - you could do it together or separately. You put a little bit of meat here and some bean paste sauce. Then wrap it and eat it.
HOBSON: That's pretty simple.
KIM: Yeah. It's simple, but it's good.
HOBSON: What do you find is the hardest thing for non-Koreans to like in a restaurant like this? What's the thing that they send back or say, I don't know if I can taste that?
KIM: It was kimchi before. But now, I think, because of Michelle Obama - she made some kimchis there and, you know, fermented food is really good for you. So people are willing to try kimchi now. And, you know, they ask for it even though sometimes we don't send out kimchi because we have so many, you know, side dishes so we cannot send out all the side dishes.
We make about, you know, 15 to 20 side dishes daily, but it depends on the customers. For, like, for two people, two customers, we send out eight side dishes. You know, it's like that. So sometimes if you don't send out kimchis, they ask for it.
HOBSON: And you think that's because of Michelle Obama?
KIM: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that has a lot to do with it because kimchi has become really, you know, acknowledged as health nutrition - you know, nutritious food.
HOBSON: Is there anything that you can't get here that you can still get in Korea, in a restaurant like this in Korea?
KIM: Yes, of course. Yeah.
HOBSON: Like what?
KIM: Like a lot of vegetables that we can't get, you know, those Korean vegetables and, like, fishes. Yeah, there are some things. But, you know, we have - especially LA, we have a lot of fresh, you know, different, like, vegetables, like broccoli. That's not really Korean food, but we do season it in Korean style. So that makes it, you know, anything you can make a Korean side dishes, Korean style with the Korean seasoning.
HOBSON: Now, once you get the meat out - and we can see the meat is sizzling here on the grill right now - there are lots of things that you can put it in. We have a lot of sauces or little cups of things in front of us. One of them here is a salt. But it's not just standard salt. What is that?
KIM: Oh, we - it's roasted salt with sesame seed and black pepper.
HOBSON: And then this is sort of like soy sauce, but what is it?
KIM: Yeah. This is our house soy sauce. We make it and - with a little bit of wasabi and, you know?
HOBSON: Koreans like things spicy.
KIM: This is not very spicy. But this is very spicy. Yeah, we love spicy food. Yeah.
HOBSON: Well, I was going to say, when I come to a Korean barbecue restaurant, this is always the sauce that I ask for. It's sort of like a chili sauce. What is in that sauce?
KIM: Well, there is chili, jalapeno. Yeah. We chop everything, grind everything and make it very spicy.
HOBSON: So before you were trained as a chef, did you cook at home?
KIM: Oh, yeah. I love to cook at home. Yeah. I started cooking when I was in middle school so...
HOBSON: What was your favorite thing to eat back then?
KIM: Back then, I loved kalbi. Kalbi is marinated rib.
HOBSON: So that's what we're looking at here. This is marinated rib.
KIM: Mm-hmm. And this is a thinly sliced, marinated beef.
HOBSON: I have to say, watching him do this, I feel like I have not been good enough. Every time I've gone to a Korean barbecue restaurant, I haven't been - I didn't slice the onion over the meat like that.
KIM: Well, you can. You don't have to, but that's our way. Everybody has different ways to do it though.
HOBSON: I'm learning a lot of new tricks right now.
HOBSON: Do you want me to - shall I try one of these right now? Hmm. That's fantastic.
KIM: Thank you.
HOBSON: If you compare the situation now to 10 years ago when you opened this up, are Americans developing more of a taste for Korean barbecue today?
KIM: Oh, yeah. Of course, yeah. Well, now there are so many, I mean, many, many barbecue restaurants in - especially in LA. And they're doing, like, so many different style of barbecue restaurants. There's like all-you-can-eat barbecue, you know? We are getting much more non-Koreans than 10 years ago when I opened. So I think Korean barbecue is becoming really, really famous now.
HOBSON: Well, Jenee Kim, chef-owner here at Park's BBQ in Koreatown, Los Angeles, thanks so much.
KIM: Thank you.
HOBSON: And, by the way, Robin, Jenee Kim has already opened up a fast food Korean restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles. She is serving galbi, pan-fried tofu, bibimbap and spicy chicken soup with banchan. She says she wants to turn the restaurant into a chain and take it national.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
My mouth is watering.
HOBSON: You know, by the way, I want to just say one other thing. I heard on the radio this morning as I was coming in. They said there was a traffic accident, and it was a kitchen sink. That's how they described it. And I asked...
YOUNG: It was probably a kitchen sink.
HOBSON: Well, that's exactly what it was. I said, what is a kitchen sink? Is that some sort of an L.A. traffic term? No. It really was a kitchen sink on the highway.
YOUNG: Why am I not surprised?
HOBSON: I know, right? Well, we want to give a special thanks to the people that have made our trip to L.A. possible: our producer in Boston, Lynn Menegon, and Angie Hamilton-Lowe and Carlos Ascencio here in Culver City. Thanks very much.
YOUNG: Terrific to listen to, Jeremy. Thank you. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson at NPR West. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.