New York

Sungchul Shim, behind the counter at Mari. All photos by OK McCausland for Resy

Resy SpotlightNew York

Sungchul Shim and the Beautiful Evolution of Korean American Cooking

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It was Christmas Eve, and the holiday menu had just launched at Kochi. Sungchul Shim had arrived around 11 a.m. to prep before rushing the two blocks over to Mari, the second restaurant he’d just opened two weeks earlier. At 5 p.m., guests would start descending on Kochi and Mari, and he had to make sure service at both restaurants would run without a hitch. Black tiger shrimp mousse and soy sauce-soaked lamb aside, he also needed to make all the mandoo for Kochi’s Christmas menu.

He’d tried to train one of his chefs on how to compose the dumplings, but that hadn’t panned out. The precise handiwork and time required to produce them left chef Sung — as he’s called by nearly everyone in his employ — the sole mandoo maker. Each delicate parcel had to be billowy enough that soft rivulets of thin wrapper would drape over the filling just so. And the stuffing itself — short rib, smoked duck, foie gras, and months-fermented chile oil — was a luxurious take that pulled in Korean, French, and Chinese ingredients and techniques. For his 90 reservations that night, 110 dumplings would surely be more than enough. So, he got to work.

What Shim is doing at Michelin-starred Kochi is nothing like — but still sort of like — the mandoo I’d made with my grandma, growing up here in New York. And it’s emblematic of a larger evolution of Korean American cuisine in this city.

Kochi opened on November 5, 2019, decades after the Korean immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s forged their enclaves — and restaurants — into the city’s blueprint. Back then, traditional fare dominated the scene — soondooboo, kimchi chige, galbitang, barbecue — our soul food. Restaurants in Flushing, Queens served my parents, grandma, and aunt a piece of home on family birthdays, Mother’s Days, Korean PTA dinners, and wedding banquets. Manhattan’s Koreatown satisfied the comfort food cravings that would escalate to an inebriated, fevered pitch in the early mornings for the younger Korean American generation after a night of karaoke, clubbing, and barhopping.

For me, and for Shim, Koreatown was our collective, secret hideout. We might have even crossed paths on that same stretch of 32nd Street, headed into Kunjip or Wonjo for chargrilled bulgogi. In 1993, when a New York Times piece by Ruth Reichl was published, the slow burn of Koreatown’s unveiling began. New Yorkers at large gradually fell in love with Koreatown’s grill houses; juicy beef marinated in soy sauce and garlic was so easily understandable in a country that loves meat. The tableside smoke and sizzle heightened appetites to a mouthwatering fervor. “I thank Koreatown for making Korean food so popular,” says Shim. It built a foundation, a familiarity for non-Koreans that Korean chefs like Shim could build on.

***

In 2010, buzz crackled among Korean New Yorkers. “Did you hear about Danji?” A Daniel alum, Hooni Kim, had opened one of the city’s first Korean chef-owned and chef-driven restaurants, and that ownership allowed him the creative freedom to stamp a loud, modern, signature on the food landscape. Here was a Korean restaurant with whitewashed brick, exposed Edison bulbs, and petite, shareable plates. Sure, I’ve had gochujang-spiced whelk salad before, but poached with lemongrass and served with Japanese soba noodles? No. Bulgogi appeared weekly on my mom’s dinner table, but here it was affixed to a slider bun. At neither Kum Gang San nor Kang Suh could I find flash-fried blocks of tofu coated in potato starch. Kim’s twists and turns were delightful; I was hooked. But I was rushed out of there so quickly — it was always packed — that I was left wondering: Where else can I find something so original, so fun, and still so gratifying? Something that reminds me of my grandma’s soul food?

I didn’t have to wait long. A concatenation of inventive Korean fine dining establishments soon followed: white-gloved Jungsik in 2011 (now my birthday tradition), theatrical Atomix, wood-fired Jua, seafood-centric Haenyeo, cozy Soogil, lighthearted 8282. Before we knew it, Korean food had taken over the city. There’s kimchi sold at Food Emporium, Associated, and C-Town. Today you can easily find Korean fried chicken, Korean hot dogs, mochi donuts, dalgona (both the coffee and candy). Michelin awardees, media best-of lists, and diners’ private bucket lists thrum with Korean food and chefs.

Shim now joins the cadre of chef-auteurs in the upper echelons of Korean American cuisine in New York. With his two restaurants, he is taking two often overlooked concepts — Korean skewers and handrolls — and making them his own. “I learned that the concept is the most important thing,” Shim says of his skewers and handrolls. “Taste is also important. But there’s a lot of good restaurants with really good food, so a restaurant needs something else for the guests.” That he would be one of the first in the Korean culinary oeuvre to focus on these dishes was calculated. “There was no Korean skewer tasting menu in New York or in the United States,” he recalls. “And now, when people see a skewer, they go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’”

The branding has caught on. Neither Kochi nor Mari falls into the generalist category of modern Korean restaurants; there’s always a qualifier that hones in on Shim’s offerings. Among my own friends, colleagues, and family members, Kochi is known as “that Korean skewers spot,” and Mari, “that Korean handrolls spot.”

Handroll by handroll, skewer by skewer, he takes us through playful and polished junctures. That playfulness asserts itself in the disruption of Korean dining etiquette … It’s like a game, rediscovering (sometimes forgotten) Korean elements stripped from their typical forms.

Skewers were foundational to Shim’s first cooking memories, part of an ornate, symbolic spread that his mom prepared for monthly ancestral ceremonies and presented on his family’s lacquered wooden jesa table in Jeollanamdo in the fecund southern coastal tip of South Korea. The youngest of three brothers, he accompanied his mom to the markets and mountains where, together, they’d pick gosari, or fernbrake, radish, and bamboo shoots. In the kitchen, he’d help pierce wide slabs of omelet, beef, and pine mushrooms on a pair of wooden skewers, dip them in egg, and pan-fry a sunny crust on them. His mom’s kochi were a loving departure from the skewers that he’d find at street food carts and bars.

Cooking alongside his mom came to define him and prompted him to pursue a degree in the culinary arts. Eventually, Shim would find himself working at the Park Hyatt Hotel, one of Seoul’s most prestigious kitchens, but he found the work there “disappointing.” The executive chefs kept their recipes and expertise tight to the vest; he felt like he wasn’t learning anything. But it was also a formative experience for Shim. It shaped his ultimate career goal: to have a restaurant where cooking would be personal, creative, and fun. A place that was interpersonal, where he could talk to guests, and figure out which dishes work. A place where he could collaborate with the kitchen staff as a team to deliver those goods.

That goal brought him to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, which would launch him into the highest tiers of fine dining in New York.

Shim immersed himself in the recipes and wisdom of Eric Ripert, Charlie Palmer, David Bouley, Thomas Keller, and Gordon Ramsay. He worked his way up to executive chef at the now-closed omakase gem Neta — a pedigree often cited in the press. His training at these restaurants gave him the “fundamental inspiration” that would take him closer and closer to his goal, he says. “I learned how a kitchen should work professionally.” From a Le Bernardin externship, he not only picked up the techniques of demi-glace and papillote but also the delivery of flawless uniformity on each and every one of the hundreds of plates that would stream out of the kitchen daily. From Neta, he learned how to reduce the brininess of fish in a salt, sugar, and vinegar curing method and, at the same time, execute tasting menus, a style he bookmarked for his future, dream restaurant. “I now had the confidence to do nine courses, 12 courses.”

And on nights off, he’d check out Yakitori Torishin just as much for market research as for his fondness for the “fun” style of yakitori. Torishin’s chicken skewer omakase in a high-end setting blew his mind.

***

Skewers and handrolls serve as vessels for Shim’s personal takes on Korean food. He pulls these casual Korean snacks out of the street carts, bars, and picnics, and hoists them directly onto center stage, treating them with Japanese and French flourishes. Skewers — particularly the dakkochi and tteokkochi, a single line of gochujang-slathered chunks of chicken or rice cakes impaled on a long stick — are a go-to street food and bar food, or anju, in Korea. Kimbap is also an easy, self-contained snack, something I’d have on every family road trip during my childhood, and a tradition I’ve kept for my own daughter, too.

Through his tasting menus, Shim expands on his multifaceted, fine dining approach. Handroll by handroll, skewer by skewer, he takes us through playful and polished junctures. That playfulness asserts itself in the disruption of Korean dining etiquette — casting aside the typically imperative chopsticks for the unfettered and immediately gratifying act of eating with your hands. It’s like a game, rediscovering (sometimes forgotten) Korean elements stripped from their typical forms.

At Mari, where Shim and his team are surrounded by 15-gallon vats of preserved vegetables — at least 30 kinds — and humidifier boxes of seaweed lavers, he embellishes the traditional from the outside in. He gives the kimbap a makeover with the look of a taco-style temaki, but he retains the Korean elements: rice seasoned with freshly ground sesame seeds, sesame oil, and salt, and toppings of three preserved vegetables — radish, perilla leaves, chile peppers. The essence of beef lettuce wraps, bossam, and the typically unglorified myulchi (stir-fried and candied anchovy banchan) is distilled into handrolls with surprising sprinkles of red dust that turns out to be ssamjang powder.

Kochi edges further from Korean tradition and towards European styles of a la minute poured broths and truffles, but the reminders of family are still there. The cod — whose fishiness has been noticeably dialed down — has a hint of something I’ve often taken for granted: the gyeoja mustard that comes on the side of iced naengmyeon soups. Same goes for the mackerel with hints of makgeolli and yuja.

Despite his haute menus, Shim doesn’t trade fun for quiet formality, and it shows in the ambience. “It has to be fun,” says Shim. The mood at both restaurants hearkens back to the boisterousness of Koreatown, and it’s built into the restaurant layout. Both Mari and Kochi are outfitted with open kitchens where spectators have front-row access to the action.

Today, Shim often finds himself in a perpetual state of motion between both kitchens.

Later on that same Christmas Eve, he found himself folding handrolls alongside his 10 or so chefs in the open kitchen at Mari. “I can’t achieve this dream without my team,” he asserts often.

At 9:30 p.m., he received a frantic call from his manager at Kochi. They’d lost 18 dumplings. And the last seating for the night was coming in. The chefs had presumed a top-heavy evening, so they’d pre-cooked a bunch of mandoo, and those beautiful rivulets had hardened. “Oh my god,” recalls Shim. “We couldn’t serve that to our guests. I would have to make everything from scratch.”

So, he quickly wrapped his last handroll at Mari, assigned another one of his chefs to step in, and sprinted back to Kochi.

 

Kochi is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 5 p.m. to midnight. Mari is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m.

 

Caroline Shin is a food journalist, and founder of the Cooking with Granny video and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Watch her award-winning show on YouTube, and follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.