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Ji Hye Kim: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur

Food is emotional and powerful. Opening yourself up to something that’s different than what you are used to is a delicious, empathetic journey.

As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ji Hye Kim.

Ji Hye Kim is the award-winning chef/owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, MI. Named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2021 and a James Beard Award Best Chef semifinalist, Ji Hye aims to broaden the understanding of Korean cuisine through her cooking. At her acclaimed restaurant Miss Kim — named one of Ann Arbor’s “Most Essential Restaurants” by Eater — her seasonal menu is inspired by ancient Korean culinary traditions, and adapted with local Midwestern ingredients.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?

I’m not a classically trained chef. I have memories of my grandmother making things that seemed like ancient food to me–like doenjang she made from scratch by cooking soybeans and shaping them into blocks that hung swaying in the air, naturally aging and stinking up the whole porch. My mother is still the best cook in the family who made every big holiday feast in Korea and refused to buy kimchi from the American grocery stores even when she worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, once we immigrated. But neither women really had much interest in teaching me as a young child to cook, so I don’t have these “fond memories of cooking with Nonna” that I hear other chefs talk about sometimes. Both my grandmother and my mother were practical women who assumed that a lot of a female was housework like cooking and that they didn’t need to teach me so young when I would eventually have to learn anyway.

I suppose I only took up cooking and eventually opened a restaurant because I was hungry in Michigan. I had just married my now ex-husband and moved back to my old college town of Ann Arbor, MI, where I had no college friends left and had no other community than my ex-husband’s circle. My hunger was for the home cooked Korean food that my mom made and that I couldn’t find in my new home. My hunger was for a family now, as I was in a different state and a community where I hadn’t yet found my roots. So I jumped in. Besides, it’s easy to be brave when you don’t know.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I make Korean food. Because I am in Michigan, it’s more specifically Michigan-Korean food.

I grew up eating homemade Korean food, so when I found myself in Michigan without it, I started cooking more. As I started cooking, I realized that I have a lot of eating experience but not cooking experience, and my mother wasn’t going to show me how to cook much. She would be like, “Oh it’s so easy, just a little bit of that, little bit of this, you’ll know when it’s right”, with no specific recipe, measurements or directions.

So I bought and read a lot of cookbooks from Korea. The more I dug in, the more I found myself drawn to know more than just recipes. I wanted to know the stories of these dishes and the people who cooked them. A lot of what I cook now is guided by my learnings from that. Korea used a lunisolar calendar that listed 24 seasons, not just 4 seasons. That told me seasonality is super important. Korea is not a big country but has distinctive regional cuisines. That told me locality is super important. The dishes evolved over time, and manifested themselves differently depending on where they were made. Learning that helped me give myself permission to explore what Michigan has to offer and how Korean dishes will look here and now. The Korean food I cook is based on tradition, inspired by Michigan farmers, evolving with the season and my studies into Korean food.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Honestly the most interesting thing that happened is the pandemic. Leading up to the initial shut down in March 2020, things were looking up. The restaurant was just over 3 years old at the time. I’ve worked so hard to build a team and create a culture since the opening, and it finally seemed to click. I had just been nominated for a semifinalist for James Beard Best New Chef Great Lakes. Then the pandemic hit, indoor dining was shut down and the first few months were just surreal.

A lot has already been said about how it changed the industry, so I won’t go into that so much. For me personally though, once the initial shock wore off, between the days of uncertainty I sometimes would feel moments of excitement. As exhausting as the changing guidelines and supply chain issues were, they made us more agile and open to experiment. It gave me permission to break the norm and established rules that were often arbitrary. The staff and I got together and brainstormed, we were game to give anything a good try. Some of the best and most fun things that came of it ended up making the pandemic just a little more bearable. Take out pop up dinners with guest chefs, online cooking classes that benefited the local Meals on Wheels, moving the FOH to the BOH and training them to be line cooks are good examples.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When I first opened the restaurant, building a team and creating a culture we live by was the most challenging thing I had to work on. It’s one thing to have a solid team with shared values and ways of working and to bring one new person in to get acclimated. It’s another to build that from scratch.

We started with a vision we wrote and shared, we talked about it in training sessions. But that wasn’t enough. It takes a lot of time; a training session or two won’t do it. Leading by example, keeping an eye on the vision and principles and values, and to share that constantly takes a lot of time and effort. It is so hard, especially through the daily grind.

For example, we say we hate waste and we care about vegetables that Michigan farmers grew for us. Saying that is easy, getting on board with those words is not hard. I used to watch our cooks slice the green onions roughly, not all the way to the white roots, and throw out inches of perfectly good green onions. I then showed them the spec of using the entirety of the green onions, making sure the white roots are saved for stock. I reminded cooks of this every day until it took. And I did it all over again with a new cook. Eventually, everyone was doing better and when a new cook came into the kitchen, older cooks would show the new cook the spec. But that took daily training, modeling, and never ending gentle pressure. I am still working on it everyday, and I am overcoming this obstacle on a daily basis. I just know that without that effort, culture and values slip so easily and rebuilding that would be harder work.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

A good balance of flavors, a bit of acidity, and pay attention to texture.

And tell a story. Is the dish from your childhood? How did your ancestors cook it? Are the vegetables from local farmers and what are their names? Knowledge and connection makes the food more delicious.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

I love casual meals with a lot of little things. Like a Korean table full of banchan. Or a charcuterie board full of cheeses, meat and homemade pickles and bread. Tapas. Meze. I love trying different flavors and textures, trying them at a leisurely pace with friends. Choosing our adventures at a table while chatting away and enjoying drinks and conversations. That is the perfect meal for me, more than 25 course tasting menus at a fine dining restaurant.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I look for inspiration everywhere, but two major sources of inspiration are Michigan farmer’s markets and old Korean cookbooks.

Whenever I feel that I’m stuck in a rut, I would seek out a farmer’s market. Luckily, there are like 4 farmer’s markets a week during warmer months around Ann Arbor. Vegetables are so beautiful to me. I can look at a cut side of red cabbage or different colors of radishes or shapes of winter squashes all day long. I love chatting with my favorite farmers and catching up on the current farming season and which vegetables are doing well and which are struggling. It’s one place that’s constant and kind where I can forget about politics or current events or even the pandemic and just take in the simple beauty of Michigan and people. It’s visually stunning and mentally very healing–a pure joy.

I’ve been collecting ancient Korean cookbooks for a while. These are not the collector’s versions, first editions or antique books. These are reprinted, reproduced copies of old cookbooks from centuries ago that survived. I actually love that these are fairly readily available, because it means there is enough interest in Korean culinary history and traditions that these can be commercially printed and sold. Even though the pandemic made it hard to order these online to ship from Korea, I still have stacks of them I can always refer back to and rummage through. I love reading the stories attached to the authors and each dish, and I love seeing how similar dishes evolve from one old book to another. When I see a dish evolve over time, travel to a different location (North Korea and Chinese border cuisines or Korean-Central American dishes), I feel the connection between my ancestors, my homeland and other Korean immigrants trying to make it work whether they’re in Uzbekistan or Michigan, USA.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

For the new year we are working on building a sliding scale menu. Our guests in need will be offered the core menu items and choose what they can pay, ranging from regular menu price, 50% off, free, or pay it forward and buy a meal for the next person too. We have a grant we can work with to implement and sustain it at least for a while. With the “pay it forward” option, we are hoping to do it as long as we can.

I’m writing a cookbook. I want to tell a story that threads the food of my ancestors and the food I make in midwest America today, and my identity as a Korean immigrant woman.

What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Share that you’re only human, be kind to yourself and others. This is something I struggle with everyday still. I have to remind myself that I cannot do this alone and asking for help is a sign of strength.

I remember when I was going through my divorce. Even though it was amicable and I did not feel it impacting my work at the time, I was given advice by my mentor to share with my team what I am going through and take a step back. He said that the team will rise to the occasion and will be fine with me stepping back a little to take care of myself. Another mentor advised me that showing that vulnerability and modeling self care is a sign of good leadership. At the time the team was coming together but was still new and green. And I’m a private person and an immigrant with gumption who’d much rather grin and bear it than to show weakness. Despite my reluctance, I did take the advice, opened up to the team and took a step back for a while. And the team, given the opportunity, of course did well. The team saw that I was just a person going through a hard time, trying to take care of myself and still run a restaurant. They stepped up so I could step back. It also made it easier for them to ask for time off to take care of themselves, too. That is a kinder and more sustainable way to run a business, and that we had high retention rate during the pandemic is definitely a result of it.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Building a culture is a constant.

I used to think that if I put up a sign, write a recipe or an SOP, send out an email, or announce things once or twice, things will stick. Boy, was I wrong. If you’re starting from scratch, it takes all that I just mentioned, and a constant sharing of the vision and modeling the behavior you want to see. Living your values and building a culture based on those values is a constant work, but also the only way to do it right. So I still check the pan of green onions to make sure no white parts go unused and roots and trims are saved for stock, even when their trainer has shown the new cooks our spec.

2. Share your vulnerability.

You’re not a benevolent dictator or a superhero. Share that you’re human and be kind to yourself. It helped me to be kind to myself to be able to be kind to others. A staff who isn’t burnt out is a better staff for your restaurant. Model the behavior you want to see and practice self care to your staff, so they can learn from you, take care of themselves and not burn out.

3. Experiment with data.

With all the challenges the pandemic brought to the restaurant industry, I learned to experiment more than ever before. We really didn’t have much of a choice. But still, it gave me a chance to reexamine my boundaries and possibilities, and try new things. And do it with data–-with every new thing we tried, I took good notes and did debriefing conversations with the staff and my accountant to really measure the success of each experiment and to decide which ones to replicate.

4. Learn your P+L and the story behind every line.

I actually knew how to read P+L pretty well and knew that understanding finances was vital to running any business before I became a restaurateur. What I didn’t realize though was that keeping up with the books, doing inventory every month and menu price audits, etc. is not enough. I have wonderful, great accountants to help me with it. But only I can really fill in the stories behind the numbers, really understand it, and decide what actions to take based on the financial numbers. The food cost is unusually high lately? Do I know who counted the inventory this month? Are we working with a new vendor because of supply issues? How is our menu makeup and do we need to take some things off the menu and put new dishes with lower food cost on? Understand the story behind the numbers and use it as a tool to run business, not just a scorecard.

5. Being kind is more important than being right.

There have been many instances where I felt that I was in the right. But choosing to be kind rather than being vocal about how right I am has given me peace. Last year, a long term staff in a leadership role gave barely a week notice after almost 5 years. I thought, “not even two weeks notice! That is absolutely not how I’d do things at all, that is not right in my book!”. It came at a bad time for the restaurant too. A proper two weeks notice would have made it much easier on the restaurant and the remaining staff. Initially I was so annoyed. But at the same time, no one owes me their time. That staff has worked for me since the opening and did a great job, and he was moving out of the restaurant industry to something he has been pursuing on his own time. After the initial reaction, I thought better of the whole thing and was eventually happy that he got a better opportunity to do what he really wants to do. We sent him off the right way. I can sometimes be a petty person who needs time to process and remind myself to be kind…I wish someone told me this advice before the restaurant opened. I’m glad at least now I know and try to do that.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Tteokbokki.

It’s sauteed rice cakes with gochujang sauce, soft egg and pork belly lardons. I love this dish, and I love that so many Korean people I know tried to sway me not to put this on the menu because “Americans won’t like it”, yet it became one of the most popular on the menu.

This is the quintessential street food in Korea, and what I was not allowed to eat as a child growing up there. My mother called street food “delinquent food” in her disapproval. She also did not believe in giving money to a child, so it looked like I wasn’t ever going to be able to eat it. Then one day, I saw a classmate take out her milk box and give it to a street vendor, in exchange for a plate of 10 little pieces of rice cakes in gochujang. Brilliant! From then on, I would save my box of milk, usually distributed from school milk program around 10am, hold on to it *at room temp* until the end of school, probably in the early afternoon, and exchange it with a plate of tteokbokki after school.

Now, this was against the rules, and eventually a boy in my class caught on to what I was doing. He blackmailed me into doing his penmanship homework. Here I was in second grade, faced with the moral dilemma of either growing courage to own up to breaking the school rules and face the consequences of my actions…or being an unrepentant delinquent succumbing to cowardly blackmail, eating my delinquent food.

So I chose the life of a delinquent, enjoying tteokbokki to my heart’s content. And my penmanship is beautiful.

Later when I was reading about this dish, I learned that it didn’t start out as a street food at all, but originated in palace cooking. Old recipes of this dish from the 18th century are pan cooked in soy sauce and full of luxurious ingredients like pine nuts, mushrooms, beef and chestnuts, along with many vegetables. Tteokbokki evolved from that preparation to the streets after the Korean War, losing most of the expensive ingredients and relying on braising in gochujang based sauce for a longer time rather than sauteed. What I had as a child and what is popular even now is this simplified version that has only existed in the past several decades.

When I created my version of this dish, I wanted to bring back elements of the old recipes I read about by adding back meat and local cage free eggs and by sauteing to give more texture, rather than stewing to softness. I started with the gochujang version, and eventually added a soy sauce version filled with mushrooms and seasonal vegetables later. I want people not to miss this dish, because I love that it has a bit of my story, a bit of culinary history, and Michigan ingredients. And I like to tell my Korean naysayers that they were very wrong about this dish and it is beloved.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like everyone to try new food. Try a new cuisine you’ve never had before, learn the names of dishes in native language, and learn about the people who cook that food and what their stories are. Food is emotional and powerful. Opening yourself up to something that’s different than what you are used to is a delicious, empathetic journey. I really believe that experience and journey will raise empathy and bring people together more.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

Thank you so much for having me share my stories!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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