Michelin Star Chef Hooni Kim Is Trying To Sell Cookbooks And Keep His Restaurants Afloat
Hooni Kim was looking forward to the spring of 2020.
His first cookbook was set for April, completing an eight-year effort that involved three separate drafts and two different co-authors.
He oversaw two bustling New York City restaurants, Hanjan and Danji. They are leaders in the city’s modern Korean food movement, respectively serving dishes tavern style and in tapas form.
Instead, this spring has been memorable in a way no one could have expected. Kim is dealing with the effects of COVID-19 on his businesses, as well as on his book.
The pandemic put a multi-city book tour on hold, caused him to cancel numerous appearances.
Meanwhile, it also forced Kim to close the dining rooms at his restaurants.
While he was able to keep some staff on hand, he had to pivot to carry out and delivery, as well as preparing meals to feed needy families.
Nonetheless, Kim has received standout reviews for My Korea, published by W.W. Norton.
Written with Aki Kamozawa, My Korea combines stories from Kim’s life with his recipes for Korean food. It’s a beautifully photographed guide for people who are curious about Korean food, but who may have never cooked it.
His recipes go well beyond the few basic dishes that many people outside Korea have tasted, such as kimchi, bibimbap and bulgogi.
The book resounds with Kim’s friendly voice, which puts My Korea in a category with books by Julia Child, Dorie Greenspan and Samin Nosrat.
Even if you doubt you’ll make its dishes, My Korea is a wonderful read that explains why the cuisine means so much to him.
His culinary journey
Kim says he was approached by publishers even before Danji received its first Michelin star in 2012, becoming the first received by a Korean restaurant.
But at that time, he says, “I wasn’t ready.” He didn’t want to write a book that only covered the basics of Korean food.
“I’m not good at that,” Kim says. “This book goes into detail not just about the food and the flavors, but the culture of what Korean food means to me personally.”
Luckily, his co-author, Kamozawa, excelled at taking his restaurant recipes and transforming them for home cooks.
In the interim, several other how-to books on Korean food were been published, leaving Kim space to talk about his personal journey.
Kim was born in Korea in 1972, and lived there until age three, when his family left for London. After they moved again to New York, he wound up being educated in England and the United States.
As a student, Kim considered Korean food to be primarily for a Korean audience, specifically on 32nd Street in New York’s Koreatown.
Then, he read a New York Times review of a Korean restaurant, and began to see articles about Korean food on blogs such as Chowhound. That helped him understand that it had wider appeal.
“I realized Americans (were) now writing about Korean restaurants,” he said.
Working at top-notch restaurants such as Daniel and Masa, Kim found that “chefs know Korean cuisine, they’re interested in Korean cuisine” and there seemed to be a future for him in running his own place.
He opened Danji in Hells Kitchen in 2010, focusing on Korean tavern-style food. Hanjan, which serves a tapas-style menu in the Flatiron district, followed in 2012. Soon Kim became well known in both the United States and Korea, where his Michelin star helped earn him a position as a cultural ambassador.
He travels to Korea about five times annually for television appearances, and oversees a charitable foundation called Chef Angels, in which 20 chefs cook for children every Tuesday, 46 weeks out of the year.
The only book he’ll ever write (he says)
Such visible activities might portend an entire shelf of cookbooks. Instead, Kim insists that My Korea will be one of a kind.
“Look, it’s not a restaurant. I’m going to open more restaurants. This is only book I’m going to write, so I wanted to make it good,” he says.
“As a chef, every day we have to recreate our food. It’s not like singers with a recording of a perfect song, or an actor with a film. This book is there for me to read, for my son to read, and maybe for my grandchild to read. It is a photographic expression of who I was” when it was published.
But as the April publication date approached, Kim was faced with the likelihood that New York would join other states in closing restaurants to fend off COVID-19.
Even before Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut non-essential businesses on March 22, he could see that the approach of the virus was affecting his business.
“We knew something was wrong. The numbers were way, way, off,” he says. “Every day, things were getting worse by 20 to 25 percent. And our regulars weren’t coming. They weren’t going out to restaurants — I wasn’t going out to restaurants.”
A week before closing his dining rooms, Kim devised ways to convert the restaurants to focus on delivery.
He now offers a limited menu at Danji, while Hanjan is concentrating on meal kits. Luckily, he says carry out doesn’t hurt his food, because the flavors of many Korean dishes improve after spending a night in the fridge.
It’s traditional for many Korean moms or other family members to cook ahead on the weekend for the week ahead, then portion up the food for lunches and dinners, so he applied that principle in rethinking his menus.
Kim has been able to keep about 22 staff members, out of the 55 to 58 people he previously employed, depending on the day of the week.
The first week he offered meal packages from Hanjan, he had 80 orders. The second week, that rose to 120 and he now is at his full capacity of 160 per week.
Those kits cost $135 and the restaurant requests orders a day in advance. Meals also are made available to families in need.
Kim says he delivers the meal kits himself, because so few staffers own cars.
An uncertain future
Despite the demand for his food, Kim says his income is about half what it was, and margins, previously about five to 10 percent, have evaporated.
Without help on his rent, he does not believe his places will survive. “I’ve accepted the fact that I could lose both my restaurants,” Kim says, a prospect he admits has left him “really depressed” at times.
But he does not want to put himself or his staff at risk. “To be honest, I don’t feel safe for myself, my staff or my customers to reopen without a vaccine,” Kim says.
“I can always open another restaurant (someday), but the health of myself and my family and my staff is not worth a dollar bill.”
Kim says many chefs are watching summer with trepidation. “People are saying customers will come back” in droves. “Maybe they will come back for one weekend,” he says.
New York State has suspended business and residential evictions until Aug. 21, so Kim is less worried about getting through the next few months.
However, he believes Labor Day will be a watershed moment for the industry. He worries that a lack of tourism this summer will be the final straw for those who are struggling.
In the meantime, says Kim, “At least I have this book. I would have liked to have had my restaurants. But going it alone without this book would have been a lot more difficult.”
Micheline Maynard is an author and journalist who tweets @culinarywoman
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.