COVID-19 changed the restaurant industry as we knew it. And even as businesses begin to reopen across the country, there are countless challenges ahead. In this series, Restaurant Quality, we're checking in with a few of our favorite chef-slash–cookbook authors and seeing how they're holding up. Along the way, you'll get signature recipes to make at home—and find out how you can support the chefs and their staffs. Today, get to know Hooni Kim.
Hooni Kim loves seeing people enjoy his food. In fact, the chef cites this as the best part of running his New York City restaurants Danji and Hanjan. Of course, right now, his restaurants aren’t open for usual service, so this side of the business—making people happy—is hard to see.
“That's what we’re missing these days,” Kim told me over the phone. But there is one way he’s enjoying connecting with guests lately: “When people post about [our food] online, it makes us a lot happier.”
In some ways, this is the perfect time for Kim’s first cookbook, My Korea, to be released. The book, which came out in April, is a collection of recipes inspired by Kim’s “taste memories” from visiting family in South Korea, and eating and drinking through New York City’s Koreatown.
It’s a celebration of chewy, gochujang-slicked tteokbokki from vendors in Busan; toasted gim, which he compares to the packaged seaweed snacks now sold in many American grocery stores (but notes their flavor can’t compete with the freshly toasted, salted version his grandmother would prepare at her home on the small island of So An Do in South Jeolla Province); and the feeling of belonging upon approaching 32nd Street in Manhattan.
In My Korea, Kim takes traditional flavors and translates them into modern dishes he’d serve at his restaurants. Yet these recipes are also attainable to the home cook, who can giddily post a few photos of their finished kimchi jjigae and bulgogi sliders before sitting down to eat.
Now more than ever you’ll see people learning how to make their favorite restaurant dishes at home, thanks to chefs who have posted tutorials on Instagram Stories or published recipes in newsletters. For many chefs, like Kim, this is an ideal time to encourage fans of their restaurants to check out their cookbooks.
Kim’s scallion pancakes, or pajeon, are one of his restaurant dishes that can be made at home with My Korea. Unlike Chinese scallion pancakes (cong you bing)—rolled-out, scallion-speckled flatbreads that fry up flaky and chewy—pajeon are made with a loose, crepe-like batter. Just before frying, you’ll fold in a mountain of two-inch scallion batons. If executed properly, the scallions—not the batter—are the star of the dish.
“The recipe in the book is a very traditional recipe, even more traditional than Korean restaurants in the U.S. often serve,” Kim explained. As purchasing scallions in bulk can get quite expensive in winter months when they’re not in season, he notes that restaurants will often place “more emphasis on the pancake part than the scallion part. Here, there’s just enough batter to hold the scallions together…I wanted to make sure at my restaurants and in this book that it’s mostly scallions.”
Though scallions are easy to find at most grocery stores (or maybe you have some currently growing on your windowsill?), Kim explained that there are plenty of ways to riff on pajeon, depending on what you have on hand. He and his son are gluten-sensitive, so he’s made them with Cup4Cup gluten-free flour, no problem. And since the pancakes require quite a bit of oil to take on their glimmering golden color, Kim recommends trying sliced jalapeño or Korean hot peppers instead of or in addition to the scallions, allowing the heat to cut through the fat; Hanjan’s menu has a pajeon made with their 180-day fermented kimchi.
Of course, it’s also exciting to let the season dictate the main ingredient. Kim says fresh spring asparagus, which are roughly the same size as scallions and don’t require a long cooking time, would be a great swap. And if you can get your ahold of them, try the darling of spring’s alliums: “If our restaurants were open right now, I’d be doing a ramp pancake.”
Although Kim’s restaurants are closed to visitors right now, they are open for delivery. The staff is churning out rotating menus of “meal kits” with stews and soup, marinated meat, noodles, assorted banchan, sauces, rice, and more, some of which are large enough to feed a family of four for two or three meals.
This endeavor has proved quite successful. Kim was able to hire back nine employees to work out of Hanjan to produce these kits. He’s recently hired six more to produce smaller meal kits (dinner for four or a single meal) at Danji. “That’s the goal, to bring back as many staff members as I can.” To achieve this, he needs to maintain a steady amount of orders—from local individuals looking for a break from cooking, or supporters from around the world who have a vested interest in supporting Kim and simply want to donate (for the latter, you can purchase a gift card from Hanjan.) To further support Kim, you can also buy a copy of My Korea, which is sold at major retailers all over the US.
And even if you’re not able to spend much money right now, it’s free to post a photo online. Consider making these pajeon from My Korea and tagging Kim—it’s bound to brighten his day.
Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.
Join The Conversation