New York City chef Hooni Kim is an ambassador for modern Korean cooking in America with his two restaurants, Danji and Hanjan, and a rising television career that has him currently serving as head judge on the Korean version of MasterChef. In Kim’s kitchens, the chef intends his flavorful, well-proportioned cooking to appeal to not only homesick Koreans, but the adventurous eater seeking a little more spicy ramyun in their lives. Some favorite dishes include ddukbokki (rice and fish cakes) wok toasted with pork fat and gochujang, haemul pajeon (textured squid and scallion pancakes that rise vertically into space) and silken tofu topped with sizzling pork belly. But, really, that only scratches the surface.
And while sliders made with Korean barbecue staple bulgogi (marinated brisket) is one of the most popular dishes at Danji, Kim hardly runs a traditional Korean barbecue restaurant — the communal, meat-and-kimchi driven dining most associated with the country’s cuisine. But he is a master at the art of grilling kalbi. During a recent afternoon chat, we asked the chef for a couple of backyard secrets.
What do you like to grill at home?
Actually, we do a lot of vegetables like corn and asparagus. Anything woody is good. And we use these little oak chips that you can buy at the Korean supermarkets.
What’s a common mistake that home grillers make?
They overcook everything, which is very easy. A lot of people just close the lid, thinking that it’s not that hot, and then bam! It goes up to five hundred degrees in literally four minutes and it just dries everything out. I think temperature-wise, grilling is very tough. So it’s not about recipes, it’s not about what they’re used to doing in your home kitchen. You just have to feel it. And that’s tough if that’s not your profession
What do you like to drink when you’re eating this grilled meat or vegetables?
It’s always beer. And there are gluten free beers, which I prefer, that nobody really knows about. Tsingtao is gluten free. Corona is gluten free. A lot of the Mexican beers are gluten free. Before, I used to have to drink the New Planets that are gluten free beers. I also take [Korean rice beer] makgeolli and make it really cold. I put it in the freezer and turn it into slush.
Let’s talk about the grilling tradition in Korea.
If you’re selling meat, it’s barbecue. And it has to have wood chips or coal. A long time ago when Koreans didn’t have electric heaters, they would warm the floorboards. So below they would put coal and oftentimes cook there as well. This is why restaurants that still use this coal as a grill. In Korea, every block has restaurants that grill. If there’s meat, you have to grill. There are no ovens. Even in the home, you’ll find electric grills that you put in the middle of the table. These days, lamb is really popular because beef and pork is getting so expensive. And they’re cooking western Chinese style, where they use a lot of cumin. They do a dry rub and they put it on a skewer and grill it.
Take me through the secrets of Korean barbecue at home.
One thing to keep in mind is that if the fire’s going, it seriously takes two minutes on one side, two minutes on the other. And, done. That’s it. Ninety percent of Koreans who barbecue use the LA kalbi cut, which is a short rib with the bone still in. (Edit note: You can find this cut at all Korean grocery stores. Or ask your butcher to cut the short ribs really thin, about ¼ inch.) Bulgogi is not great for backyard grilling. It’s too thin and it falls through the grates. Pork ribs are also very big. I like to do gochujang with pork. It should be a little spicy. We buy St. Louis ribs and marinate them for two days.
For the kalbi, what is the typical marinade?
If I can get Asian pears, that’s the best tenderizer and sweetener. Pear juice. Pears right now aren’t the best because of the season. If you can’t find those, then kiwis work.
What about grilling mackerel? There’s a big tradition with that in Korea.
We do the mackerel here at the restaurant, which is really in season in the summer months. You can start to find pike mackerel now. But honestly, I usually barbecue on our roof, where it’s sort of public. The smell of Korean kalbi is nice. But the smell of mackerel, it’s just really fishy. So I feel a little uncomfortable.
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