Bill Kim’s first cooking experience was making instant ramen over seogtan (burning coals) at age six a year before his family moved from Seoul, Korea to Chicago. Fast forward four decades and Kim, who owns several restaurants in Chicago including urbanbelly, a communal-seating restaurant featuring creative noodle, dumpling and rice dishes, Belly Shack featuring menu items blending Asian and Latin flavors and bellyQ, a modern Asian barbecue concept, recently authored Korean BBQ: Master Your Grill in Seven Sauces (Ten Speed Press 2018; $28).
His career path to culinary heights and James Beard Award nominations began with experiences feeding siblings and cousins while his parents worked and worries about not being able to make it in a traditional college atmosphere when attending a college recruitment event at his high school. That all changed when he saw a giant wedding cake. It was a lure and when he approached the table, a representative from a culinary school asked if was interested in a cooking career.
Attending Kendall College where he studied classic French, Kim then worked in the kitchens with such greats as Pierre Pollin at le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights near Chicago and Jean Banchet at Ciboulette and ultimately became the chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s and then served as executive chef at Le Lan, a French-Asian restaurant.
When it came time to open his own restaurants, he decided to focus on his own heritage as well as that of his wife who is from Puerto Rico in a style he calls Kori-Can. There were, of course, many remnants from his French culinary background and world travels in the mix as well and his American upbringing. For the latter, check out his recipe for Kimchi Potato Salad. He also wanted to get away from the rarified world of cuisine and open up his food to everyone.
“My parents were very humble people who owned their own dry cleaning business for 35 years,” says Kim. “I wanted them to see their sacrifice pay off by taking all the things that I learned and being able to use it. My parents had only eaten at one restaurant I worked and that made me sad, I saw because I knew how hard they worked. As I got further in my career, I was cooking for fewer people—only those people who had the means to eat in the restaurants I worked in. But those weren’t the people I grew up and I wanted them to have restaurants to eat at.”
BBQ itself is engrained in the Korean culture says Kim.
“We didn’t have a lot of things when I was growing up in Chicago, we didn’t have a grill,” he says. “So when we wanted to barbecue, we had to go to park where there were free grills. I remember how the aroma of the foods we were cooking always attracted by people who weren’t part of our family. that someone from a different country could come up to you and ask what it was we were cooking. My mom would give even strangers food. It was pretty powerful watching them when they tried it, the way their eyes opened and they smiled. That’s when I learned food doesn’t speak a certain language.”
Making Korean barbecue accessible was one of the inspirations behind Kim’s decision to write his cookbook.
“I think I had a lot to say,” he says. “I really didn’t think there was a cookbook out there written by a chef, sharing the experience of being born in Korean and growing up here and adapting to a culture that was a very foreign to me.”
He also sees it as a way of giving back and to make Korean food accessible.
“I think we take for granted that food is an entry level to a different culture,” says Kim. “I want people to look at the book and know the history behind it. And I wanted people to be able to cook Korean barbecue at home.”
Indeed, with a wonderful, heartfelt introduction and seven master sauces and three spice rubs that make his dishes easy and simple to recreate at home, Kim takes away the mysteries of Korean food.
“The thing that I want people to understand is that you can cook without borders now more than ever because the borders have crumbled,” he says. “Even though the food is not 100% Korean it’s these flavors that can come out.”
Seoul to Buffalo Shrimp
1½ cups Lemongrass Chili Sauce (see below)
⅓ cup unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted
2 tablespoons sambal oelek
3 pounds extra-large peeled and deveined shrimp (16/20 count)
¼ cup Blackening Seasoning (see below)
FEEDS 6 people
Heat the grill for direct heat cooking to medium (350°F to 375°F).
Combine the Lemongrass Chili Sauce, butter, sesame seeds, and sambal oelek in a large bowl and whisk until well mixed. Set aside.
When the grill is ready, season the shrimp with the Blackening Seasoning, coating them evenly. Place the shrimp on the grill grate, close the lid, and cook for 2 minutes. Flip the shrimp over, close the lid, and cook them for another 2 minutes, until they turn an opaque pink color.
Remove the shrimp from the grill, add to the sauce, toss well, and serve.
Lemongrass Chili Sauce
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced, peeled fresh ginger
¼ cup minced lemongrass
1 cup sweet chili sauce
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ cup sambal oelek
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
PREP TIME 10 minutes
MAKES 2¼ cups
Combine the garlic, ginger, lemongrass, chili sauce, fish sauce, sambal oelek, and oil in a bowl and whisk until blended. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 2 months (see note).
¼ cup sweet paprika
¼ cups granulated garlic or garlic powder
¼ cup chili powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Makes ¾ cup
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and stir to mix. Store in airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard for up to six months