Won Kim is Back, Back Again
Kimski 2.0 Launches April 5th, 2023
“I liked to make a regular habit of what I call getting ‘Maria’s drunk.’ You know, totally blasted out, where you make a lot of bad decisions on the way home … one night I was helping out [At Maria’s Bar] and started plating the sausages all arty and in smaller portions to prevent all the drunk people from taking three [free] sausages at a time. That’s when Ed and I started talking about his idea for Kimski.”
-Won Kim, Executive Chef/Partner on how he ended up helming the kitchen at Kimski
When I used to write restaurant reviews for other publications, they often made me call and interview the chef.
I hated it.
I love interviewing chefs and telling their stories. I also like and believe in fact-checking. But, when writing a review I found the best way to obtain these kind of details was via email or text. I don’t want to see the restaurant differently because the chef wanted to influence me.
No review of course is ever objective, but I try to minimize subjectivity. Talking to a chef over the phone seemed a reasonable arm’s length but I found that even these tiny conversations had subtle influences on my reviews.
Still, I had to make those calls, and once in a while I talked to someone like chef Won Kim (IG handle: @revisecmw), who was so thoughtful, eminently quotable (see above from my old Redeye review of Kimski), and irreverent, I couldn’t help but become a fan. I doubt I could review Kim today without just being like, if a guy can cook, DJ, and paint like he does, he gets a hall pass (he doesn’t need it).
That being said, what you should know is before I ever talked to him, he spoke to me through the sick drip of a bulgogi cheesesteak at Kimski. After taking a short sabbatical earlier this year, Kim is back with a more “Koreanish” (in his own words) version of the OG. Excited about his launch of Kimski 2.0 (960 w. 31st St. in Bridgeport) today, April 5th, I caught up with Kim to see what’s what.
You took a five-month sabbatical. However, you didn’t sit on the beach. You basically did five other passion projects, running pop-ups, doing art, filming for your YouTube channel. What did you learn during the break or what kind of perspective did the pause give you as your return to the Kimski kitchen?
Taking this break helped me reset everything in my career. It gave me perspective and prepared me to make important decisions for the immediate future of my professional life . I didn't know I needed to decompress as much as I did until I just sat alone in silence and calm - some of the outer voices from doing the daily grind. It reconditioned my brain to enjoy the processes of painting, creating, and appreciating the things I used to love. I learned to live, laugh, love without getting tattooed on my lower back.
Kimski 2.0 is still retaining a few of the greatest hits, but you’re leaning in on more “Koreanish” stuff as you’ve said. I imagine when Kimski 1.0 opened you felt some pressure to honor the Korean and the Polish thing since that was the concept.
But, also I wonder if you didn’t lean more Korean earlier on because you weren’t sure Chicago was ready for that jelly? I only frame it this way, because while we don’t know each other personally, you’re known as a super-confident guy who says what he believes and doesn’t play the game. It’s what I always admired from afar. I always assumed if you wanted to do hardcore budae-jjigae when you wanted, you’d just do it. Was that the case? Or did you feel the kind of pressure a lot of cooks do to kind of stay in the Chicago dining public lane?
When we first opened, I was so idealistic about food and the approach to making it all from scratch. I wanted to stand out in an already saturated market at the time (seven fucking years ago!). The idea to slam Polish and Korean food was almost a joke that worked too long for me. I respected both sides of the coin to try and replicate old school generational recipes. I never sought to be authentic, I just wanted to make fun food that no one else was doing. The break helped me put some things into perspective regarding how much of me is in the food and in the beginning, I was deadbent on honoring both flavors that it kept feeling like a joke I was getting away with because it actually tasted good.
Spontaneity and insecurity are what honestly fueled me in the beginning in terms of presenting food in an already reputable food city. We literally have everything from 3 Michelin starred places to hot dog shacks in the hood and everything in between. There is a lane for anything and everything which kind of made my head explode. I wanted to make food approachable but conscious in terms of sourcing and have technique driven food be affordable.
Yes, we dubbed ourselves as a fast casual counter service place but it mirrored my own personality as an unknown cook in terms of the no frills attitude for food. I have tried to be as honest and speak my mind in terms of what I thought to be fair and representative in a food scene that can get to be so influenced a lot by fame, hype, and general ignorance. I do not like not being me - if that means getting into some controversy over bullshit, then so be it. People don't read shit these days anyways.
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On that note, what’s something you really want to do that you’re not launching on this menu, but maybe a Korean dish you’re super passionate about and kicking around for the future?
I feel like I'm always leaning towards just opening another Dancen. It's the food I crave and love and it is so communal. I love Budae Jigae and we have done it as a special many times, but I don't think a lot of patrons understand the story behind it or its origins. I just love making it and eating it. Its the quintessential stone soup concept made into reality. I also love the idea of gimbap, which is basically a bibimbap in hand roll form. We ran this item our first month and then it became a nightmare to do fresh so we stopped. Maybe we just run a jigae and roll spot for the winter?
Is Chicago Bears QB Justin Fields for real or nah?
This seems to be the Chicago sports team curse. We get excellent players and ruin them until they go to a good team where we see the players true potential and then subsequently get destroyed by the ex-player. I think Fields is that dude. I think he's the real deal who is falling victim to the Bears' organization plagued by out of touch staff and owners who still run plays from the '85 Bears team. It's really disheartening to see talent go to waste. This especially is applicable to the Cubs in the 90s. In the end, it doesn't matter because even though the teams lose, they all make fat paychecks.
Name some of your favorite Chicago street artists that people should be checking out?
I mean, that list is so long. I admire so many peoples' work. Rather than singling out specific artists, I'd say be curious and go out and be adventurous to see the images in person. We have so many talented people in this city. Go to galleries, go to demos, seek out your favorite artist. That would be my advice.