Chef Bill Kim has led restaurants of all shapes and sizes to greatness, from hip, hole-in-the-wall barbecue to airy, modernist garden fare. With homespun roots in Korean cooking and a mastery of fine dining technique, Kim has created his own genre of unexpected fusion offerings. From Wicker Park’s UrbanBelly to the most popular restaurant at Time Out Market Food Hall, his dishes often combine ingredients and forms from around the globe, uniting and honoring cuisines with seamless design.
The pandemic hasn’t slowed Kim down. True to form, he dove head first into Zoom cooking, and ramped up his work using food to spearhead social awareness and philanthropic causes. He also graced the cover of this season’s Mariano’s Market magazine. We had the opportunity to catch up with Chef Kim and further distill his current philosophy on food.
Good Food is Accessible Food
“When I started as a cook, it was all very precious and limited to a certain population – basically people who had money,” says Kim. Even as the culinary world evolved, Kim realized it was still catering to the same demographic. In 2008, he decided the food he cooked moving forward would be both delicious and affordable, without pretense.
“Everyone needs good food,” he says – whether rich, poor, young, or old – food is one of the very few things that brings humanity together in a sea of difference, and everyone deserves something to savor. Kim aims for his current and future endeavors to feed diverse, multigenerational customers, with food that fits into their lifestyles and honors an array of cultural cuisines. “I want neighborhoods to tell me what they want to serve, and we’ll make it happen with quick service – especially in food deserts that can grow social good around accessible food.”
Think Beyond the Plate
Kim’s partnership with The Table at Crate, Crate and Barrel’s pilot restaurant concept, gives him the opportunity to create a full incorporation between food, vessel, and environment. With a bustling booth at TimeOut Kitchen, Kim is used to making menus outside of the traditional restaurant sphere. At The Table, he starts with a highly visual, tactile approach. “I visit all the stores, look at each pattern, and I see what works with the food,” he says, “If they gave me a stylist, I might not listen.”
He’s developed a plant-driven seasonal menu, mostly locally sourced, with a wide selection of coffees, teas, wine, and pastries, all reflective of crisp, light Crate and Barrel aesthetic, and served with their tableware. “It’s clean and it’s conscious of where we’re heading,” says Kim, “There’s minimal plastics and just one red meat dish on the menu” (a skirt steak with cherry tomatoes that Crain’s called “a masterpiece”).
Listen to Your Gut
Kim takes “a more personal approach” to the menu at The Table, because it’s aligned with his own dietary lifestyle. For many years, Kim ate dairy, despite the terrific upset it caused his stomach. Finally, after cleaning out the ice cream machines at Charlie Trotter’s, he’d had enough – Kim went lactose free and hasn’t looked back. His wife, also a culinarian, has Celiac disease and can’t eat gluten.
“Wellness is key to who I am, and that looks a little different than it did 10 years ago,” Kim says. As he builds contemporary menus, he’s conscious of the labels and options that would have made his earlier dining experiences so much more enjoyable. Right now, Kim’s innovating macadamia nut milk and butter – “it’s thick, creamy, dairy-free and delicious.”
Get There First
Whether it’s soft serve fusion, re-defining mother sauces, or hockey rink ramen, Kim has an unique adroitness for identifying potential and connection where others see nothing. He’s also familiar with the grit it takes to reach a finish line. His first restaurant, UrbanBelly, started in 2008 in an Avondale strip mall. It became a pilgrimage for Chicagoans seeking Asian fare. What many people don’t realize, says Kim, is why he and his wife chose the location: “The strip mall was attached to a laundromat and dry cleaners, so we could just go over and wash our towel and aprons.”
Since then, Urbanbelly’s expanded into a line of offshoots, products, and books. Now Kim’s innovative reputation precedes him, stemming from the early Urbanbelly days where his creativity went from stove to plate without any bureaucratic sprinklings. “We just wanted to cook,” says Kim, “And we wanted to be the boss.”
You’re More Than What You Cook
“When you’re young, you’re drinking the Koolaid and it tastes so good,” says Kim of his early chef days. After a while though, it all started to taste very saccharin. Grateful for the time he spent running the highline kitchen gambit, he’s looking forward to being able to provide nourishment in more ways than just food. “We got to see that lifestyle. We got to be a part of it and it was a part of my life that I enjoyed immensely. I have deep appreciation for friendships that I made, but I wanted to evolve as a human being and as a person and be able to contribute in ways that are beyond the kitchen.”
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