An interview with Chef Bill Kim of urbanbelly & bellyQ, Chicago
Hyde Park Group sat down with Chicago-based Chef Bill Kim, of the widely popular pan-Asian fusion spot Urbanbelly and its fast casual cousin, bellyQ. Chef Kim is consistently at the tipping point of the food world – as Chicago Magazine aptly notes, “Bill Kim is not simply a man who knows which way the wind is blowing. Right now, he is the wind.”
While Kim’s dishes all have a distinctly Asian flare, they also reflect trending ingredients and preparation methods from around the world. As classic French cooking makes a resurgence among restaurateurs, Kim uses a traditional mother sauce approach to craft unique new flavors. With housemade food at its prime, Urbanbelly is up-to-speed with fresh noodles made just before serving. But Kim also isn’t afraid to return to old world methods, tried and true over the centuries – read: Hanu beef on a steam grill. Yum.
Q. You’re well known for your creativity in cuisine fusion. What are the newest ingredients/methods that you’re looking forward to incorporating?
In French cuisine, there’s a classic foundation of mother sauces. You take elements of these sauces and add and subtract ingredients to make a bunch of different sauce, and that’s where we are basing our philosophy. In spring of next year, we are doing a book predicated on mother sauces, but it’s a Korean barbeque cookbook- how to grill with with seven master sauces. We start with a magic paste, basically our take on a kimchi paste. It’s Korean chili flakes, fish sauce, sesame oil, and fennel seed. We make this paste and them add/subtract ingredients to it to get that spice or earthy flavor. We’re also doing kimchi pestos, putting a little Italian into the mix.
Q. Specifically in pan-Asian fare, which new flavors and dishes are getting customers excited?
We started experimenting and we made our own chow-fun noodles, or rice noodles. Instead of the techniques of kneading and resting and taking hours, when you make a batter for rice noodles, basically you add wet ingredients to dry, whisk it, wait maybe ten minutes, then you’re ready to make the noodles.. You can just grab a strainer and make a double boiler and put the batter right on. You steam your noodles and they’re done within minutes. Fresh, homemade, totally un-processed.
Q. Are we seeing a revival or resurgence of any particular ingredients or preparation methods?
I think people going back to what they know, or how they’ve cooked in the past. I was in Korea about fifteen years ago, and they were preparing an ancient dish calle Hanu beef, and it’s amazing. You can prepare Hanu beef using a special grill – the heat is from the bottom, and it has two tanks filled with water, so it was being grilled on this steam-heated surface. Heat from steam only gets up to about 220 degrees so the juices are sealed without the fat leaching out. It’s incredible.
Q. How does seasonality affect your work? Any holidays or times of year that garner a big shift?
In the fall and winter, we think of Japan, Korea, and China, because they have four seasons and a lot of hearty, spicier things, more braises. Today is the first day of our special – it’s called New Year’s Udon Noodle Soup, because on New Year’s in Korea, you have a rice cake soup called Tteokguk and it brings you good luck for the rest of the year if you have this soup. It’s my take on what I remember eating as a boy, modified for people’s tastes today. In spring and summer, my mind goes to something, green, citrusy, vibrant – not a lot of meat, nothing heavy – think Vietnam and Thailand during those warmer times.
Q. Tastes for global food is growing – which region of the world do you think will offer the next ‘big thing’?
That’s the magic question right? I’ve said this for the last ten years – India has to come. The population of that part of the world is so big, and it’s on it’s way to massively affecting the food world. I think the Caribbean is misrepresented right now and I think segments are going to come out: is it the Taino Indians, is it the Spanish…? We’re seeing smaller subcultures starting to emerge. Just like with Mexican, it was Mexican, now it’s regional Mexican.
Q. What’s your favorite dish to prepare at the moment? Why?
We do a kimchi stew with hominy, cumin, and pork belly and we garnish it with cabbage, radishes, and cilantro. It’s the best of two worlds. We always like to say when I do these Asian-Latin inspired dishes it’s a love story told through food. My wife was born in Puerto Rico and her mom is a great cook. I got to see the Latin side of cooking which I didn’t have. We’d have two holiday meals, one Puerto Rican and one Korean. Even though they seem worlds away from each other, there are so many similarities between those country. Mole is the same things as curry; we both use a lot of chilis; cilantro is the same as coriander. I never see a cuisine as immiscible. We can always cross-over; we’re cooking without borders.
Thank you, Chef Kim, for your insights and creativity! We look forward to seeing (and tasting) more in 2018.
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