Two South Korean-born chefs endeavor to bring traditional Korean dishes into the limelight with a modern culinary makeover.
by JANE KIM
photos by AYLA CHRISTMAN
Above photo: Brian Sehong Kim, left, and Tae Kyung Ku were classmates at the Culinary Institute of America when they discussed opening a restaurant together one day.
Between Seventh Street and St. Marks Place just west of the historic Nuyorican Poets café in New York City, a small sign dangles next to a set of French windows that look out onto First Avenue. Etched into the distressed wood is a single word: Oiji.
The word may be foreign, and basically meaningless, to most New Yorkers who whisk by this corridor in the East Village. Yet, for those who grew up with home-cooked Korean meals, oiji (pronounced o-ee-jee) brings to mind a humble banchan, or side dish, of thinly-sliced pickled cucumbers that is as common to a Korean household as kimchi.
Although the restaurant’s namesake is not on the menu, it represents the type of traditional Korean fare that is offered: cold buckwheat noodles, smoked mackerel and slow-cooked oxtail, to name a few. The spare 14-item menu reflects the conceptual approach Oiji’s two Seoul-born chefs—Brian Sehong Kim and Tae Kyung Ku—took when developing the idea to serve timeless, albeit lesser-known, Korean dishes to diners.
“When I was in Korea, I thought that Americans knew a lot about Korean food from what I’d seen on TV,” says the 33-year-old Ku in an interview in Oiji’s intimate space, formerly occupied by Dok Suni, a modern Korean restaurant. “But, when I came here, there was a huge gap in development and flavor.”
To bridge this gap, Kim and Ku, who were roommates at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate New York, intentionally steered away from popular Korean dishes with proven mass appeal, such as bulgogi and bibimbap. Using what they knew about what everyday Koreans eat as a guiding light, the chefs honed in on such foods as nooroongji (crispy rice) or jangjorim (soy braised beef) and reworked and refined them.
“From a business perspective, these dishes might be criticized as boring or too commonplace. But we don’t agree,” says Kim, 35. Neither do diners.
Dubbed as one of the hottest restaurants in Manhattan at the moment by Zagat and Thrillist, Oiji—which opened this past May in a space that seats only 40—both brightens and broadens the spotlight that chefs such as David Chang, Hooni Kim and Roy Choi have placed on Korean cuisine and flavors.
Kim and Ku keep the dishes small in portion and the meal interactive in true Korean fashion. Yet, equating their take on classic Korean foods to the rise of gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese, the chefs have transformed beloved banchan into proper, stand-alone entrées. And so, while diners watch, a server pours rich seafood broth over a slice of nooroongji instead of the traditional barley tea. Beef tartare, or yukhwe, is accompanied by ramp aioli. Oiji’s jangjorim is braised using French-influenced techniques, and layered over butter rice.
“These are the foods that we loved to eat growing up. So, we asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t they work in a restaurant?’” says Ku, whose vision is to ultimately see these dishes become as popular across America as they are back home in Seoul.
And did we mention the honey butter chips? Not a traditional Korean dish admittedly, these wafer-thin, sweet-and-salty chips glisten with melted honey and sugar. The chefs admit they came up with a house version of the hugely popular snack item in Korea as a marketing ploy to get the word out about their restaurant—not that it needed any additional boost.
Kim and Ku seem like an unlikely pair at first glance. Resembling a K-drama character in looks, Kim stands long and lean, sporting clean-cropped hair, hipster black frames, a designer white tee and slick jogger shorts during our interview. Meanwhile, Ku is far more unassuming, dressed in cargo pants, a flannel top and Patagonia cap. During the interview, the pensive Ku often paused to mull over a question, or occasionally waited to respond until after Kim spoke.
“Ku is a patient teacher, who waits and observes before he says anything,” describes Kim. “He’s also willing to do the work that no else wants to do.” Kim, on the other hand, says he has a hotter temper and scrutinizes the little details.
In the kitchen, these opposing personas result in a wholly complementary pairing: Ku hyper-focuses on capturing the authentic flavor notes that hit as close to home as possible. Then, Kim takes over to edit the dishes for public appeal and plate them in a style entirely his own.
The chefs each hail from families with long histories in the food and beverage industry, although both started careers in corporate marketing before switching gears in their late 20s. A passion for culinary arts brought them to the same seminar in Seoul. When they met again in 2009, they were randomly assigned as roommates at the CIA, from which they graduated in 2012. It wasn’t long before they discovered their mutual passion for Korean cuisine, and talked of one day opening a restaurant together.
At first, Kim worked in the kitchen of David Bouley’s eponymous restaurant while Ku worked at Gramercy Tavern. Less than a year passed before they decided to leave their respective posts and devote their full attention to the making of Oiji.
There have been the obvious roadblocks, such as scouting 18 months for a location and their limited English (parts of our interview were conducted in Korean, and later translated into English). Some other experiences took them more by surprise. For instance, even after the major pieces fell into place—the menu, restaurant, staff and operations—the chefs were aghast to learn that some Korean diners would leave complaining about the portion size.
To this, Kim unabashedly says, “Then, go to K-town.”
While the business consumes their every waking moment, both Kim and Ku say that the hard work has been worth it. Whatever the future holds for Oiji, the chefs agree, “If we can succeed in New York City, anything is possible.”
This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)