Peek into the minds of Ann Arbor’s culinary arbiters when, each issue, a new local chef shares their unique perspective on Washtenaw County’s dining and hospitality culture.
Fusing the best of Korea’s culinary oeuvre with local Michigan produce, Ann Arbor-based Miss Kim offers a menu with options as diverse as Miso Butter Fall Squash, Tteokbokki (“spicy rice batons”) and Korean Fried Chicken. With the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses-affiliated restaurant approaching its first birthday, Chef/Managing Partner Ji Hye Kim reflects on her earliest cooking memories, her inspiration from generationally evolving dishes, and radishes.
What local ingredients do you love to use in your restaurant? I love more humble vegetables like collard greens and radishes. Radishes are my spirit vegetable— they’re spicy and versatile––great in salads and braises, wonderful pickled and as kimchi. They’re also very pretty, especially in Michigan, where they come in a kaleidoscope of colors and varieties, like purple daikon radishes from Seely Farm. Also collards, which we braise, sauté, and blanch for various stews and sides. I get collards from We the People Growers from Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor Seed Company, both small but mighty farmers with important missions. We the People Growers work to provide opportunities to the recently incarcerated, and Ann Arbor Seed Company to preserve heirloom seeds.
Where do you get your culinary inspiration? Obviously Korea, but also Italy and America. Really, it’s not so much which specific country, but rather I look at the spirit of old cuisines. I search for the origins, the history, the culture and how a dish has evolved. I feel like understanding the story of a dish helps me understand the essence of that dish before I give myself the freedom to be inspired and interpret the dish as my own.
Because I was born and raised in Korea, grew up in America, spent a little time in Italy, and trained in America, all these experiences come into play. Korea is where it all starts, where I left my large extended family, holidays and childhood. I love the simplicity and confidence of Italian food. America is home— where I’m allowed to be an immigrant— and came into my own. America’s diversity is messy, but exciting and beautiful.
When did you decide to become a chef? I was eating some Korean food that was either take-out or bought in a store. It was good, but not as good as my mother’s homemade food. Authenticity, in food for me, is so closely tied to experiences. I distinctly remember thinking, “F-ck it, I’m just going to make it myself.” Once the restaurant opened, I had to really own the title of Chef, as opposed to a cook. It’s the big leagues now, so it’s the time to step up. I’m learning to be a better chef and a leader everyday.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking? I saw my mother and my grandmother pouring what looked like a 50-pound bag of chili flakes into a huge tub big enough to bathe a child or two. They were making gochujang (fermented red chili paste). My earliest memory cooking was making dumplings for days with aunts, uncles and cousins during a New Year’s celebration.