Tag Archives: food

KBBQ Lasagna

Seth Rogen, James Franco and Epic Meal Time Make a Korean BBQ Lasagna

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Korean food is a wonderful thing. From the meats to the veggies to the seafood and every grain of rice, there is such a wide range of tastes and pleasures within every dish.

Leave it to the loud, bearded guys at Epic Meal Time to smash it all together in their own charming way. Add in Seth Rogen and James Franco, and you have the best or worst cooking segment ever filmed, depending on your mood and sobriety. In that context, the enormous Korean BBQ lasagna they threw together is either the nastiest or most delicious thing you’ve ever seen.

The actors were on hand to promote their upcoming movie, The Interview, in which their characters are tasked by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un when they travel to North Korea. According to Rogen and Franco, nothing screams authentically Korean more than fries and pasta. And Koreans apparently eat everything with kimchi, gochujang and ssamjang, which might not be too far from the truth.

Pack in bulgogi (which Franco says is named for the lead prosecutor in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi), kimchi pork belly and kimchi pancakes in between the kimchi pasta layers, and you have an enormous spicy lasagna with a touch of cultural ignorance. Of course, it’s James Franco and Seth Rogen, so what can you do.

Check out the video below:


Feeding the Soul in ‘Hungry for Love’

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Many people go to New York City to “make it there.” With the sheer number and diversity of New Yorkers, you can also find plenty of unique and delicious places to eat there, too.

The food from the city that never sleeps is central to Hungry for Love, a film looking to gain financial backing via Kickstarter. The story centers around two individuals struggling to make a living: Giovanni works as a pastry delivery driver who dreams of traveling America in a transnational food crawl, and Priscilla is an aspiring writer struggling to publish her first book while saddled in student loan debt.

When the two strangers meet for the first time, they discover a mutual passion for food, which takes them on an epic all-night dining adventure through NYC’s five boroughs. They decide to drop everything for a while as they enjoy and explore cultural neighborhoods, meet unique individuals and eat delicious food. The experience not only brings them closer together, but empowers them when facing their problems head-on.


Hungry for Love is the first feature film collaboration for writer/director Justin Ambrosino and producer Soojin Chung, both graduates of the American Film Institute (AFI). Ambrosino’s short The 8th Samurai won several awards and qualified for an Academy Award, while Chung has worked on multiple films in South Korea, including Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. She also produced the surreal Escape from Tomorrow, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to acclaim.

Ambrosino and Chung spoke to KoreAm via email about their crowdfunding effort for Hungry for Love, as well as how food has shaped their own lives and careers. You can view their Kickstarter page here.

How did the idea for the film and story come about? What drew both of you to the story?

Soojin Chung: I came to America from South Korea in 2006 and gained about 20 pounds while living in LA. Two years ago, I went back to South Korea for the post-production of my previous film Escape From Tomorrow and reconnected with my old friends and colleagues. But shortly after the happy reunion, over Korean BBQ, they started to recommend diets, blind dates and dying my gray hair. Suddenly, I was looked at differently. Korean people were shocked and genuinely concerned about my weight, age and my single status.

Altogether, I became an un-ideal woman, and that’s when I realized how I am categorized in Korean society and what that feels like. Even when I went to the Dongdaemoon market to buy some clothes, people gave me a quick, cold look and yelled, “We don’t carry your size!” even though I am a size “medium” in America.

When I came back, I told Justin about how miserable I was feeling. He related it to his own family and their stories. In fact, had Justin always wanted to make a heartwarming love story with non-traditional romantic leads. I thought that was a story worth telling so we can understand the opposite side of the issue, especially with the overwhelming amount of beauty and fitness advertisements.


Justin Ambrosino: I remember being a child and holding my mother’s hand while we walked and some older kids would make fun of her, calling her a derogatory name because of her weight. She didn’t say anything, only held my hand tighter as we quickly walked away. I was young and confused but I could sense that she was hurt by it.

As I grew older, I began to feel her feelings, especially when we’d watch movies together, and the issue of weight would come up in some scene. When it was handled in a comedic way that made fun of it she would feel bad or uncomfortable, but when done in a more empathetic way, she might smile or even laugh herself! I knew I’d like to see her happy about it but I couldn’t figure out what to do to make that possible.

For me, I thought nothing of her weight—I cannot see her any other way but beautiful because I know her heart is in the right place. To me that is true beauty. And when I became a filmmaker, I finally found a way to do something about it—make Hungry for Love.

Who are Giovanni and Priscilla? What was the inspiration for the characters?

JA: Well, they are not your typical romantic movie leads, that’s for sure! Too many scripts put together a “smoking hot babe” and a “chiseled hunk” and we watch the drama ensue, but personally I cannot relate to those characters. Almost everybody I know feels like they are struggling to get to where they want to be. Giovanni and Priscilla are the same. They’re just regular people, good people, who also deserve a happy ending, too. So, when writing the script, I was thinking about the people I know in my life—my family and my friends. Each character is a reflection of someone close to me.

SC: I believe there is a little of everyone in Giovanni and Priscilla. For example, after sustaining an injury while I was working on a Korean film set, I came to the U.S. to restart my career. Making that transition, I had my fair share of ups and downs like everybody else, and sometimes I just needed to let it all go, to restore my strength. And that is where Giovanni and Priscilla are at in their lives. After having a bad day, they just want to enjoy themselves instead of feeling depressed. And who knows? Maybe they can find hope and confidence, or even their soul mate, who doesn’t judge them!

If you could, tell us a little about the journey the characters go on. How do they ultimately come to realize who they truly are?

JA: Giovanni and Priscilla face their own set of internal struggles. Giovanni is a shy man with hopes and dreams but lacks the courage to pursue them. The world is too intimidating for him and therefore he is content with what little he has.

Priscilla on the other hand is a force to be reckoned with. She is determined to pursue her dreams but lacks a certain positive outlook on life to achieve them. Basically, she lets the obstacles in her way get her down. Eventually, Giovanni finds the courage he never knew he had and Priscilla learns to take life day by day and be happy with what she has.

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Food is so prevalent in the media and popular culture. How can food play a role in an intimate relationship?

JA: In the particular case of Giovanni and Priscilla, food is what brings them together. They are both used to eating alone. While Priscilla might be comfortable with it because she’s a bit more independent, for Giovanni it is the worst part of his day. He loves food but he hates eating alone, so eating with company is the ultimate definition of happiness for him.

On the other hand, for Priscilla, eating is a necessary habit. She doesn’t think about what she is eating, but through the experience of eating with Giovanni, she begins to appreciate food in a different way and therefore begins to enjoy life a bit more. So, by sharing time and eating at a dinner table, they each give something to the other they never had before.

How did the restaurants featured in the movie make the cut? Do they have a personal connection to either of you?

SC: In the script, Justin wrote in restaurants he loves whether he has a personal connection to them or not. Even though we’ve been going around to many places, ultimately we have not casted the restaurants yet because we would like the audiences to join us in that process. We would like to make an online campaign to choose the restaurants that will be in the movie. It is going to be fun to hear everyone’s opinion… so I encourage your readers to follow us on Twitter and Facebook and be apart of the experience! Of course, I am thrilled to have the chance to introduce some unique Korean restaurants too!

What do you notice about the different cuisines among the five boroughs? Do they point to a larger culture that is representative of each area?

JA: Imagine you are looking at Earth from outer space. Now smash that globe, and shove it into a tiny set of islands along the Hudson River. That is New York City. It’s a microcosm of the world. You can find every kind of cuisine here. And it can get more specific than your average city. While other cities might have a famous Caribbean restaurant, in one part of the NYC, known as Flatbush, Brooklyn, you can find many Caribbean restaurants, only they are called Haitian, Jamaican, Bajan and other specific Caribbean country’s cuisine.

SC: From a non-New Yorker’s perspective, I found it very interesting that every borough and every town within every borough, and every block within every town, is culturally diverse! Like in Queens, you can walk around and see nothing but Greek food with Greek signage, then turn the corner and see nothing but Korean food and signage! It’s like the city changes with one turn of the head. But in the end, it’s all New York City!

Justin, how do you think food and restaurant culture has changed, particularly in New York? What has remained the same?

JA: There is a bittersweet scene in the script where the characters are going to an Argentinean restaurant where Giovanni has great memories of eating at as a kid, but when they arrive they find out it will be closing for good the very next day. They have a “last supper” of sorts and share a moment with the chef who has mixed feelings himself about what’s happening.

You see, this is a story I hear all the time in New York. Every day a new landmark restaurant is closing. Whether it is the raising of rents, the owners retiring or the competition winning, it’s really hard to pinpoint the answer to the change, but this is NYC, change is inevitable.

With the influx of new restaurants offering farm-to-table, organic cuisines, with locally sourced ingredients, the older restaurants are put into a dilemma: change their menu and offend their regulars or stick with their menu but get passed over by new residents. I think the most successful restaurants are the ones that were originally farm-to-table, always using locally sourced ingredients and that changed their menus frequently–they stayed fresh with each generation.


Soojin, how much of an impact has food had in your life? Does this film have any personal touch for you as well?

SC: Growing up, I was never interested in food. I was an unusual kid because I didn’t ask for candy, chocolate, ice cream or hamburgers like the other children. But since I met Justin, eight years ago, I found another side of myself that I never knew existed.

When we worked on our first film at AFI together, Justin invited the crew to his tiny apartment for our first production meeting (where we were supposed to discuss all the details of making the film). But when I arrived, Justin was sweating, frying fresh shrimp, making dough from scratch—he was cooking up a feast! Then, as we ate, all everyone discussed was food and wine. It was definitely a delicious dinner, made with love and care, but after three hours of talking and eating, I wondered when the production meeting would begin! But everybody seemed to have no problem, and as the only Asian in our group, I took it as cultural differences. But along the way, I was slowly became a foodie myself and here I am.

What’s the approximate timetable for the movie?

Hungry For Love was selected for the IFP Project Forum 2013. Ever since then, we have been pitching to financiers and film industry people. Luckily, we’ve drawn positive attention, and we are running a Kickstarter Campaign supported by Sundance, IFP (Independent Film Project), Film Independent and Filmmaker Magazine.

Crowdfunding has become the opening gate to making independent films and to prove to the investors there is an audience for each film. The success of our campaign will surely convince our potential financiers and lead to us raising the complete budget. We are aiming to shoot our movie in April 2015 and delivering the final film by September 2015 so we can begin our festival run in 2016. But all this will not be possible unless we succeed our Kickstarter campaign, so it’s really up to your readers and all the people out there to make our dreams come true!


Images courtesy of Soojin Chung & Justin Ambrosino


Chef Hooni Kim Offers Honest Food at Hanjan


In 2012, Chef Hooni Kim earned an internationally coveted Michelin star for Danji, a small, 36-seat Midtown New York restaurant serving boldly transformed Korean flavors. Known for an unyielding attention to detail and obsession with creating the most delicious food possible, Kim is elevating Korean cuisine yet again with his latest Manhattan restaurant, Hanjan.

Meaning “one drink” in Korean, Hanjan represents a more soulful departure from the kimchi bacon paella and steak tartare you’ll find at Danji. Along with the rest of the night crowd (good luck getting a seat), you’ll develop a love affair with his spicy ramyeon with a 12 hour-simmered broth and pork fat ddukbokki, or spicy rice cakes.


Hanjan is a chic and modern interpretation of the traditional joomak, or Korean tavern where weary travelers would rest while enjoying good food and drink. Hanjan’s creations are best appreciated with Kim’s equally finessed drink menu, which highlights creative takes like the angry subak (watermelon).

With rave reviews and Hanjan named one of the 10 best restaurants of 2013 by the New York Times, Kim seems to be cementing his legacy among the new wave of Korean American chefs who are making Korean flavors an essential part of the American palate. We sat down with the busy chef, who reflected on his memories of food, his dedication to duengjang and the future of Korean cuisine in America.


You say you’re a proud New Yorker. Can you tell us about your upbringing and how you got into food?

I was born in Korea, lived in London until I was 10, and I’ve been in New York City ever since. My mom didn’t cook—she had, and still has, her own company, so she was busy. At the time I went to Bronx Science, which is a public high school, and to get the private school girls, you would try to take them to fancy restaurants (laughs). I remem- ber my very first fine dining experience was at Bordeaux. And I fell in love [with the food]. I still at the time didn’t cook. But that’s when I started becoming a foodie and enjoyed eating good food, whether it be fine dining or just very casual.

You attended medical school. At what point did decide to switch to culinary school? What was that internal change that took place?

I went to medical school, got married, [was] about to graduate, but I took a year sabbatical because I was going to apply to neurosurgery, which was a six-year residency at the time—and that’ s when I [decided to go] to culinary school. I hated the hospital. I wasn’t exposed to the whole patient-doctor relationship part of medicine until it was too late, until I started medical school. I would follow doctors around, and sometimes there wasn’t much you can do. It was neurosurgery. It was gunshots and stab wounds. When I really started talking to patients, it was just very depressing every day, and I had to take it home with me. I just couldn’t. This work [I do now] is easy in that there’s nothing you can do when you’re not in the restaurant. See, when the customers are in, that’s show time, we do our best. [After] the last customer leaves, we don’t have to worry about anything because ultimately our job is to make sure the customers have a good time.

Cul-Intro-ON14-Hooni-Food4Freshly killed fried chicken with pickles.

Did you get some negative feedback from your Korean family for leaving medicine?

Oh yeah, my mom didn’t speak to me for a year—and my mom still has issues. But she’s … happy that I’m happy.

After attending the French Culinary Institute, you trained at Daniel, the top French, Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. How difficult was it to make that transition into the culinary field?

If Daniel didn’t offer me a job, I probably would’ve gone back to school. Daniel is where people worked for free. People were lined up at their door just to get their foot inside. So, when they offered me a job, it was sort of like, “Really? Can I be a professional cook? Get paid to cook in one of the best restaurants in the country?”

You had this rigorous training in French and Japanese cuisine. Why Korean food?

I remember cooking French food at Daniel. I got to be pretty good, but you could see the French kids cooking French food, they had a different kind of passion. They had this pride. And they loved the fact that a non-French person would learn how to cook their food. But it was different. I didn’t have that pride cooking French food, nor did I have pride cooking Japanese food. You know, for me, it’s technique, I’m learning something from them, but this isn’t who I am. No matter what kind of food we’d like to cook, ultimately the best food we’re gonna cook has to come from within. There is that honesty.

Cul-Intro-ON14-Hooni-Food5Pork fat ddukbokki.

Hanjan is awesome because it’s reminiscent of the food stalls you would find walking down the streets in Korea. You have ddukbokki and it’s familiar, yet you’ve made it up- scale. What’s your philosophy?

Yes, Korean food is what people think I cook, but every dish is so per- sonal. And ultimately, when I decide to put something on the menu, I have to feel—I don’t have to be right, but I have to feel and think this is the best version. If I didn’t think my ddukbokki was the best, if I thought somebody was making it better, I wouldn’t put it on the menu.

So, making Korean food more mainstream?

More New York. More American. The flavors are exotic, and a lot of thought went into making everything on the menu, but we also thought about how to present them visually that’s not so exotic. Flavor-wise, it’s there. We use five ingredients from Korea. For Hanjan, I wanted to be a little bit more authentic, flavor-wise, whereas [with] Danji, it’s the Korean American side of me.

What are the five ingredients?

Gochugaru (red chili pepper powder), gochujang (red pepper paste), duengjang (soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), and chamgireum (sesame oil). Those five we get artisanally made in Korea, and with those five ingredients, we really use the flavors, especially with our duengjang. Everything is handmade, so our duengjang every year or within the same year, the flavor is different because of the hangari, or clay pot it’s stored in.

Cul-Intro-ON14-Hooni-Food3Pig trotters with squid fermented kimchi. 

How does the flavor change?

Hangari is how you store the duengjang. [The pot is] made out of clay, so it’s breathable. So depending on how much sun that it gets, the flavors will be either more or less concentrated. The only thing that goes into duengjang— you might think that it’s so complex, but it’s just soybean, salt, water. It’s those three ingredients, time and nature. The rain, the sun, the wind—all of that affects it. … It’s like a cabernet, where you taste it, and that finish, it just grows. And there’s complexity, and it’s telling you a story with one sip!

And after 30 seconds, you’re like, wow, that was good! Whereas, [with] a cheap glass of wine, after five seconds it disappears. But that is jang, Korean jang (thick sauce). Anything that is fermented, it takes time. So it should tell a story. It should tell art, of course … what kind of weather that year. Unfortunately supermarket products, it tastes similar, but it doesn’t have that finish.

How were you connected with Korean food growing up in a non-culinary family?

So every summer, since I think I waslike5or6,mymomsentmeto Korea. Every summer I would visit both my mom’ s and dad’ s sides [of the family]. Especially on my dad’s side, they lived on a small island, so the homecooked meals there, they would catch their own seaweed, dry it, and make salted dried seaweed out of it. And the rice, the island had a communal rice patch where everybody helped plant and harvest the rice, and that’s what you would eat.

Cul-Intro-ON14-Hooni-Food6Crispy perilla leaf dumplings with shrimp and pork. 

That’s amazing. So you’re kind of drawing on your personal history for your food.

I had forgotten about all of that for the longest time until I started cooking, and then, you know, magically, it comes back. I totally forgot all the banchan [side dishes] that I had when I was 10 years old. But it does come back.


It is in there somewhere. Food memory is powerful—like you’ll never forget your mom’s cooking. Hanjan taps into that because it’s total comfort food.

And that’s my biggest compliment. It’s like music. You can do it, and the point of every song is to move somebody emotionally. To us [chefs], there is no real sadness, happiness. It’ s nostalgia that we want to tap into.

What is your best advice to young chefs aspiring to have their own restaurant?

Humility. The more you learn about cooking, you realize there’ s so much more to learn. There’s never a perfect restaurant. The best way is to constantly learn from the people around you—the dishwashers, the bartender, the front of the house, managers, everybody. They all know information that will make the food and restaurant better.

Cul-Intro-ON14-Hooni-Food2Barbecue galbi short rib skewers (lettuce wrap, ssa-jang, scallion salad).

Where do you think the trend of Korean food is heading?

It’s got to be chef-ownership. If a chef owns the restaurant, it’s his reputation on the line. It’s more about the cooking and the food. You want to show people, this is real Korean food, and that’s the only way a cuisine develops. That happened with Japanese food. When they first came here it was a cheap place to get fish. But the chefs coming in said, “No, California rolls aren’t real sushi. This is real sushi,” and look where Japanese food is now. We need to do that with Korean food.

What’s next for Hooni Kim?

I have a cookbook coming out next fall, with stories about the inspirations. It’ s written. Norton is publishing it. And it’ s Maria Guarnaschelli, who edited The Joy of Cooking and is one of the most difficult people to please. But she’ s happy with it, so I think it’ s going to be a good book.


Featured image courtesy of Hye-ryoung Min. Food photos courtesy of Hooni Kim. 

This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Honest Food”  Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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A Thanksgiving Round-Up

by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee

The beauty of Thanksgiving lies in the different forms it takes in each household. We may associate the holiday with turkey “and all the trimmings,” but no two spreads will exactly resemble the other, particularly when your family has roots in another culture. On Thanksgiving Eve, we’ve compiled some links – some recent, others a throwback – that demonstrate how both Korean and American flavors can intermingle to bring out the best of both worlds.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving, we wish you a happy, healthy and full holiday.

“How to Have a Very Happy Changsgiving” -David Chang, GQ Magazine, Nov. 2014
David Chang, the Korean American chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, isn’t a big fan of turkey, as he explains in this piece for GQ. It’s on “the tail end of the list of delicious birds,” he writes, except maybe for crisped-up turkey skin. As he gives the proverbial “flip of the bird” to this traditional holiday main course, Chang offers up his version of a memorable Thanksgiving dish: his mother’s braised short ribs, or galbijim. In his family, Chang explains, “Someone will make all the Korean dishes, and someone else will do the American food. It’s this sick spread of everything white people eat and everything Korean people eat for celebratory meals.” A mash-up we approve.

“Where Kimchi Meets Bacon: A Blended Thanksgiving Feast” -Yuri Kwon, NBCNews.com, Nov. 2014
Yuri Kwon, a Korean American who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, writes in this short essay how her extended family has grown into “a multi-ethnic frame.” On top of that, every Thanksgiving, mandu (dumplings), pajeon (green onion pancakes) and japchae (glass noodles with vegetables) share the table with more traditional American fare. “Pitchers of gravy sit next to bowls of kimchi. We do these things not because we read about them on blogs but because it’s natural to us – we need them,” Kwon writes. Here is her recipe for kimchi, bacon & wild mushroom stuffing, a unique take on a Thanksgiving staple.

David Chang’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Asian VinaigretteO Magazine, Nov. 2011
Brussels sprouts don’t have to be the wilted, sad-looking side at your next Thanksgiving spread. Not when you have a recipe like this, one which kicks up the heat and spice level and infuses the crunchy, green vegetable with flavors such as fish sauce, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, cilantro and chilis. It’s a recipe also courtesy of chef David Chang, who wrote in this 2011 piece for Oprah Magazine, the dish became his “famous” contribution to family Thanksgiving potlucks.

“Wake Up Thanksgiving Mashed Potatoes With a Touch of Kimchi,” NPR, Nov. 2012
Chef and author Debbie Lee’s idea for “Kimchi smashed potatoes,” shared with NPR in 2012, came about as “an accident of the melding of flavors on your plate.” Her family’s Thanksgivings in Jackson, Miss., where she was raised, featured her mother’s Southern American food along with her grandmother’s kimchi. On her plate, Lee recalls, “the juice from the kimchi would end up going to the mashed potatoes, and I’d start stirring it.” Thus, a blessed union was born. In her recipe, Lee uses a combination of russet and sweet potatoes in addition to carrots and chicken broth to achieve perfect harmony.

Eat Turkey, Become American,” Marie Myung-Ok Lee, New York Times, Nov. 26, 2014
For Korean American novelist and essayist Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Butterball turkey and canned cranberry sauce was a Thanksgiving ritual growing up in northern Minnesota. As “a bit predictable, even banal,” as the occasion seemed to her young self, Lee reflects in this piece for the New York Times, Thanksgiving carried particular significance for her immigrant parents—Koreans who lived through the Japanese occupation, came to the United States shortly before the end of the Korean War, and eventually became citizens. Her parents, Lee writes, “insisted that we were not Koreans or even Korean-Americans, but Americans.” Even with the opening of a nearby Korean grocery store with the wave of new immigrants in the mid-1960s, Lee writes, “At home, however, our Midwestern diets remained inviolate, on Thanksgiving in particular. Its rituals gave our family’s embryonic American life structure. It became my parents’ yearly recommitment ceremony to America.”

Photo courtesy of Hane C. Lee via Flicker/Creative Commons

Honey Butter Chips

Honey-Flavored Potato Chips: SKorea’s Latest Snack Crave


Honey butter? You have our curiosity. Honey butter potato chips? Now we’re talking!

We would be talking about how delicious they are, but we don’t know where to get them — and apparently, neither do most South Koreans. Haetae’s “Honey Butter Chips” have all but disappeared from store shelves since it was released in August. It’s become the most popular snack item in Korea, and even online vendors are having trouble keeping up with the demand.

Korea Daily reports that over 5 billion won worth of Honey Butter Chips were sold in October, which is amazing considering a snack item is considered a success if its month sales exceed 1 billion won ($929,000).

The Wall Street Journal also reported that accumulated sales have reached 10.3 billion won ($9.3 million), as of Tuesday. Haetae is running around to keep up with demand, adding night and weekend shifts to raise production by 30 to 40 percent.

Honey Chips

So what do these flakes of gold/potato chips taste like? According to So Sung-su, Haetae’s public relations chief, it’s a combination of “salty, sweet and buttery tastes that suit the palate of many South Koreans.” At first glance, they appear to look like your standard salty potato chips, but apparently there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Note the packaging that reads “gourmet butter” from France. Since everything that comes from France is better, we already know that these chips are classy. Paris Baguette should take these chips with them, along with their world-class breads and pastries.

KoreAm did a taste test of Korean chips earlier this year. We may need to conduct a second round.

Photos courtesy of Korea Daily and Chosun Ilbo

Photo by CandaceWest.com3-26-2014,Bao Las Olas1200 E. Las Olas Blvd. , Fort Lauderdale.

Simon Bai Returns to Asian Roots at Bao

by STEVE HAN | @stevehan

Simon Bai speaks Dutch and Creole. His Spanish is also “all right,” he says. MEGA 94, Miami’s local Latin music station targeting its massive Central and South American immigrant population, is his car’s default radio station.

One of the reasons this 33-year-old, South Florida-based entrepreneur opened Bao, an Asian-themed bar and restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, earlier this year was that he grew frustrated with feeling “so not Asian,” even though he’s a full-blooded Korean. “I wanted something to tell me I’m still kind of Asian somewhere, you know?” Bai says, as he sits across the table from me at his bar. “Like, I wanted to do something Asian!”

Born in Brazil, Bai was raised in Suriname and settled in South Florida after he graduated from Penn State with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2003.

“I’m a little screwed-up in the head,” Bai says, laughing. “I’m not Surinamese, technically. I’m not Latin, technically. I’m not Korean, technically. I don’t know what the hell I am. I’ve lived in the U.S. as long as I lived in Suriname. So, am I American then? I don’t know. I won’t consider myself American until the friggin’ immigration gives me a green card.”

Green card or not, South Florida is where Bai, who’s in the U.S. on an investor visa, feels at home more than anywhere else in the U.S. After finishing college, he landed a job at Motorola, which had a plant near Miami until 2004. That’s when Bai took the entrepreneurial route and started a frozen yogurt and cupcake business amid the nation’s Pinkberry craze. The business took off, Bai says, and that’s what shepherded him into the hospitality industry. He ran a wine bar and then a sports bar, which he sold last year to start Bao.

Opened this past February, Bao (which could mean “treasure” in Mandarin and also refers to a popular bun in Chinese cuisine) is located by the waterway on the strip of Las Olas, Ft. Lauderdale’s hip and bustling shopping and dining district, where even those cruising on a boat could pull up for a cocktail by the water.

What’s more impressive is that the bar, built using wood from the Munguur tree, complemented by Indonesian teak furniture, was mostly designed by Bai himself. He transformed what used to be an old Chinese restaurant into an attractive nightlife destination in only six months.

“I’m the restaurant vulture, the restaurant rehabilitator, or whatever it is,” Bai says. “I always try to find failing restaurants, see if there’s an opportunity, and I’ll go and redo everything. When you grow up in a third-world country, you grow up without resources. So that’s how I approach everything. Every restaurant I buy, I basically gut it.”


Bai’s father, who picked up Portuguese during college in Korea, first moved to Brazil in the 1970s, when an American seafood company with offices in Brazil hired him to communicate with Korean fishermen and ship captains. After Bai was born, his family moved to Suriname, where his father started his own business, exporting shrimp to the U.S. and Japan.

Sensing that the only way to ensure quality education for their two children was by sending them abroad, Bai’s parents sent him and his sister to Miami in 1998. Bai has been in the U.S. since, but still visits his hometown of Paramaribo several times a year to reunite with his friends—with whom he shares fond memories of going “stray dog hunting.”

“We had packs of stray dogs,” Bai recalls. “That’s how third-world it was. But I loved the place. That’s home, where anything is possible.”

Even in Suriname, Bai grew up in a traditional Korean household—attending piano lessons and taking taekwondo throughout his childhood—but today, he only speaks broken Korean (his first language is Dutch and second is Creole). He remarks that this reporter is the first Korean he’s met in person this year, aside from his sister who came to visit him a few months ago. But he proudly says that his upbringing in Suriname, where resources are vastly limited, helped him develop the business mind that inspired his growing hospitality empire.

“I look at different start-ups and I’m like, ‘Why are these guys so spoiled?’” Bai says. “They do rounding, funding and raise all this money. They kind of operate comfortably. I operate like I’m going out of business every single day because, then, there’s that fire up my ass, and I just run. That’s what I do.”

At Bao, Bai’s fifth project, the kitchen is almost fully exposed to the dining area, so that anyone at the bar could watch its executive chef, Mark Rivera, make both authentic and fusion Asian cuisine. Bai and Rivera both take great pride in using high-quality ingredients.

“South Florida’s dining destinations kind of suck,” Bai says. “It’s more geared towards tourists and volume, as opposed to quality. That’s what we’re trying to change. Everything is actually cooked. Everything is fresh grown, which is new. In California, you have more opportunity to go from farm to table. I’ll give you an example. It’s extremely hard to find wild sockeye salmon. We literally seek it. That’s why we also run out of a lot of things. That’s our biggest complaint right now. Grass-fed beef, for instance, they run out of them. We literally seek farms, fisheries, to provide us with better ingredients.”

Bai is even willing to leave money on the table by refusing to serve sushi and pad Thai, just so that they could protect the brand they’re trying to build with Bao.

“If you go down the strip here, there are four Asian restaurants,” says Bai. “They do what sells—California rolls and pad Thai. I don’t even know how much money we lost because we don’t have sushi. The idea behind that is so that people don’t pigeonhole us as ‘that other Asian restaurant.’ When  they talk about us, whether it’s good or bad, I want them to say, “Oh, let’s go to that crazy place where they don’t have your typical Asian dishes.’”

The next goal for Bao is to expand its boundaries. Bai is already in negotiations with two other locations in South Florida, where he hopes to run “express” versions of Bao.

“The current version [of Bao] is fine dining,” Bai says. “We’re a dinner destination. So I’m pushing that lunch aspect, lunch and light dinner. We’ll take the current menu and dumb it down to fast food. You look at the Chipotle model, they’ve got an amazing model, so we’re trying to be the Asian version of that.

“This is my first Asian concept,” he adds. “I wanted to do something Asian [because] I’m friggin’ Asian! I’m trying to go back to my roots.”


Photo by CandaceWest.com.

This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Finally Friggin’ Asian”  Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


The RushOrder team

Online Food Delivery App Taps into L.A.’s Koreatown


Ordering delivery from a slew of neighborhood restaurants, all from the convenience of your smartphone or mobile device, has never been easier thanks to apps like Seamless, Eat24 and other brands.

The latest product to join the online food delivery space is RushOrder, a Los Angeles-based start-up that aims not only to minimize wait times for things like the check or a latte for the busy person on the go, but also to bring small mom-and-pop-type establishments in Los Angeles’ Koreatown into the online delivery fold.

This pairing of Korean restaurant options with the technological ease of ordering menu items online (let alone discovering such a place exists within several miles of your location) is one thing the team behind RushOrder believes separates it from its competitors.

“We’re familiar with these places and the people who go there, so we’re able to bring these restaurants into our system,” said Eric Kim, RushOrder’s chief operating officer. “We’re providing access to users and customers who haven’t had access to these restaurants before. A customer can now order from restaurants that serve Korean blood sausages.”

RushOrder originally was conceived as a way to eliminate inefficiencies of the dine-in experience, such as waiting for a server to take an order or bring the check. The product has since undergone several “pivots,” as the team members put it, by focusing on partnering with restaurants and capitalizing on the growing popularity of L.A.’s Koreatown.


RushOrder launched in February. Though it aims to serve cities all over the country, it’s concentrated in L.A. for now.

Available on Android Google Play and Apple iOS for the iPhone and iPad, the RushOrder app hopes to fill a large gap in the online food delivery space.

“The thing we want to emphasize is Koreatown and how those restaurants are not really on these online platforms,” Kim said. “We want to introduce this older generation of Koreans who own these businesses to technology.”

“On the tech side,” he added, “a lot of online ordering companies haven’t been able to access this market because the people who run it aren’t familiar with this space and the language barriers.”

Kim, a 30-year-old former Wall Street consultant who grew up in Koreatown, credits popular chefs like the Kogi Truck’s Roy Choi and culinary television personality Anthony Bourdain for helping put Koreatown on the map as a food destination, thus making it a prime source of savory dining options for the online delivery crowd.

RushOrder will soon be offering delivery and takeout from nearly 300 restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area, including lesser-known places like Nak Won House, Wako Donkasu, Myung In Dumplings and Jang Teo Bossam, in addition to pizza joints and delicatessen staples.

“The mobile ordering payment space is pretty competitive,” Kim acknowledged. “There are lots of companies like us running around. The challenge isn’t getting the restaurants on board. The important metric is, how fast are they growing orders and users, and are they bringing in business?”

So among the plethora of online delivery platforms that seem to be expanding by the day, is there really room for another product?

“Yes,” says Kim. “Delivery is becoming a much greater part of peoples’ lives. Everyone is so busy these days. People spend less time going out to eat and more time working and keeping themselves busy.”

“Even in a place like L.A.,” he said, “the need for delivery is growing rapidly.” Plus, Kim adds, “The Koreatown community is becoming much more popular in Los Angeles.”

Photo Courtesy of RushOrder


‘Calculus Chocolates’ Offer Sweet Relief for Korean Students


Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.


That is, unless you buy a box from Piaf Artisan Chocolatiers in South Korea. And if your life revolves around studying, like most Korean students during the annual college entrance exam season, a box of Piaf Artisan chocolates might be exactly what you’re looking for.

The latest work from the Seoul-based chocolatier features candies decorated with calculus equations. Assuming the chocolate is delicious, this could very well be the perfect food for thought.

Chocolate 1

“I hope these can bring a smile to their faces as they get themselves prepared for the exams,” creator Ko Eun-su told the Wall Street Journal.

Ko, who left a seven-year career as a computer engineer to pursue his passion in chocolate-making, explained that he took the project “very seriously.” But the feedback wasn’t quite what he expected.

“[Customers] said people cracked up when they got these [chocolates],” he said.

The calculus chocolates are sold in box sets of four, nine and 15, and they will run you 13,000 won ($12), 25,000 won ($23) and 39,000 won ($36) respectively. Each box also comes with a helpful booklet explaining the equations.

Chocolate 4

Chocolate 5

You can check out the rest of Piaf Artisan Chocolatier’s creations at their Facebook page.

Images via Piaf Artisan Chocolatier