For a couple of years I wrote this column for The Daily Beast, and I interviewed dozens of great chefs and interesting, some offbeat, people in the hospitality trade, and told a part of their life story through the prism of their five favorite meals. There’s a wondrous intimacy in recounting some of your most special moments around food, although not always necessarily because of what you ate. Sometimes it’s the moment, the people you found yourself with, and sometimes it is unabashedly and gloriously the food.
Then one day my editor at the Beast left, for apparently greener pastures, and the publication, traumatized, shut the entire section he had edited on food and drink, and, like a theater, it went dark. So — and this took a year — I decided to bring the column home (it actually was a WONDERLUST column first, briefly, in 2017).
Baekjeong is a group of superior Korean barbecue restaurants — calling it a chain would do an injustice to the quality of each individual spot — in the US, mostly in California, with a new one in San Jose slated for Spring, one in Washington State (Lynwood, part of Seattle) and one in New York’s tiny Korea Town — if a street, East 32nd, running between 5th and 6th Avenues, can be called a town.
And Chef Samuel Kim, as the mighty important sounding Senior Director of Culinary Operations, runs the kitchens.
Samuel is a US born Korean American son of a diplomat, who has seen much of the world and straddles, and intimately understands, Asian and American cultures He’s also a superb chef, who learned at the feet of masters, most notably Gabriel Kreuther at Danny Meyer’s The Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “Most of my understanding of the technical aspects of cooking was learned in that kitchen,” Kim says. “The knowledge I gained from Chef Kreuther is the foundational pillar of how I conduct myself as a chef.”
He didn’t begin his career as a chef but, somewhat incongruously, as a banker. But the financial world held none of the romance of the kitchen, or the pull of countless hours cooking with his grandmother as a young boy. “Dinner was family time that was sacred,” he says in that wistful way only natural culinary artists have.
Samuel says his father taught him the best way to understand a place and its culture was to eat local food with locals. Sage advice, which has infused his cooking philosophy and served him well across Europe, Africa, the US and Asia.
Here are his five favorite meals.
Naejang Gom-tang (Beef Intestine Soup) at Pyongyang Jip, in Korea. The intestine soup they serve at this restaurant, which has been in business for more than 100 years, is the dish I crave most when I have not been back home in a while. The first time I had it was in high school after a long night enjoying the activities that Seoul has to offer. Before going home, two close friends suggested grabbing a meal and introduced me to the restaurant. What a memorable moment when the rich savory broth hit my lips! It is a moment and taste I still vividly remember to this day. Served alongside perfectly fermented kimchi, this soup makes for a hearty meal, especially when the weather is cold in Seoul.
There are not a lot of dishes I physically crave, but Naejang Gom-tang is definitely one of them.
Steamed Blue Crabs in Maryland. I spent a good part of my grade school years living in Maryland. Anyone who grew up in the Mid-Atlantic by the Chesapeake Bay probably shares similar memories. Summertime revolves around the Bay and the activities it provides. One of which is to enjoy blue crabs, the staple crab of Maryland. I have many childhood memories of taking spoiled raw chicken out to the Chesapeake to go crabbing. You tie the chicken to one end of a string with the other end tied to the pier. All you have to do is wait for the line to get taut and then you knew you would have bunches of crab attached to the chicken. When I was young, we could easily pull a bushel of crabs out of the water within two hours. The drive home was always the most difficult as your mouth watered thinking about those beautiful, steamed crabs smothered in Old Bay seasoning. When the crabs were done steaming, newspaper was laid on the table and the picking would begin.
Dinner at The French Laundry in Napa. If I had to choose my biggest culinary inspirations, Chef Thomas Keller would have to be included. I had always held Keller in very high esteem and was thrilled to have the opportunity to dine at The French Laundry after college. That meal and dining experience opened my eyes to what food can be.
The meal was like watching a perfectly synchronized opera. The way servers moved with grace, to the precision and technique with which each dish was presented, the whole meal was transformative in opening my eyes to what the highest levels of dining could be. Tasting Chef Keller’s classics like Oysters and Pearls and Salmon Cornet inspired me to get serious about cooking. The ambiance, the service, the thoughtful moments of hospitality and, most important, the pursuit of perfection in cooking.
Pork Soup Dumplings (Pork Xiao Lung Bao) at Joe’s Shanghai in New York. I was exposed to pork soup dumplings in high school while living in Asia. My first memory of eating these delicious dumplings was during a trip to Taipei. Soup dumplings are unique in that the dumpling is not served in a soup. Rather a rich pork stock is made and then cooled down. Upon refrigeration, the pork stock jellifies and is then mixed into the dumpling stuffing. When the dumplings are steamed before serving, the gelatin in the stock melts back down into a liquid broth within the dumpling wrapper. Joe’s Shanghai serves the closest dumplings in taste and size to the ones I enjoyed in Asia. What sets them apart from those at other restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown is the amount of broth in each dumpling and the depth of flavor to that broth. I can say unequivocally that when made properly, pork soup dumplings are my singular most enjoyable bite of food.
Hainanese Chicken at Singapore Hawker Stalls. Many people have become aware of this unique dish through the plethora of food travel shows. The beauty of this dish is the depth of flavor that is achieved through such simple ingredients and cooking technique. Starting with an organic chicken, a flavorful stock is made. The chicken is plunged in ice after the blanch to create that unique springy texture found in Hainanese chicken. The poaching liquid is then used with aromatics to steam the rice. Served with side dipping sauces, this dish is the perfect marriage of complex, rich flavors with simple technique and ingredients.
Even though it seems so simple to make, it is a really hard dish to master because the simplicity of the recipe has stripped down all ingredients except for the absolute necessary. Over the past 20 years I have yet to taste another version of Hainanese chicken close to the one at the hawker stalls in Singapore.