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Before the acclaimed Korean restaurant Danji opened on W52nd Street in 2010, owner Hooni Kim was unsure of the success of an “ingredient and technique driven restaurant” in Hell’s Kitchen. There weren’t too many of those around, he said. However, after seeing the lines forming year after year just a few blocks away at Yakitori Totto, he decided the neighborhood could welcome a small Korean restaurant with equally as good ingredients. Danji was born.
Soon, Hooni began forming lines of his own, with Danji becoming the first Korean restaurant in the country to be awarded a Michelin star in 2011. His latest achievement? During the pandemic he released his first cookbook, entitled My Korea, and it made the New York Times’ list of “11 New Cookbooks Worth Buying, Even in Quarantine.”
In My Korea, which he co-authored with Aki Kamozawa, Hooni talks of everything from banchan, the small side dishes that are for sharing and are present in every family table, to the globally popular kimchi, whose acidity goes beautifully with fatty meats, and the many varieties of jang, sauces made from fermented soy beans that can be found in virtually every meal.
After 7 years of writing, My Korea finally went to the printers at the end of 2019, just ahead of the global pandemic. It published in April 2020, when the city was seeing some of its highest COVID numbers, and Hooni never got the chance to promote the book in front of people and tell his story in person.
Danji suffered during the pandemic, with business dropping 80% from pre-pandemic times. After laying off most of its staff, the restaurant is managing to hold on — thanks to the landlord lowering its rent. Hooni hopes he can bring back more staff soon.
The pandemic has helped Danji re-kindle its relationship with Hell’s Kitchen locals. Previously unable to get a reservation, Hooni says that neighborhood folk are currently a majority of his customers. “We’re so thankful we’re getting to know our locals more now and we’re going to make sure it’s easier for them to come in again even after the pandemic is over,” he said. With dishes like soy-poached black cod with spicy daikon and bacon wet kimchi fried rice, Danji is most definitely a Hell’s Kitchen must.
You can also try cooking Korean cuisine for yourself with the guidance of My Korea, a cookbook that you want to both read for the sake of reading and read to learn a new recipe. At the beginning of each chapter, the theme (be it Meat, Seafood, Noodles) is introduced almost as a beginner’s “how-to”, offering an in-depth description of Korean customs, tradition and history.
Even the recipe instructions read more as a guiding narrative than a boring step by step, giving the feeling that Hooni is right there cooking with you.
Although raised in London and New York, Hooni talks about how his many visits to South Korea shaped his connection to Korean food. From the bustling food trucks of Seoul and Busan to the fresh fish of his late father’s birthplace (an island off the southernmost tip of the peninsula), My Korea provides us with a personal look into the life of this trailblazing chef and his deep connections with food.
“I think chefs try to communicate and reveal themselves through the food we cook,” said Hooni. “I try to do that with the ingredients I choose, the balance of tastes, variety of textures, etc… But with each dish on the menu there’s a history, inspiration, and a lot of why’s. That’s tough to explain through food alone, so when there was an opportunity to communicate with people through this book I considered it a huge privilege.”
Just like My Korea, Danji tells a story: a story of a neighborhood that became a destination for Michelin-rated food, and a story of a cuisine that finally became globally recognized. In the introduction of the cookbook, Hooni tells us, “the most important part of Korean food, as any Korean mother will tell you, is the concept of cooking with jung sung — to cook with heart and devotion.” Just like the cuisine that made them famous, and the stories that will make them legendary, Hooni, Danji, and My Korea are all also filled with just that, enough jung song to get them through to the other side of these difficult times, and enough to keep us hungry for more.