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Chicago Chefs Share Their Kimchi Stories

By Staff in Food on Mar 13, 2013 3:00PM

Photo via Shutterstock.

Kimchi is hot. And not just in the sense that the right batch can set your sinuses on fire. This fermented delicacy has become a focal point at some of Chicago’s best restaurants. From memories of kimchi comfort foods to recipes from old girlfriends, many of Chicago's best chefs have unique ties to the fermented food. Many of them are competing in this weekend's Kimchi Challenge at the Good Food Festival, and we asked a few fo them to tell us why they love the funky, spicy dish.

For Thai Dang, executive chef of Embeya, kimchi represents a distinct sense of childhood comfort. Born in Vietnam, Dang’s idea of kimchi is any number of pickled items, not just the potent red kimchi found in Korean restaurants. To this day, the pickled, pungent flavors of kimchi are comfort food for Dang.

Troy Graves is another chef with profound kimchi memories. One of his most vital food memories was when he was in the military, and he had a Korean barracks mate. Graves recalls how his comrade made kimchi and smelled up the barracks. “Little did I know that I will always remember how that kimchi was made,” he says. Throughout his career, kimchi remained a regular item on his menus, and at Red Door, he has served it with bulgogi grilled pork belly, steak and eggs, and buttermilk fried oyster saam.

Jill Barron loves kimchi, and she’s been making it since 1992. The executive chef of MANA food bar learned to make kimchi in California, and she’s been making variations of it ever since. “I love most things pickled and fermented,” she says, adding that almost every culture makes something of this nature. At MANA, diners can always expect to find some type of kimchi on the pickle plate.

Before a concert at Madison Square Garden nine years ago, Southport Grocery & Cafe’s Melanie Molnar experienced Korean cuisine for the first time. “The concert was mediocre, but the dinner was the highlight,” she says. “The little plates of pickled things took me back to my childhood of eating buckets of half-sours and sours in traditional Jewish delis.” While kimchi left a lasting impression that night, her true obsession is all things preserved and pickled. Says Molnar, “From vinegar pickles and sugar-laden jams to kimchi and cheese. I love them all and am fascinated with the production and enjoyment of them equally.” In 2011, she started making her own fermented foods, starting with sauerkraut and progressing to kimch. What she loves most about kimchi is its depth of flavor and versatility, adding, “And once you've fermented your own it's hard to eat any others.”

Saigon Sisters’ resident sisters, Mary Aregoni and Theresa Nguyen, have their own vivid memories of kimchi. Known as “do chua” in Vietnam, they have been eating kimchi all their lives, as pickling and fermenting foods is a way to cope with lack of refrigeration, which they explain is a luxury for most people in Asia. One traditional dish served for Vietnamese New Year is pickled mustard greens or bok choy, which adds crunch, tartness, and acidity to rich entrees such as caramel braised pork. Of course, pickled daikon and carrots are used daily in the banh mi sandwiches at Saigon Sisters. The sisters also enjoy experimenting with other ingredients, saying, “We love the idea of pickling things that are seasonal to what’s available in the Midwest and not just what we are used to eating growing up.”

Birchwood Kitchen’s Jesse Williams is very much into pickling and preserving, and felt kimchi was the next step. As the chef at a sandwich-driven restaurant, she is always looking for interesting accompaniments to jazz up the food. Knowing that kimchi would be an ideal bedfellow with rich foods, she started making it and serving it with things like egg salad sandwiches, and bacon sandwiches (“kimchi and bacon are kinda perfect together,” she says).

“Who wouldn’t expect a Polish/Syrian Jersey boy Italian market chef to be psyched about making kimchi?” says John Asbaty of Panozzo’s Italian Market. For Asbaty, kimchi has it all: salty, funky, sweet, sour, spicy, crunchy. Like Gajewski, Asbaty appreciates the similarities between kimchi and sauerkraut, which he grew up eating. As a cook, late-night meals at Korean BBQ restaurants were a common occurrence, and kimchi was the thing he always went back to. Traveling through Asia, he’s eaten his fair share of fermented foods, serving to increase his love of kimchi. “Strolling through the street markets and seeing barrels and barrels of funky, fishy pickled vegetables always made me happy… and hungry,” says Asbaty.

In light of this kimchi craze, the Good Food Festival & Conference is hosting its first ever Kimchi Challenge on Saturday, March 16, and these kimchi-crazed chefs are lining up to compete. The rules for contestants are that they must be a working chef, kimchi must be prepared in a certified commercial kitchen, there can only be one entry per contestant, each entrant must submit at least one quart of prepared kimchi, and they must be present at the event. Prizes for the victor to be announced, but glory is guaranteed.

A challenge involving fermented vegetables would not be complete without Paul Virant, self proclaimed “jar star.” Renowned for his library of preserved fruits and vegetables, which are paramount on plates at Vie and Perennial Virant, and his cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking With Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux, the Kimchi Challenge is right in his wheelhouse. Other chefs set to compete include Matthew Cyr of Etno Village Grill, Elisabeth David of Green Zebra, Yunjin Hong of Jin Ju, Nicholas X. Daloia of Washburne Culinary Institute, Matthew Meyerkord of Maggiano’s Little Italy, Sean Sanders of Browntrout, and Top Chef alum Beverly Kim.

The chefs will demonstrate their fermentation creativity before a panel of judges at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 16. Judges include Steve Dolinsky of ABC 7, Andrea Mattson-McGaffey of Edible Alchemy, Louisa Chu of WBEZ, Bill Daley from the Chicago Tribune, and Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation. The Good Food Festival & Conference takes place at the UIC Forum, and admission to the challenge is included in the Saturday festival ticket. Buy tickets here.

By Matt Kirouac