Good Food

Catching Up with Chef Ji Hye

an illustration of Chef Ji Hye Kim pulling a cart behind her filled with produce

The soul of the Seoul food served at Miss Kim

Sitting at a sunny summer patio table in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown I caught up with Ji Hye Kim, chef and managing partner of Miss Kim, Zingerman’s Korean restaurant. We talked about her food philosophy, approach to running a business, what’s new, and what’s not going to change. If you’ve never had the pleasure of dining at Miss Kim, read on for a primer on where to point your chopsticks first. If you’re already a big fan, read on for more of the story behind those swinging kitchen doors. 

Sara: How would you describe the experience at Miss Kim to someone who has never been before?
Ji Hye: The ambiance is nice. I think it’s comfortable and casual, without being like a quick service place. We have proper dining service that is friendly and not super formal. Our servers are very good at getting you delicious food regardless of your dietary restrictions or preferences. You came into our house—we want to make sure you have really good food and a really good time.

Sara: What sets Miss Kim apart from other Korean restaurants?
Ji Hye: I think the experience you have with the food is different from other Korean restaurants in Michigan, or the Midwest in general, because we pay a lot of attention to the tradition and culinary history. What I try to do is see the essence and story of the dish. I want to see how that translates here because Korean food has distinctive regional cuisines. Korea is smaller than most single states in the United States, but it’s regionally varied. Food travels with the people, so food in South Korea may look different than in North Korea, on the China-North Korea border, and where Korean Russians were exiled into Central Asia. So, I think it’s a continuation of the story of where Korean food lands in Michigan and our take on things. Our menu has one foot in culinary history and another foot firmly planted in the soil of Michigan. I feel each dish has a long story in Korea and I’m adding one sentence at the end because this dish landed in Michigan.

Sara: Does Miss Kim’s food focus on any one of those many Korean regional cuisines?
Ji Hye: It’s not part of our vision to specifically focus on the food of one region, but because my mother is from Gyeonggi Province (the central part of Korea where Seoul is located) and that’s the food that I grew up eating, there is an influence. When I started researching Korean food, I realized some of the dishes she was making for me were specific to that region. My friends whose moms came from a different region didn’t know what they were.

Korea is similar to Italy in that way. Southern Italian food is a little saltier; Calabrese cuisine is a little spicier; in Liguria, in the north, they use more butter. Southern Korean food is saltier, spicier, and the seasoning is heavier. They use more fish sauce because they’re on the seaboard. North Korean food, out in the mountains, tends to be milder. They don’t use as much salt and the dishes tend to be simpler and more humble. Seoul is right in the middle so they go for balance, and maybe a touch sweeter. Also, Seoul, the capital of Korea for 600 years or so, is where all the ingredients in the supply chain ended; so Seoul food tends to be more varied in the ingredients, rather than focusing on seafood on the coast or foraged mushrooms and greens in the mountains. So I think some of our dishes reflect Seoul cuisine and the Gyeonggi region

Sometimes even Korean people will come in and comment that our kimchi is too mild, but that is by design. (Though sometimes they assume it’s because I don’t know how to make it.) Kimchi from the southern part of Korea is saltier, spicier, and bolder in flavor, but kimchi from the Gyeonggi area in the middle of the country tends to be milder and crunchier—they want you to taste the vegetable. So that’s why our kimchi is on the milder side.

Sara: What does your mom think about Miss Kim?
Ji Hye: [Laughing] She doesn’t think much of it. She wants to know if I’m making enough money to be comfortable and that it’s not too hard on my body. Other than that she is not relinquishing her title of the best cook in the family. 

She’s not super fond of the fact that I use some American vegetables like beets or asparagus. She’s just kind of like “eh” [waving hand up] “It’s not a Korean vegetable.” She can make a lot of food that we make very easily so she doesn’t think it should be as priced as it is. If you know how to make really good spaghetti bolognese you may not want to pay $35 for a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. It’s sort of a similar idea. She thinks I can make mushroom japchae at home. Really cheap and it’s just as delicious. Why should I pay this much money, but she’s also not paying for rent, living wages and benefits for staff, local mushrooms, and all of that stuff. So basically she’s not impressed [still laughing].

Sara: What was your inspiration for learning to cook?
Ji Hye: Sometimes you read interviews with chefs and they’re like “I knew that I wanted to be a chef when I was three and making raviolis in my Nonna’s kitchen,” or, “I’ve been working in the kitchen since I was 14 and I used to sleep on a potato sack in my mom’s restaurant.” That is not my story. My mom is the firstborn in the family and so is my father, so that meant that every holiday was spent at our house, but she didn’t really let kids cook. She had a lot of cooking to do and teaching kids to cook is a whole different job and she didn’t want to be bothered. I wasn’t gonna be that helpful. She was like, “Out of my kitchen!” One time I asked if she could show me how to make this and that and she’s like, “No, you were born a girl. You’re going to end up in the kitchen anyway cooking for a husband or a child. You don’t need to start now.” She herself didn’t learn to cook until she got married. So I didn’t learn from her. 

I learned much later from working and being self-taught. But I knew my mom was a really good cook. She made a lot of things from scratch, like gochujang fermented chili paste. When I was really young she had these crocks of what I thought were really stinky magic potions—fermented sauces—out on the balcony of our apartment complex. She would get fresh pressed sesame oil delivered from her mother who lived in the countryside. She really cared about ingredients. And I would watch her cook. I think that helped a lot when I started cooking. As I was learning Korean recipes, I just knew how to go about it a lot faster than when I was learning to make Italian or American food. I would remember how my mom did it. I had these peripheral memories, this knowledge bank I didn’t know I had, from watching her. She’s my accidental inspiration in that way.

I continued to learn about paying attention to ingredients by working at Zingerman’s. My appreciation for traditional cuisine and knowing the story behind it, that came from Zingerman’s.

illustrations of kitchen utensils with faces and arms and legs
Sara: If you were having someone build a Korean recipe-ready pantry what would you recommend?
Ji Hye: I would make sure that they have sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, doenjang (fermented soy paste), gochujang (fermented chile paste), and fish sauce. The flavors are a balance between salty, sweet, and spicy.

Sara: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Korean cuisine?
Ji Hye: People tend to think that Korean food is a set of this or tastes like that. It’s not a monolith. Take kimchi for example. There are over 200 documented versions of kimchi. Every region has a different take on it and every season provides a different kind of kimchi. Somebody said there are as many types of kimchi as there are moms in Korea. I mean it sort of allows for that diversity to flourish.

I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions of food when people think of “ethnic food.” That is only one way. Your one trip to Thailand, or India, or Korea, and then that is your definition of that food. Or if you’re Korean American and you grew up with the food your mom made and you understand that to be the only version of Korean food. There are so many types. It expands in many ways, regionally, seasonally, by price point. It evolves. No one person’s experience represents an entire cuisine.

Sara: If you were to make a brand new customer three Miss Kim dishes, which would you pick and why?
Ji Hye: 1. Fried Tofu. I actually kind of dislike tofu, but I know that when I eat something and I don’t like it, I always leave room that maybe I just never had a good version of it. So, I leave my mind open to be changed. This dish is a converter. That’s why I picked it. I think our tofu plays a lot with texture and flavor. Externally it’s shatteringly crispy. Inside the soft tofu is custardy. I think it’s a fun dish to eat. This is what I call a mind changer. If you don’t like tofu try this dish.

Sara: I can confirm. It’s one of my favorites for the same reasons. I was once at a ZingTrain seminar and Miss Kim food was served for lunch. The first thing to run out on the buffet was the fried tofu. People were telling others to try it.

Ji Hye: 2. Tteokbokki. (For those unfamiliar, it’s a small baton-shaped, stir-fried, soft and chewy rice cake.) Our menu changes from time to time, but we always have a few different kinds of tteokbokki on the menu such as classic street style with gochujang, scallions, pork belly lardons, and poached egg. I think this dish can tell the story of Korea. It started out as sort of a luxurious dish because you take this much cooked rice [holding up both hands] and turn it into these little rice cakes [holding up the thumb and forefinger]. It used to be just street food and now there are so many iterations. Some chefs are using it like rice pasta and serving it with butter sauce, gorgonzola cream, or mozzarella cheese. It’s a fun evolution to watch and we’re looking to add more versions to our menu, like with a tomato vodka sauce. Growing up, tteokbokki was a dish I ate on the streets, sneaking it behind my mom’s back because she didn’t really approve of it, so I feel a personal connection to it.

3. Vegetable Twigim. Seasonal vegetables are quick pickled and fried in the same type of crispy rice flour batter (gluten-free) we use for our Korean fried chicken, then served with spicy mayo. Seasonality is really important in Korean cuisine (the Korean Farmers Almanac has 24 seasons!) and on our menu. We reflect the seasonality of Michigan produce in our dishes. For these fried vegetables, you might find us using cauliflower, green beans, or green tomatoes.

Sara: And a drink to go with it? What’s special about the bar at Miss Kim?
Ji Hye: We focus on traditional Korean drinks. We have plum syrup-flavored soda, cinnamon drink, banana milk, rice wine, and soju. Soju is a sweet grain-based distilled alcohol. I’d say it’s half as strong as vodka. We infuse soju with different Épice de Cru spices and Rishi teas. There’s soju infused with black tea that emulates a light whisky, it has a lot of smoky notes. We also have rose, hibiscus, black sesame, and yuzu—you can order a soju sampler. We’re hoping to bring in an artisanally made rice wine from Brooklyn this summer.

Sara: How does being located at the Kerrytown Shops benefit the restaurant?
Ji Hye: I think our proximity to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market sets the tone of the menu. I have really good relationships with the farmers I’ve been working with for 10 years, since our pop-up days. I wish we were bigger so we could buy from even more local farmers, but there are a few we are really committed to. Kerrytown is a little more neighborhood-like as opposed to being located on Main Street or South University, which I like. It’s a nice place to park and walk around for things to do and then have a cocktail and dinner.

Sara: How often do you go to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market?
Ji Hye: I try to go every farmers market day (right now that’s Wednesdays and Saturdays). The farmers know me and generally know what I am buying, so sometimes they’ll put it aside or deliver it to the restaurant. I still go to the market even if I don’t have a lot of things to buy because it’s a big inspiration to me. 

Sara: What are you most looking forward to coming back in season at the market this summer?
Ji Hye: Corn and tomatoes [said with zero hesitation]. We’ll bring back dishes like miso corn with scallops; tomato salad with soft tofu and wasabi dressing; tomato salad with peaches, hot peppers, and mustard dressing; or pickled and fried green tomatoes. 

Personally, I buy nettles. I can never find enough nettles for me to put them on the menu for the restaurant. But every time I see nettles, I buy them. I blanch them, squeeze out the water, and keep them in the freezer. Sometimes I dress them in sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, and sesame seeds and eat them as a side dish. Or I might use it as a topping on bibimbap. Or I zip them with a little water and maple syrup and drink it as green juice.

Sara: What is different about Miss Kim today than when it opened eight years ago?
Ji Hye: I think the biggest difference is that we have way more vegetables and vegetarian dishes on the menu. I knew before opening I wanted to have more than ribs and fried chicken. We didn’t start with many vegetarian items, but it was always a goal. Now we’re getting to a good balance. I actually just crunched the numbers and 56% of the dishes on the menu are vegetable-focused. It may not be vegetarian, like the roasted broccolini with fish sauce caramel, but it is really the broccoli we are showcasing.

Sara: What is different about you eight years after opening a restaurant?
Ji Hye: I sweat the small stuff a little less. Everything felt important and urgent then, but when you work that way it doesn’t give you room to breathe and doesn’t make you the best manager. I am better about prioritizing and I am a better leader now.

Sara: What’s been the most surprising thing for you about owning a business?
Ji Hye: How much work I would do telling our story—the story of the food, the restaurant, how we pay people, and how we do things. I didn’t realize how much telling of the story was involved in running a small business.

Sara: Who are you telling the story to?
Ji Hye: Customers dining with us, our staff, media interviews, community non-profits, and local students. I speak to students at Huron High School in the culinary program, at Ross School of Business in marketing, at the University of Michigan in nutrition, and others. I am very open with them about all of our information so they invite me back.

Sara: What’s most rewarding for you about owning a business?
Ji Hye: When the team does well. One thing I think nobody tells you when you start a business is how long it takes to build a culture. When I worked at Zingerman’s Deli, the culture was already established, so onboarding a new employee and having them buy-in is a little easier. But when you’re starting from scratch, there’s no culture established yet, and you have to create it as you go with every single person including yourself, I think that takes three to four years.

But by our third year in business, we were dealing with the pandemic. That time forced us to pay more attention to building our team and culture. We’re definitely a Zingerman’s business, but I think we have our own distinctive personality. We work as one team because we are a tip-share restaurant—we get paid as a team. We talk about money a lot precisely because it has a monetary consequence. 

Sara: Why did you decide to open your restaurant as a Zingerman’s business?
Ji Hye: I took five years on the path to partnership to really suss out if this is what I wanted to do. People ask me why I don’t have Zingerman’s name on my awning, assuming I am not getting the benefit of Zingerman’s if I don’t. I actually think that’s not true. To me, the biggest benefit of being a Zingerman’s business is the community. So when big things like the pandemic happen, or even if you’re just having a frustrating day, you always have someone who can be your sounding board. I think that’s incredibly important if you’re running a small business. Because it can feel like you’re working in a vacuum. Somedays I do feel that way, but then I remember I have a community to go to.

I think in practical terms, Zingerman’s Service Network is really important. Having that support system allows me to not worry about those things, the specialties that are not in my wheelhouse. I don’t want to be dealing with payroll for example. I know many restaurateurs who spend hours and days doing these things or they have HR issues and no one to go to. Then you have a trained fine dining chef ending up as the house accountant and they’re not looking at the food. I don’t want to create my own marketing posters. I’m not going to do a good job and it’s going to take me longer. Having our Service Network experts to do that frees me up to do other stuff. They take those things off my plate so I can do the things only I can do—researching recipes because I read the Korean language, or telling the story of our food, or being in the front as the chef representing the restaurant. Being part of Zingerman’s and having the support allows me to do those things better. 

Sara: You work shifts at Miss Kim in a variety of jobs. What’s your favorite thing to do?
Ji Hye: My favorite thing to do is either hosting or expediting. To me, those two positions are similar and really important for the same reason. They both set the tone and the pace for the service of the food. The host is the first person you see when you walk into the restaurant. They set the tone for the guests and the pacing for the servers. Their communication is important and they can start the experience off on a good foot. The expeditor decides who gets the appetizer first and which entrée is going out when. When I do it, I know things like we aren’t late with these tickets now but we will be in 10 minutes so we can go and take care of the guest. I can do a lot from that spot. I sometimes pour water like Ari does when I am a food runner, so that way I can see every dish and touch every single table.

Sara: What’s next on the calendar for you and Miss Kim?
Ji Hye: We have a collaboration dinner with guest food writer and new cookbook author Khushbu Shah at Miss Kim in July. While it’s a different cuisine, Indian food, her approach is similar to what we do in that she makes traditional Indian food with her own Michigan spin. I’m also doing a pop-up at Seoul Salon in Manhattan in August. I’m excited to compare the Korean food they have created for a New York audience with what we make at Miss Kim. 

If you’re like me, you might find yourself appreciating the nuances of Korean cuisine, feeling inspired to try new things with an open mind, and very (very) hungry right about now. Say hello to Chef Ji Hye for me when you get to Miss Kim!

Sara Hudson
Zingerman’s Creative Services Director


This interview originally appeared in the May / June edition of Zingerman’s News.