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Food stories from a chef

Letters to a Young Chef

May 06, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

During my time at Daniel with New York's celebrated chefs (From left: Soogil Lim, the chef-owner of SOOGIL; Daniel Boulud, my mentor and world-renowned chef-owner of Daniel; and me)
During my time at Daniel with New York's celebrated chefs (From left: Soogil Lim, the chef-owner of SOOGIL; Daniel Boulud, my mentor and world-renowned chef-owner of Daniel; and me)

My first paid job as a cook was when I was hired as a line cook at Daniel, a New York Times' four-star restaurant located in New York City’s Upper East Side. It was a pivotal moment in my culinary journey not only because it was my first paid job but also because of the unique training that Daniel offered me. I had previously worked at two other fine dining restaurants as an intern but Daniel was different. As the flagship restaurant of Chef Daniel Boulud, it was the best restaurant in the city.

At the time, Daniel was at the height of its glory and with good reason. The best chefs and cooks in New York City trained at Daniel. Even established chefs, like Queen Elizabeth’s head chef from Buckingham Palace, would come for a few days to work at Daniel just to experience the kitchen. Daniel drew in a lot of talent due to its high caliber and also because it was a powerhouse. Daniel was a restaurant of scale which was unheard of in the fine dining world. No other restaurant at the time served over 350 guests at the highest levels of fine dining each night. Most fine dining restaurant even today have less than 80 guests per night, spaced out into small seatings. With small numbers of guests in the dining room at one time, the kitchen staff has room to pause and breathe so that they can painstakingly create each dish with the utmost care and detail. This affords you the ability to really create the highest levels of perfection. When you are processing 350 guests each night at fine dining levels, doing three or more turns for each table, the kitchen transforms to something beyond just a regular busy restaurant. It becomes a battlefield.

Like a military general, the chef orchestrates a finely tuned flow of orders from each station to ensure perfection of flavors, textures, artistic plating and importantly timing. Everything has to be timed, down to the last minute. At Daniel, there were cameras in the dining room aimed at each and every table so that the kitchen could check on the guests. If a guest decided to get up to use the restroom right before the next course was about to be served, the waiters would return all the dishes to the kitchen. That table’s dishes would jump to the head of the line to be re-fired, interrupting the sequence of orders that had been carefully created by the chef. All new dishes would be prepared so that the taste and quality of the food would not diminish in the least when served to the guests. A rare occurrence but a prime example of the meticulous level of detail that went into each and every table. This level of excellence as well as the sheer intensity stemming from the large number of guests was what set Daniel apart.

The talented kitchen crew at Daniel
The talented kitchen crew at Daniel

As an immigrant from France, Chef Daniel was a stellar example of the American success story, the fulfillment of the American dream. He brought his traditions and culinary heritage to the US from Lyon, France, achieving high critical acclaim in the process. There were great expectations when Daniel opened because Chef Daniel had previously been the highly respected executive chef of the renowned restaurant Le Cirque in its prime. However, his road to success was not without hurdles. When he first opened Daniel, the New York Times gave it a disappointing two stars, a subpar result for a fine dining restaurant opened by a star chef. The story goes that Daniel gathered all of his staff in the restaurant as soon as the review came out. He told them that they would strive to make his two-star restaurant better than any four-star restaurant in New York City. True to his word, he did just that. Soon afterward, Daniel was bestowed a glowing four  stars by the New York Times and he solidified his place in the top echelons of the New York dining scene.

(Courtesy of danielnyc.com)
(Courtesy of danielnyc.com)

Chef Daniel was not only a superb chef, he was someone with passion, drive and most definitely a joie de vivre. He didn’t back down in the face of disappointment and used it as a force to excel further. He was someone who led by example. I learned so much from Chef Daniel not necessarily through direct mentorship but by seeing what he had accomplished and how much that reflected his values and dreams.

While I was working at Daniel’s kitchen, I came across a book written by Chef Daniel. It was entitled “Letters to a Young Chef.” At the time, I was not young, nor did I come even close to the definition of a chef. I had just turned 31 and I was starting my first job as a line cook. I discovered later that I was even two years older than the executive chef of Daniel, Jean Francois. But the title of the book most definitely piqued my interest. I was curious to know what chef Daniel had to say to a young chef and what prompted him to go to the lengths of publishing a book about it. What’s more, it was dedicated to Alex Lee, someone whose name I had heard mentioned from time to time in Daniel’s kitchen. I bought the book and devoured it in a day.

Letters to a Young Chef
Alex Lee had been the executive ehef of Daniel. He had worked alongside Chef Daniel from the beginning as a young cook when Daniel opened in 1993 to when he left in 2003 after being its executive chef. In Daniel’s kitchen, Alex Lee was a legend. Daniel’s book was really a series of dedicated letters that stemmed from Daniel’s affection and respect for this hard-working young cook who despite being Asian probably reminded Daniel of himself when he was young. It was a compilation of advice and guidance that perhaps Daniel thought would have been helpful to himself when he was starting out. Although it feels like a lifetime ago, much of that advice is still valid today.

When I came across this book, I was in the midst of a physically exhausting daily grind. Hours at Daniel were long, typically 12-14 hours a day. There were many times when I was put on the schedule to work 20 or more days straight in a non-stop streak. Although the restaurant closed on Sundays, the catering division, Feast and Fetes, always needed an extra set of hands. You may think that many office workers also sometimes work long hours like that but unlike working in an office, working the kitchen was grueling and draining. The long hours standing day after day really wrecked my feet so I used to always use two sets of clogs that I used daily, one for the first half of the day and then another for the remaining 6 hours. Anyone who has worked a blue collar job requiring endless hours on their feet will know, but it was the only way I could avoid having issues with my feet! The long hours of standing every day also wrecked my calves and even today, my calves cause me problems from time to time.

But the most draining and yet exhilarating time of day was, of course, during dinner service. The amount of adrenaline that pumps through your body when you’re in the midst of service is similar perhaps to running a marathon. I still remember the high level of energy coursing through me whenever we had dinner service at Daniel. It was at once thrilling, tense, exciting and stressful all at once. Every night when dinner service was over, I couldn’t contain the frenetic energy that had been building up throughout the night and it washed over me in waves of relief that the night was over. I was rewarded every night with a huge feeling of pride that I had conquered my station, adhering to Daniel’s impeccable standards. It was intoxicating.

After reading that book though, I began to lift my head out from the daily grind and give some thought to what it meant to be a cook or a chef. What was my vision and where was I headed? A lot of soul searching came as a result of “Letters to a Young Chef” as well as from watching the French cooks in the Daniel kitchen. They worked with a national pride that was palpable, serving the very best of their own cuisine and heritage. It was this pride that differentiated them from someone like me who was not able to identify with the French dishes I was cooking.  I understood that simply attaining technical perfection was not the only goal. I started to think more specifically about the kind of a chef I wanted to become. This eventually helped lead me to open a restaurant that was a reflection of myself both as a chef and as an individual. And importantly, it helped me find my way back to my Korean heritage.  

Chef Hooni Kim peers into a clay jar containing Doenjang, one of Korean tradistional mother sauces.  (Photo by Kristin Teig)
Chef Hooni Kim peers into a clay jar containing Doenjang, one of Korean tradistional mother sauces.  (Photo by Kristin Teig)


Over the years, I have realized that being true to yourself is the most important part of being a chef-owner of a restaurant. You are at your best when you are cooking the food that is a true reflection of you. This doesn’t mean that if you are Korean, you should only cook Korean food. It’s much more comprehensive than that. Your food can be inspired by the food you ate growing up or the region you lived in. It could even be related to your obsession for junk food the way my bulgogi sliders were inspired by my love of White Castle sliders. It may be a simple reflection of personality; some have clean and simple dishes like Tom Colicchio, others are full of flourish like David Burke. As for myself, I favor flavor profiles that tend to be bold and assertive rather than being delicate or subtle.

Over time and as you change, your food will also change with you. In my case, my first and second restaurants are fundamentally different because they reflect a significant shift in my thoughts on Korean food. My first restaurant was created through the lens of a New Yorker who was also a Korean-American immigrant whereas my second restaurant was an expression of my increasing desire to be more traditional and grow closer to my heritage.

Expressing yourself through your food will ring truer with your audience than topping a dish with caviar or shaved truffles simply because it’s trendy or because it can command a higher price. There will always be restaurants that achieve success by following trends or by using a formula, but those are simply businesses that just happen to be restaurants. Their only goal is to generate profit and nothing more. For me, that is not enough. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I need to be able to express myself through my food and reach my customers through my dishes. I believe the best dishes are personal and come from the heart of the chef. You might say that the dish has “jin shim” or is heartfelt, as Koreans would say. If the chefs of this generation can stick to this, I think all of us will have a lot to look forward to.

Letters to a Young Chef

Chef Hooni Kim trained at Daniel and Masa in New York City before opening two restaurants there: Danji, the first Michelin-starred Korean restaurant in the world; and Hanjan. Born in Seoul, he divides his time between NYC and Korea, where he is the founder of Yori Chunsa, a nonprofit that feeds and trains orphans to become cooks. Chef Hooni is also the author of the highly acclaimed cookbook My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes published in 2020 by W.W. Norton & Company.

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