“Korean immigration to the Southeast has been on the rise for a while now,” says food writer Matt Rodbard, “and, lord knows, we could all stand to have a little more kimchi in our lives.”
Rodbard, who along with New York City chef Deuki Hong, co-authored the recently released bestseller Koreatown: A Cookbook, asserts that although every major city has its ethnic enclaves — its Chinatowns, Little Italys and Latin Quarters — America’s Koreatowns stand out as uniquely pristine and unaltered zones of cultural and culinary stability. In late June, Robard and Hong invited Asheville chefs Merherwan Irani, Sarah Cousler and James Grogan, to work with a host of celebrated Atlanta chefs in creating Koreatown: A Takeover, a pop-up meal that tinkered with this unadulterated tradition.
Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Italian foods were often dumbed down in the early years of their import to accommodate the simplicity of the American palate, but that’s not necessarily been the case with Korean fare, says Rodbard. “Koreans have oftentimes taken their food and kept it within their families, and have not made the effort to market their food outside their community,” he says. “Because of that, the food is really unspoiled. So there isn’t a lot of change or fusion going on in that cuisine; it’s very pure.”
But, regardless of the heretofore unalloyed nature of America’s Korean food tradition, as with all popular cuisines, fusion is inevitable. When chefs learn the specific techniques and flavor profiles of another culture, it is only a matter of time before they start blending that new knowledge with the methods and ingredients they hold dear.
On that point, Rodbard and Hong connected with Irani, owner of Asheville’s Chai Pani and its sister location in Decatur, Ga., when they met at the recent Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. (Irani also owns the street food-focused Botiwalla restaurant in midtown Atlanta). After sharing a few whiskeys, Rodbard and Hong invited the Chai Pani team to tag along with them on a road trip to do research for their cookbook.
“We ended up going to a few places, and their photos ended up in the book,” says Rodbard. “While Chai Pani isn’t Korean, it’s really similar to what we are trying to do, which is capture traditional flavors and approach food in a really casual way. … They are doing some really interesting things with some flavors that really aren’t that common.”
Koreatown: A Takeover, which was held at Chai Pani’s Decatur location, was part of Rodbard and Hong’s book tour. The sprawling, nationwide pop-up kitchen extravaganza has clocked nearly a dozen collaborative dinners so far, with stops in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a planned July 24 dinner at Houston’s celebrated Underbelly.
In addition to Rodbard, Hong and the Asheville team, the kitchen crew for the Chai Pani dinner included Atlanta chefs Chris Hathcock (previously co-executive chef at Asheville’s Gan Shan Station), Cody Taylor and K-pop sensation-turned-chef Jiyeon Lee, both of Heirloom Market BBQ, and Allen Suh of Gaja. “It was pretty awesome to be a part of such a mix of Asian chefs; that’s a rare thing to get the chance to do,” says Cousler, who plans to launch her own seafood-themed pop-up, Dive, at Buxton Hall this summer. Hopefully, she says, she can involve some of the chefs she met and worked with at the Takeover in this effort.
A rising force
Beyond being a stop on a book tour, the Koreatown takeover of Chai Pani in Decatur highlights Korean cuisine as a growing culinary force in the American South. In the past four years, Asheville has seen a spate of Korean restaurant openings, including Korean House and Koreana. It’s also notable that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” recently visited town for a meal at Stone Bowl in South Asheville. And the popularity of the Atlanta Koreatown dinner indicates that the trend applies to the Deep South as well — its 150 tickets were sold out weeks in advance.
At the event, guests were treated to a series of family-style service settings, beginning with traditional banchan — a succession of small pickles, ferments, salads and veggies. A behemoth onslaught of courses followed, many of which departed from Korean convention to incorporate the span of cultural diversity represented in the kitchen. Chefs were allowed to insert either elements of their own heritage into a Korean dish, or they could add Korean touches to one of their own culture’s offerings.
In the first setting, Suh dished out raw Copper River salmon with shaved gochujang, puréed soybeans and rice cake with marigold. There was also the Poolside Platter from Cousler that employed international newspapers as a base upon which to pile red kimchi paste, adobo canned oysters, smoky crab, vegetables and pork rice.
“I had no experience at all with Korean food,” says Cousler, who is of Philippine heritage. “A lot of my inspiration is actually from my mom — her culinary influences are all across the board. I always thought that kimchi was a part of Philippine food until I got older, because of her.”
Set two included smoked tri-tip with shaved onion, Korean pear, sesame leaf and uja mayo with a soy wasabi dressing from Taylor and Lee. That was followed by Goan-chujang pork vindaloo with fermented and steamed rice and urad dal cakes from Irani and Grogan. Set three featured Hathcock’s smoked beef bulgogi sausage with Carolina Gold rice grits, kimchi and radish along with Hong’s Korean fried chicken with a roasted garlic and scallion salad.
“One of my favorite things about these dinners is being able to see what all the chefs do with Korean food,” says Rodbard, “and so this one was one of my favorites, because it was a mix of Korean-American chefs and non-Korean chefs, and it was just a lot of really great talent coming together.”
Rodbard appreciates that through writing and promoting Koreatown: A Cookbook, he has been afforded a rare opportunity to meet a diverse cross-section of American chefs with a real interest in Korean food. “We even have a section in the book for these guest chefs’ recipes, which we call ‘Respect,’ which — as the title implies — is respect for the Korean culture and flavors, but, of course, they are offering their own play on it.”