Interview: Chef Bill Kim (urbanbelly + Belly Shack)

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Chef Jason McLeod, who racked up Michelin stars in Chicago at Ria, showed up at Daily Dose to help support friend Bill Kim. Apparently Kim isn’t the only chef itching to open an L.A. restaurant.

It may have been prescient that Bill Kim’s first restaurant – urbanbelly – opened on California Avenue. The revered Chicago-based chef, who also owns Belly Shack, was in Los Angeles on September 17, popping up at downtown’s Daily Dose in support of ToeJammShoes. Kim previously worked as Charlie Trotter’s chef de cuisine and for David Bouley in New York before becoming entrepreneurial. At the time of our meeting, Kim not only prepared dishes like lemongrass pork meatballs, kimchi stew with pork and hominy and curry hot dogs. He also discussed his background, approach and plans to open a restaurant in downtown L.A.

Why do you think Los Angeles is a good fit for you?

I’ve been always an underdog in my life, and no matter where I go, I try to adapt to the situation. I worked on the East Coast for nine years. My hometown is the Midwest, but I think it’s time for me to have a little change and great weather. I think this is the new frontier for great food, and I think L.A.’s the perfect place for what we do and what people are ready for.

Meatballs Chicago
How would what you do out here differ from what you’re already doing in Chicago?

What really gives me an advantage over here is the produce, the beautiful markets year round and ours is only for six months. So wonderful produce.

What will that allow you to do that you’re not already doing?

All this stuff is from Echo Park. I just went there, got about nine different kinds of vegetables – Meyer lemon, Kaffir lime – instead of going to different ethnic markets that I’m used to going to. I’m still going to pursue that, but it’s so much closer than anywhere else.

You would stick with Asian cuisine?

Yeah, with California grown produce. We have a lot of local farmers, and great seafood, of course.

Would the restaurant you open out here be a Belly Shack, an urbanbelly, or would it be something else?

Probably some kind of a hybrid of both.

What was the most recent trip you took abroad?

Probably about a year-and-a-half ago to Shanghai, Vietnam and Korea. I took my girlfriend, now my wife. So I got to show her my homeland and it was very eye opening. Shanghai is just booming with different cultures coming in, but also, it was my first time to China, and it really took me by surprise how modern.

How did that impact what you’re doing at your restaurants?

It made me look deep inside, deeper into Asian food, more than just ginger, soy sauce or mirin, nori. Really get into my childhood, what I grew up on, and get past fine dining, what I was used to. It made me want to look deeper into myself and do Asian comfort food.

What was it that you grew up eating?

Rice, three times a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. A lot of fried rice that was made months in advance and then put in the freezer. I thought, let’s take that idea and make it fresh, make it market driven, and make it very, very flavorful, affordable and approachable.

What was your first night like working in a restaurant kitchen, and where was it?

It was in a French restaurant and I wanted to shoot myself because it was so hard. As I got the discipline and really got to learn how to work in a kitchen, I could not imagine doing anything else but working in a kitchen.

What do you look for when you go to somebody else’s restaurant?

I just close my eyes and try to enjoy myself and not really worry about what I’m eating. I worry about the company, who I’m with. I try to take myself a little bit lightly. Inside my restaurants, I’m hyper critical, but outside my restaurants, I just want to enjoy myself.

If you could only cook with one more protein, what would it be and how come?

One more protein? Everybody’s going to say pork, but I like to cook with chicken, chicken thigh especially.

How come?

It’s something that is really tender, it’s very versatile and it’s very, very flavorful.

Skewers Chicago
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

Usually I’m with my wife on our balcony. It’s usually a beer from one of my close brewer friends, that I have in Chicago. My favorite is a local place near my restaurant called Revolution Brewery. It’s a riff on an older beer, but it’s got tons and tons of coriander and also lemon and lime. It’s a Belgian white ale that I really, really love. Very crisp and refreshing.

What’s the first dish that you ever remember making in your life?

One is probably spaghetti and meatballs, that I just did a terrible, terrible job on. I don’t even want to look back into and try to bring that back because my mom was like, “Please don’t waste the money.”

What was the longest you ever waited to sit down for a restaurant meal, and was it worth it?

I don’t like to wait. I’m very impatient, so any place I have to wait, I just won’t, but probably the most recent place, there’s a famous place by our house called Hot Doug’s. They serve hot dogs. I probably waited 30 minutes. Time is money and I’m very impatient, so I don’t like to wait a very long time. I waited 25 minutes for the sausage place that’s right around the corner from here yesterday.



Was it worth it?

It’s good, it’s good.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Wurstkuche = OK. Hot Doug’s? AWESOME.

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