In 2003, Seoul University graduate and first time restaurant owner Jenee Kim franchised Seoul’s popular Park’s Barbeque and instantly raised the cow-grilling game in L.A.’s Koreatown. She built on Park’s success by opening pork-fueled Don Dae Gam in 2009, and on June 1, she debuted a contemporary Korean small plates restaurant called LaOn Dining in back of the same building. Next, she hopes to open a Park’s Barbeque Express in downtown L.A. in 2012. We recently met before dinner service at LaOn Dining, where Chef Kim discussed her background and vision.
What inspired LaOn Dining?
We put a little explanation here [points to menu]. LaOn means delight, happiness, enjoyable in Korean. It inspired me because this is something that I always wanted to do. I wanted to introduce true Korean cuisine, Korean recipes with modern decoration.
What would it take for you to consider LaOn Dining a success?
This is different from other Korean – people think Korean cuisine is barbecue, here, mostly all you can eat barbecue, but that’s not really, truly Korean. Cuisine is not only barbecue. We have so many kinds of Korean cuisine. My recipes came from Chosun Dynasty, Royal family, food a king used to eat. We have so many good, healthy, different kinds of food that can be introduced to people so that they don’t think Korean food is barbecue only.
How did you decide which dishes to put on the menu?
There are like typical Korean – it’s called goong joong yori – that’s Royal palace cuisine. There are kinds I really like. There are like hundreds of dishes, but the ones I chose, I like, I learned. That’s what I wanted to introduce to people. That’s where I put here – yuri – that means food, cuisine, dish. Hwa Ro means charcoal grill that goes on the table. That’s a hwa ro.
Why did you start with beef at Park’s?
It was just chance because I loved to cook, but for a restaurant, I really didn’t know what to do at first. A friend of mine owns Park’s Barbeque in Korea, and it’s a very popular restaurant, so before I opened my restaurant, I went there and got training. Cooking at home and the restaurant business are different. It’s a business. It’s a franchise from Korea, Park’s Barbeque. It’s in Seoul, in Cheung Dam Dong, a very famous restaurant. That’s how I started Park’s Barbeque.
How is your Park’s different from the Park’s in Korea?
At first it was the same, but in Korea, there’s a lot of population. The menu’s much simpler there. We don’t have very many people walking by. It’s different in Seoul. Have you been to Seoul?
Seoul is the busiest, most crowded city, I think, in the world. When I started here, our meat menu was very simple, but as time goes by, you need to have more things than Korea. Even though it was the first beef specialty restaurant in Koreatown, because mostly they do beef, pork, sushi, everything, until I started. I started first with a specialty beef restaurant, but as time goes, we need to add pork, fish, shrimp. Our menu developed, and now for chef’s special dishes, I had like five or six hundred dishes I wanted to try. We put more dishes in there. It’s a pretty big menu right now, but it satisfies more people.
What was the first dish you ever remember cooking?
Maybe japchae and bulgogi.
Who taught you to make those dishes?
At home, my mom. I chose to major in food and science at college. We learned a lot of things. After that I went to another cooking school to get the chef’s certification.
Where was that?
Hasandong. Cooking school. It’s very famous in Korea, so I went there and took the national board.
What was your first restaurant job?
Park’s Barbeque. Before that I was a housewife, then I really wanted to do the restaurant business. Cooking at home is different than running restaurants. I always loved to cook for people. Something came up, so I just wanted to open a restaurant. That was the first experience, Park’s Barbeque.
What brought you to L.A.?
I just wanted to move here. I lived in Philadelphia for 10 years, then went back to Korea, then I came back to Denver. Denver, I didn’t like the weather, so I just moved to L.A. The following year, I opened up the restaurant, Park’s Barbeque.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
In my life, my dad. We always had a lot of company at home, but since I was little, I learned how to cook little things. Like when I learned how to cook japchae, I’ll try my own. My dad really, really loved it, so he always encouraged me – “You’re very good at cooking” – so I wanted to go to cooking college and major in that. That’s how I started cooking.
Anybody else in your family cook professionally?
My daughter is the sous chef at Pizzeria Mozza.
What is her name?
Did you expect her to become a professional chef?
Not really, but she couldn’t really find something she liked to do. She had to work at my restaurant to earn money. After that, I recommended for her to go to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She went there and she just loved it. It’s something that she found she loves to do in her life. She worked for Nancy Silverton since a little bit after they opened, at the Osteria. She worked there, and now she’s at the Pizzeria. She loves it.
Do you eat there pretty often?
What was the most recent dish you’ve been working on at LaOn?
It’s something that I do know, that’s kind of new. I’m working on kalbi jim, which is braised short rib. I kind of changed it to combine Western style because I put mashed potato at the bottom. It’s mashed sweet potato. Then braised short rib, and on top of it, I put fried sweet potato for decoration. That’s something that people really like. This is Korean, but the decoration and other sides are not Korean. It’s kind of interesting. That’s what I really wanted to do, with Korean recipes, because here you have a lot of good foods that people are used to, but this is not really new, so it can be comfortable to people.
What do you look for when you go to a restaurant? What is important to you?