photo: Sun-Times Media File Photo
Now that the frenzy about chef Bill Kim's Belly Shack has died down a bit and perspective has taken the place of instant reflection, Centerstage thought it was a good time to get a bit of insight from the man behind two of the most talked about, off-the-wall restaurants in recent Chicago history. What does Kim think about his rapid-fire openings? And has the chef who put noodles in a sandwich ever found anything too crazy to combine?
We checked in with Chef Kim to find out what was on his mind before bringing Urban Belly and Belly Shack into the world, where the future of cuisine fusion in Chicago might go, and what he might already be thinking about for the next Bill Kim restaurant.
You've opened two pretty non-traditional restaurants in a short amount of time in a terrible economy. In addition to being an excellent chef, you must be a pretty good salesman.
[laughs] It's easier when you don't have any business partner. When it's family you don't have to really answer to anybody so my wife, my brother and I decided to open in the worst time of the year - we kinda gambled, and said "You know what, it's time. Even though the economy is bad, we have something that's quality and reasonably priced and hopefully we should do well." That's our success story, in a sense.
At what point in your time at Urban Belly did you decide that you had more to create - and that you wanted to do it all in a different location?
It was always intended for us to do something from the start. I have a great staff that were willing to take the next step in ownership and really wanted to do a little more than just one restaurant. It was always intended for us to do maybe another Urban Belly someplace else, or do a couple different concepts - we're actually probably two years from now working on a third concept.
Do you have any idea what that'll be yet?
It's going to involve some sort of alcohol. It's going to be some kind of Asian beer house with casual food that I remember as a child - [places] my parents [were] going to for their meetings and I really haven't seen a lot of that in Chicago. So I'd definitely do something toward that line.
Would it be fair to call it something like your version of The Publican [Paul Kahan's beer hall with a pork & oyster focus]?
Not really. It's really different - when I did some traveling through Korea and Japan, you can't compare it. It's a little smaller, it's about having little bites of stuff instead of full entrees.
Speaking of traveling, you've said that the combination of Latin and Asian flavors is reflection of the heritages of you and your wife, but before you opened Belly Shack did you get a chance to check out the Korean/Mexican cuisine of the taco trucks in Los Angeles?
My sister-in-law lives in LA and we did get a chance to go out there. Not to check out the scene but to meet Roy Choi, who's the chef of the Kogi truck, [and] just to see what the Korean-American generation is doing in LA. But I've always infused some kind of Latin [into my] dishes, even in the past 5 or 6 years before we opened up Urban Belly. It was always intended for me to do more "casual" and there's a lot of similarities between Asian and Latin cuisine.
I got a chance to go to Shanghai and eat at a Hunan place - they really did something that struck my mind where they use a lot of cumin in their cuisine. It really sparked a lot of different ideas when I got to travel. You know, this was pre-Kogi truck and I always thought we could put the two cultures together. And in meeting my wife, it kinda solidified everything - her mom, Dolores, has been showing me some of the Latin cuisine, so it really came together when I met her.
I remember when Urban Belly opened, there were instant comparisons to Momofuku in New York, and now Belly Shack has drawn comparisons to the aforementioned Korean taco trucks in LA. How aware are you of those kind of comparisons, and is it something that you thought about before opening either of your two places?
It's an honor to be compared to those restaurants but I think when we come up with a concept, it's basically "where do we want to go eat on our days off?". Do I want to pay for valet parking here and there? Do I want to spend $50 a person? I look at some of the things that I would like to eat, that my wife would like to eat, and also my brother has a different opinion where he has to be able to feed a family of five. As a chef, you always want to cook what you want to cook, but also you need to put people in your chairs at your restaurant.
I think about a lot of different things, but comparisons to those restaurants...it's great, but I think we're a different animal. It's a BYO, it's only 40 seats, no reservations, people can create their own experience and sitting next to each other that you really wouldn't get to see a person from the suburbs meeting another person from Logan Square. Basically you're stepping into our house, and be able to share great food with having your staff cook for them.
You've put together some interesting taste combinations, but has there ever been anything that you came up with that was just too bizarre, even for you?
There's a couple things I'm working on for the future of Belly Shack - I love hot dogs, I've been raised on hot dogs. [And] people always say to me, "How can you put two starches in one thing?" Our meatball sandwich at Belly Shack, we've got noodles and bread, then you have a meatball. Same thing with the hot dog I've been working on. It's a bun with pan-fried noodles, with kimchee salsa and a hot dog. It's hard to vary off of what people, in their mind, what a hot dog or a meatball sandwich should be. But I think it makes it fun! Where everybody gets the stereotypes out of their minds and keep an open mind when they step into the restaurant, as long as it tastes good and it's flavorful and it's reasonably priced, I think people will give it a chance.
You're really at the forefront of new fusion cuisine in Chicago - do you have any thoughts on what's going to be the next big fusion in town? Will someone come up with Thai-cajun? Or Scottish-Portuguese?
Two big things I want to see happen is: Marigold does a good job with Indian, but I think Indian really is underdeveloped and something that I think is about time that it comes up in the forefront of what we do. [And] with LA and New York doing the street cart? That is ready to explode, I think. We just have to work it out with the city and I'm ready to do my version of a cart cuisine, and I think a lot of other chefs I've talked to want to do something. What is the best thing? It's you as an individual, as a chef, you don't need your entire staff - it's just you and the cart and the customer. It's one-on-one. I think that's about to come. But I think Indian cuisine itself, it could be American and Indian together...I think that's really at the forefront of what's going to happen.