Writing A New Chapter in Korean American Cuisine

Flippin’ the Classics

At Vol. 94, Joon Kim and Phil Lee are writing a new chapter in Korean American cuisine.

photographs by INKI CHO
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal October 2012.

Executive chef Phil Lee struggles to categorize the food at Vol.  94, the swank, less-than-year-old wine bar tucked away among the immaculate white shops of downtown Pasadena, Calif. But he finally settles on “new urban Korean cuisine,” which translates into not quite fusion, not quite traditional, a little highbrow, but also comfortable and welcoming.

In other words, at Vol. 94, you’ll find a series of contradictions and surprises.

Take, for example, the galbimarinated escolar, a deconstructed bibimbap—layers of black rice and vegetables topped with a thick, flaky piece of the marinated white fish. You’ll recognize the elements of bibimbap and the familiar flavors of sesame and red pepper sauce, crisp carrots and sautéed spinach, but it won’t be anything like the lunchbox meals you remember.

And then there’s this past summer’s special, and a personal favorite of Lee’s: the hot and cold rock naengmyeon, which is a twist on the classic, cold beef soup. A hot rock on which the beef was cooked comes out sizzling; in a simple white bowl, there sits the familiar nest of noodles, sliced cucumber and pear, and the all-too-important yellow mustard. But rather than serve the soup with unimaginative brisket slices, Lee has chosen to serve the dish with quality wagyu beef.

“The flavors are still definitely there,” Lee says. “If a Korean person were to come in and have that dish they’d definitely be like, ‘OK, I know what that is.’”

The second-generation Korean American chef was tapped by owner Joon Kim, a South Korean transplant who opened Vol. 94 earlier this year. Together they hope to do something new with the way people approach Korean food.

Owner Joon Kim

The pair aim to create food with care, or cheongsong, explains Kim, essentially what he describes as “soul food, slow food”—food that serves the body, the palate and the self.

“It’s my take on the classics,” Lee elaborates. “I’ll never be able to compete with Park’s Barbecue in Ktown—I’m not trying to.

“They have Korean ajummas that just throw down,” he adds, laughing.  “But at the same time, there are certain things, certain elements of Korean ingredients and things that are so innate, so in my blood. So [I have to ask]: How do I flip this? How do I tweak this, so it’s still Korean and it hasn’t lost its essence?”

Executive chef Phil Lee

Lee has worked in some of the best kitchens throughout Los Angeles, with some renowned chefs, including David LeFevre, Nadav Bashan, Jared Levy and Wolfgang Puck. Indeed, looking at the selections of food and wine at Vol. 94, you’ll quickly realize Korean food only makes up one aspect of the menu, which takes several geographic leaps—have a house-made rillette or etorki cheese, and you’re in France; have purple cauliflower, and you’re in India. The menu may make little sense, but it’s the perfect representation of Lee’s journey and talents as a chef.

“It seems too eclectic … but the thing that really drives me is trying different things and getting out of your own comfort zone of ‘what I like to eat versus what I like to cook,’” Lee says. “I know it seems crazy, like I’ve gone all over the place, but there are so many different flavor profiles that so many different parts of the world will impart.”

Kim shares Lee’s vision and approaches food with the same open-mindedness.

“When people ask me, ‘What kind of food do you like? American food, French food, Korean food?’ I just like delicious food—I don’t care from where,” he says. “I’m Korean, but I’m not doing 100-percent traditional Korean food.”

What Vol. 94 brings to the table is a merging of two cultures and the meeting of generations. It’s a new chapter in Korean American cuisine.

“A lot of the staff back there are young Korean guys, and we’re very hungry, we’re very driven, we’re all undeniably Korean,” says Lee. “Instead of saying we can’t do this, this is the perfect blank canvas for us to have it all come together.”

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