BellyQ's Bill Kim Talks Successful Fusion, Plus How to Smoke a Duck
Bill Kim’s life has been a series of disparate yet complementary stages. Born in Korea and educated in Chicago, he spent two decades meticulously preparing fine French cuisine under a series of renowned chefs only to branch out on his own, leaping into the world of casual Asian-inspired food and an entrepreneurial adventure just a few years ago.
We recently caught up with him on his biggest source of inspiration, what makes for successful fusion cuisine and the best way to smoke a duck.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I was born in Korea, and I came here when I was seven. We landed in Chicago so I went to high school, grade school and culinary school in Chicago. I traveled early on, and came back to work for a pretty famous French chef in Chicago — Jean Banchet. I spent a year there, and then I came to a little restaurant called Charlie Trotter’s. I had no idea who he was. But I decided to work for him, and that really opened the doors to what I wanted to do — strictly fine dining for the next 20 years of my career. He took me to Europe, to 3-star Michelin restaurants. We traveled the world, and he really showed me what fine dining and finessed touch and food could be. I spent three and a half years with him, and I spent another 10 years on the East Coast working at David Bouley and Susanna Foo. Finally I got the call again from Charlie to come back home. So I spent another year and a half as chef de cuisine for him.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
Eventually, I got to the point where I didn’t want to do fine dining any more. In 2008 my wife, my brother and I opened up Urbanbelly. We tried to do the best food possible, and our motto was: affordable, accessible and flavorful. Our very first restaurant was 32 seats, BYOB, in between a laundromat and a dry cleaners. It was all about minimalistic, communal tables. It was just me and two cooks. A year later we opened up Belly Shack. We like to say it’s “a love story told through food” because my wife’s Puerto Rican, I’m Korean, and we do a rendition of our love story told through food. It’s a take on American classics — like a hot dog, pickled green papaya, crispy egg noodles on a brioche bun with homemade curry mayonnaise. Two years later we had an opportunity to open our version of a modern Asian barbecue, bellyQ — 10,000 square feet with a full liquor license. We really got a chance to spread our wings. We just re-launched our sauce line, and have four distinct sauces available for retail at Urbanbelly and Belly Shack.
What's your biggest source of inspiration?
We love to travel. My wife likes to say I’m on the lockdown twice a year, and she gets to pick for me. The last trip, we went to Jamaica — two and a half hours south of Montego Bay. A small hotel in a little village — we were the only ones there right by the ocean. So we go into town and we’re looking for water and other things, and we go into a Chinese grocery store. And in the stall next door, they’re selling curry goat. I thought that was the most interesting thing. That’s the best thing about traveling — you get to see something that you never thought would exist. It just opens up your mind. And of course I love going to Thailand and Vietnam. I just came back from Budapest. Seeing Europe really opened my eyes to what they eat and what ingredients they use. So yeah we do a lot of traveling, and a lot of ideas flow through there.
Asian fusion cuisine is definitely trending right now, but it’s not always great. Is there a secret to doing it well?
The successful marriage is in finding ingredients that have the same flavor and the same texture. You have to find the connection between two cultures. So for example, a fresh water chestnut has texture and a little bit of starchiness. On the other side, we might look at jicama. It’s almost exactly a water chestnut, but it’s in both Asian and Latin countries. Tomato in the states — in Australia they have a tamarillo which is tomato-like but it has the consistency of a papaya. That’s the crossing over that I try to do. I don’t try to reinvent it, but I try to find something that’s similar in taste and texture. Hunan in China — they use a lot of cumin, and in Latin countries they use a lot of cumin. These are things that I gravitate toward and try to find. Basil is used in both Thailand and also in Italian cooking. Sundried tomato to me is just like Chinese lima beans — both are fermented, both have that brininess. So it’s not so much crossing over as finding the similarities.
Something else we’re seeing is this movement toward less formal, more inclusive dining experiences. Any thoughts on on dining out as the latest democratized form of live entertainment?
We like to call ourselves a venue where you want to eat and where you want to go out. What if all that happens in the same place? I really want to take myself less seriously, really want to have more fun. Here you can eat for fun. You’re not told to use this fork or that fork, we just let people relax. Yes, the food is what it needs to be, but it’s really about gathering. When you’re at home, it’s about nourishing. There’ll be more chef-driven restaurants that are a lot more a casual — less chef jackets and more aprons. I was so serious, and now, this is what I like to eat, what I like to do. I have three go-to places that I go to all the time. We want to be one of those go-to restaurants.
How have you seen tech affect the way you run your business?
It’s changed everything we do 100%. Analytics is a huge part of what we do. Google searches, plus all these other things. That is something that I wake up to every morning. It’s a huge interaction across social media — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
What’s the one thing you wish tech companies would solve for?
Well one thing I would love to see is to-go ordering — if it could just go right to our POS system and come up. You’ll make a million dollars off of it. Everybody’s working on it right now, but nobody’s solved it.
Any advice for aspiring restaurateurs?
As a chef, with cooking you really have to swallow your ego and ask the stupid questions. Seek the knowledge of how to be a great business person, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes and ask questions.
What's your favorite dish on your menu?
A duck that we do with a couple of different techniques. It’s barbecue because we smoke it, but it’s also Chinese.
You put equal parts flour, rice and sugar inside a wok on aluminum foil and cure the duck overnight with Szechuan peppercorn and kosher salt. Then you rinse it off the next day, and you get this smoky mixture. You put it under the wok then get this sweet, little bit of bitter and almost burnt rice smoke onto the duck. You render off the fat and get this intense flavor that’s done within 10 minutes. That is a traditional Chinese technique but in a barbecue setting. We serve it alongside a pomegranate molasses dipping sauce. Next to our passion fruit vinegar drink with mezcal — it’s awesome.