ANN ARBOR, MI — Ji Hye Kim, owner of Kerrytown’s Miss Kim and recent recipient of an award from Food & Wine Magazine, never set out to be an award-winner. For her, a passion for cooking was an instinct.
Kim, originally from South Korea, had been shooed out of the kitchen by her mother for most of her life, who told her that she was “born a woman and was going to end up in the kitchen whether I liked it or not,” so it was better to wait until she was older.
“My mom really is an amazing cook,” she said.
Food & Wine Magazine recently named Kim as one of 11 chefs on its list of Best New Chefs in America for 2021. Only chefs who have been in charge of a kitchen for five years or fewer are eligible for the award, which is the result of a months-long selection process.
Previous winners have gone on to become star chefs, including Daniel Boulud, Nancy Silverton, Michael Symon, Dan Barber, Angie Mar and Kwame Onwuachi.
Kim, 43, did not start out in the culinary field. After she graduated from University of Michigan in 2002, she moved to New Jersey, before returning to Ann Arbor in 2007. She originally worked for the university hospital, but soon found it was “not what I wanted to do,” she said.
So, she began asking herself about “what I want to do, rather than what I had to.”
Following a gut feeling — “and not much else” — Kim took a job at Zingerman’s Delicatessen and soon began working in its deli. She soon moved into its “path to partnership” program, which allows entrepreneurs to launch their own business under Zingerman’s umbrella.
“I wanted to do something tactile and immediate and connected to people,” Kim said.
She opened Miss Kim, located at 415 North Fifth Avenue, in 2016.
Although Miss Kim’s serves Korean dishes — such as bibimbob, banh mi and tteokbokki — she said she was influenced by her time at the deli.
“What we have in common is our approach of food,” she said.
Kim focuses on using seasonal ingredients in her dishes, often walking around the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Wednesdays for inspiration.
In addition to using seasonal ingredients, Kim works to blend local ingredients with the tradition of a dish. She and her team will often study the history of a dish, rather than just the modern rendition.
“It’s like having a relationship with the dish, not just one date,” Kim said. “…It’s looking at the ancient version and how it developed.”
In addition to bibimbob, Miss Kim also serves kimchi pork fried rice, Korean fried chicken and fish caramel broccolini, among other dishes. Her favorite dish is the street style tteokbokki, a rice cake dish served with gochujang, scallions, pork belly lardons and a poached egg.
Working with both Korean and American influence is important to Kim, she said.
“You don’t have to choose one or the other, you can just be,” she said.
Food & Wine’s award came as a surprise to Kim, who originally thought the magazine was calling her about a pandemic-focused story.
“Accolades (are) great recognition, but it’s not necessarily top … priority,” she said.
Lately, the focus for Miss Kim has been on making it through the pandemic. Besides, she said, “it’s not like I went to a famous culinary school.”
“I feel like I’ve been making (stuff) up as I go along, so to be recognized is just an amazing validation,” she said.
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