Hometown: Seoul, Korea
Occupation: Chef and Owner, bellyQ and Urbanbelly
Years worked as a chef: 28
Years lived in Chicago: 39 (off and on)
Awards/Accolades: Semifinalist, Best Chef: Great Lakes, James Beard Foundation (2010)
bellyQ named a “Best New Restaurant,” Chicago magazine (2013)
Michelin Bib Gourmand, bellyQ and Belly Shack
What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and we are very fortunate to experience that diversity in cultures and food.
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Chicago should try.
Sumi Robata Bar by Chef Gene Kato. Chef Kato is one of the first in Chicago to bring the robata style restaurant to the next level. He is very talented, and my favorite dish is the tofu served chilled with caviar and crispy ginger.
mfk: A former Trotter alum and her husband opened this intimate spot that transports me to the seaside towns in Spain. My favorite dish is the tempura-fried avocado with lime and chili.
La Bomba Restaurant: My wife is Puerto Rican and this is the next best place (next to my mother-in-law’s cooking) to experience food from the island. My favorite dish is pasteles.
Currency Exchange Café: A great place on the South Side of Chicago that we frequent for lunch. This place has a lot of soul and the food is always delicious.
Describe your perfect dining out day in Chicago.
Breakfast takes place at our local diner Steak N Egger in Pilsen. I usually have a patty melt. Lunch would be at Joong Boo Market where I indulge in all things Korean, such as blood sausage (순대) or sizzling tofu hotpot (순두부). At dinner time, we plan a home-cooked meal that usually includes seafood and vegetables. When I have a craving for something sweet, I go and visit my friend Mindy Segal. Mindy has a restaurant called HotChocolate and she has the BEST dessert menu in Chicago!
If you had to name one personal favorite dish from your restaurants, which would it be and why?
My personal favorite is rice cake with chicken katsu, mango and Korean chili broth. It’s my take on a traditional Korean stew layered with flavors of Latin America and Southeast Asia.
What’s your favorite Korean dish? When you’re not in the mood to cook at home, where do you like to go for Korean in the city?
My favorite Korean dish is soon doo boo (순두부), a classic Korean comfort food. Joong Boo Market is my favorite Korean restaurant.
What other cuisines do you enjoy eating and cooking?
Other favorite cuisines include Middle Eastern, Indian and Italian.
What’s one dish in Chicago that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?
The one food item I remember being blown away by is the Jibarito sandwich, a sandwich created by a Chicago restaurateur Juan “Peter” Figueroa. The sandwich is made with plantains that substitute for bread with steak, chicken or pork layered with lettuce, tomato and a garlic-flavored mayonnaise. The first time I tried it, I was with my wife (then girlfriend) and I thought, “This is genius! Why didn’t I think of this!”
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?
We live in the Pilsen neighborhood and we love being able to walk to some of the great dining options in the area. Some of Chicago’s best Mexican restaurants are found on 18th Street in Pilsen.
We have to ask: what’s your favorite Chicago deep dish?
Favorite pizza is Lou Malnati’s pan pizza with cheese, sausage and butter crust.
Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?
A new favorite hotel in the city is The Langham Hotel. The restaurant in the hotel, Travelle, is a great addition to the dining scene here in Chicago. The room is elegant and understated, and the food is executed at a very high level.
What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it?
We live close to Jim’s Original, which is a place you can go to late night for an original Polish sausage. It’s an old-school Chicago tradition.
Do you have any favorite watering holes?
Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar. The owner, Ed, is a great guy who always has an interesting story to tell and is a beer enthusiast!
Are there any foods native to Chicago that you particularly like?
Garrett Popcorn is a favorite. Try their Garrett Mix that combines sweet caramel crisp with savory cheese corn.
Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago?
Visitors to Chicago should check out the Chicago architecture boat tour and the Elks National Veterans Memorial.
Chef Kim’s Shortlist:
bellyQ, 1400 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); Asian barbecue, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Urbanbelly, 1400 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); Asian, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 1542 N. Damen Avenue (Wicker Park); lunch and dinner daily.
Sumi Robata Bar by Chef Gene Kato, 702 N. Wells Street (River North); Japanese, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.
mfk, 432 W. Diversey Parkway (Lincoln Park/Lakeview East); seafood, lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner daily.
La Bomba, 3221 W. Armitage Avenue (Logan Square); Puerto Rican, lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
Currency Exchange Café, 305 E. Garfield Boulevard (Washington Park); American/Mexican/Filipino/Southern, breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.
Steak N Egger, 1174 W. Cermak Road (Pilsen); American diner, open 24/7.
Joong Boo Market, 3333 N. Kimball Avenue (Avondale); Korean, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
HotChocolate Craft food and drink, 1747 N. Damen Avenue (Bucktown); contemporary American, pastries and desserts, breakfast Tuesday-Friday, lunch Wednesday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Lou Malnati’s, 805 S. State Street (South Loop); Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 439 N. Wells Street (River North); lunch and dinner daily.
Third location: 1120 N. State Street (Gold Coast); lunch and dinner daily.
Fourth location: 1235 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); lunch and dinner daily.
Travelle, The Langham, Chicago, 330 N. Wabash Avenue, 2nd floor (River North); Mediterranean, breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Jim’s Original, 1250 S. Union Avenue (University Village/Little Italy); Polish sausage, hot dogs and burgers, open 24/7.
Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, 960 W. 31st Street (Bridgeport); artisanal and craft beers and spirits, open daily.
Garrett Popcorn Shops, multiple locations in downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport; specialty popcorn, most locations open daily.
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive
Elks National Veterans Memorial, 2750 N. Lakeview Avenue (Lincoln Park); open Monday-Saturday from April 15-November 15.
About the Chef: During his early stints at fine-dining establishments in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York, Chef Bill Kim found that none of these cities screamed “home” to him.
“All the years I lived on the East Coast, I kept my watch on Central Standard Time and I always kept my Illinois driver’s license current. That’s how I stayed focused and connected to the dream of coming back home to Chicago.”
A chef de cuisine gig with none other than the late world-renowned chef Charlie Trotter became Chef Kim’s ticket back home to his beloved city, where he and his family moved to from Seoul when he was a child. Though he specialized in high-end dining for most of his career, Chef Kim says he started to recognize the “casualization in the dining scene,” prompting him to adapt as he started launching his own restaurants in 2008. bellyQ, Urbanbelly and Belly Shack feature dishes that are big on Asian ingredients, but that also highlight other cultures and cuisines (Belly Shack, for example, blends the flavors of Chef Kim’s and his wife’s cultural backgrounds, Korean and Puerto Rican). Chef Kim says he was fortunate to have been exposed to and influenced by other cultures at an early age, and those experiences still help him reimagine Asian cuisine today.