How does one go from a career in hospital administration to becoming an award-winning chef?
Ji Hye Kim can tell you.
Kim is a semifinalist for the 2022 James Beard Foundation (JBF) Award for Outstanding Chef, having previously made semifinalist in 2020 for Best Chef, Great Lakes region. But being a chef wasn’t her first ambition.
She emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, to the United States with her parents when she was 13. A somewhat rambunctious teenager, she left friends and the big city to become the new kid in a New Jersey suburb where she didn’t speak the language.
“I was decently popular in Korea, but became an easy target to be picked on in the States,” Kim said.
But that motivated her to study hard, and she ended up at the University of Michigan. She graduated, got a good job in New Jersey, and had financial stability. Then she had an epiphany.
“I was able to ask myself, ‘What is it that I want to do?'” Kim said. “I had been driven by what I needed to do up until that moment.
“I just went with what gave me the most joy: food.”
She found work in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the famed Zingerman’s Delicatessen, where she learned about cheeses, met artisan providers, and developed her palate.
“I was missing home-cooked Korean food a whole lot, though,” Kim said.
She didn’t cook much growing up. Her mother typically shooed her out of the kitchen. So she turned to Korean cookbooks, including a collection from the 1700s.
“It had some recipes that resembled the food I ate, but it was also full of recipes that surprised me—a Korean fresh cheese recipe that was almost identical to a typical ricotta recipe, recipes for rabbits and pheasants, and lots of recipes for preservation,” Kim said.
Zingerman’s “Path to Partnership” program helped Kim develop a plan, and she started with a food cart. After four years, she was ready for a new direction. She spent eight months working with the Rome Sustainable Food Project, where the staff cooked without recipes, using whatever farmers brought in.
When she returned to Michigan in 2016, she opened Miss Kim, a restaurant specializing in Korean food while sourcing locally as much as possible. Her Royale-Style Tteokbokki, inspired by an 18th-century recipe, sautés rice cakes with Michigan vegetables (beets are a favorite), mushrooms, and a soy-based sauce.
But for Kim, the work is about more than just food. She pays employees living wages in part to “cultivate a work environment that allows for work-life balance,” and tips are shared to include non-serving staff. Kim took part in the JBF Chef Boot Camp for Policy Change and FoodLab Detroit’s Fellowship for Change in Food and Labor.
“I hope for our industry to be as hospitable to our own as we are to our guests,” she said.
Ji Hye Kim
Comfort Food: Kimchi jjigae.
Ingredient She Can’t Live Without: I want to say something esoteric and fancy, but really, it’s green onions.
Favorite Cocktail: A dry gin martini with extra Gordal olives.
Last Meal: Mom’s baekban—a table full of banchan and a bowl of white rice made by my mom.