Hooni Kim made up his mind to become a doctor during college when he worked in the neurosurgery department at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He graduated from medical school and was on his way to a grueling 6-year neurosurgery residency when he decided to first spend a year relaxing with his new bride in New York City.
A 9-month course at the French Culinary Institute seemed a good way to unwind, he thought. Long story short: Kim ditched the medical career, and 10 years later he is the celebrity chef-owner of two of Manhattan’s hottest new restaurants.
His mother didn’t forgive him for leaving medicine until he won a Michelin star—the first ever for a Korean restaurant. “I thought I’d be doing brain surgery, and here I am cutting pigs and calves’ heads,” Kim says. But he has no regrets.
“I think I work the same amount of hours as my doctor friends,” Kim says, “but I can’t imagine working this hard and not having the satisfaction of pleasing so many people at the end of the night.” In the hospital, he says, customers don’t leave happy.
As owner of Danji, in the city’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and Hanjan, in the Flatiron District, with just 86 seats between them, Kim just might have more influence on New Yorkers’ health than he would as a doctor. His restaurants serve meat raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, wild-caught fish, and “as much organic and local produce as possible.” He also serves plates designed to suffice, not to stuff. “If you stick with two courses and dessert, that’s a reasonable amount of food,” says the chef with a medical degree. “Some people order 6 dishes per person, and I can’t stop them from doing that.”
But it was creativity, not portion control, that attracted Kim to cooking and then ownership. “Cooking is an outlet for a creative energy which you don’t have as a doctor,” he says. “But as a cook in a restaurant, you execute what the chef has created. The better you are able to mimic what the chef wants, the better cook you are. That makes you want to be a chef and an owner.”
To be sure, Kim didn’t go straight from culinary school to chefdom. He paid his dues in the hard knocks New York restaurant industry, making $8 an hour interning, then working, for one of the city’s best French restaurants, Daniel, followed by a job under the renowned Japanese chef, Masa Takayama.
Going out on his own was no cakewalk either. Asked if he knew what he was getting into, Kim exclaims, “No! No!” Unlike many new Manhattan restaurants that are launched by groups of bankers or corporations, to open Danji, Kim used what he and his wife had saved over eight years for a house down payment and got a bank loan to match. Even then, he relied on talented friends to help with design, had no money for marketing, and waited more than a year to collect a paycheck.
Kim says the toughest things about starting a business in New York are the unknowns. “I read books on how to open a restaurant, but none of the authors had ever opened one in New York City. It’s the places that you never thought you would need money that it ends up going.” For instance, Kim leased a fully functioning restaurant, but because the laws changed he had to update all the plumbing and add an employees’ bathroom. At his second restaurant, Hanjan, which opened in December 2012, he says, “I was about to take my first paycheck when the fan broke. It was a $27,000 repair.” After several unexpected expenses like that, he says, “it’s stressful wondering how many more will come up.”
Still, he says, ownership is worth it: “If it’s my food that’s plated, I want to be the one controlling the costs, the lighting, the music, the hours. You want to create the entire environment that the diner can experience for the evening.” He has been rewarded for his efforts with a loyal following and numerous rave reviews in the New York and Korea media.
Creativity and ambiance aside, Kim considers his first responsibility as chef to be his employees. He says a French colleague taught him that the word “chef” comes from “chief.” “The Native American chief was not just the president, spiritual leader, the father figure, and the head of the army. He was everything. And that’s what a chef needs to be in a restaurant,” Kim says. “I still take that to heart. It’s not about serving the best food. It’s about our little family of 25 employees and our extended family, because they have families and children to support.”
Though he has the mark of a man who lives by the Hippocratic Oath, Kim is confident he made the right career choice: “Growing up, I always thought I wanted to help people. But actually, I just wanted to please people.”