Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Vicki, Edward and Jennifer Kim [Photo: Roger Yuen]
Ruxbin is like a quiet storm that got louder and louder during its first year in business. The intimate, eclectically designed, no-reservation, BYOB restaurant celebrated its first anniversary in June. It had already received critical acclaim locally, but in mid August, Bon Appetit named it the No. 5 best new restaurant in the U.S., putting it on the national radar. Owners (and siblings) Edward and Vicki Kim and their childhood friend, Jennifer Kim, took a chance on opening their first restaurant on a somewhat low-traffic area of Ashland and hoped people would show up. Not surprisingly, the restaurant is packed almost every night for Edward's beautiful yet approachable American dishes inspired by global fare. Eater chatted with Ed and Jennifer about their first year in business.
Ed, why did you get into cooking?
I always enjoyed cooking growing up. I would cook little things in the kitchen and I would experiment. I don't think I really thought about it being a profession until I was a little bit older. I went to college and thought I'd go to law school. I studied political science at NYU. I had some older friends who were lawyers who said I should take a couple of years to figure out if I wanted to do it because they were miserable. I worked a bunch of odd jobs and eventually went to culinary school. I always wanted to do something creative and enjoy working with my hands. I had a lot of friends in New York who were artists. I enjoy doing that too, but I knew my friends were a lot more talented than I was and were very broke, too. I said, "OK, what can I do that I enjoy that's creative but still be able to pay for rent?" That led me to cooking. And it turned out well – so I'm happy about that.
Working in those places [Per Se in New York, Maison G in Los Angeles] were always fine dining. I knew I wanted to open a place, but was pretty burnt out on fine dining. I knew how much work it took and I wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do. My sister and I wanted to open in LA, but then the economy tanked. We came back to Chicago and hooked up with Jen. The concept was originally more of a café. Jen and Vicki, they were thinking that with my background to do more food. We were thinking that people wouldn't want to pay for a cappuccino, but they still need to eat. Part of it was the amount of capital we had, the space we could find ... I don't know we had the intention of opening a BYOB but it happened that way. Things just came together. The original concept was to do a neighborhood restaurant.
Where any of you ever concerned about having such a small space on a somewhat low traffic part of Ashland?
Jen: At the pont we signed a lease, we had already looked at six or seven spaces and were ready to commit. The location did feel ... it was nerve wracking for us because we weren't too familiar with the area. This stretch of Ashland is still a little, um, in shambles, but there are up-and-coming-type buildings and businesses. It's very ethnic. When we saw this space we were ready and it was the perfect vibe for us and it was in our budget. Even though the location wasn't 100 percent perfect, we were ready. Little did we know, it was the perfect location.
Ed: Because we looked at so many different spaces, there are some spaces that just have a good feeling. It's like a sculptor who looks at a slab of stone and knows there's a great statue inside. It was instinctual. It's supposed to be special.
So how has the first year been?
Ed: It's been really tiring.
JEN: It's been a lot of work. We were lucky enough to get the help of some really great friends. We were able to find truly great staff who stuck with us from day one. We have had like zero turnover. And seeing how we're received in the press and our diners on a nightly basis, affirms all the hard work that goes into what we do. I think it's been good. When we all talk, it is kind of like we are living the dream. We had humble beginnings and we are now doing what we set out to do.
Why do you feel you've been so successful?
Ed: We do a lot of things that aren't conventional. We take a break every season. The restaurant has been successful enough that we can do trips for research. It's been really tiring but exciting. Someone asked me if I was intimidated by how much I was trying to accomplish with this restaurant, and I said no because we just wanted to really have a great neighborhood restaurant. I feel the food has improved a lot and everyone on staff, we push to be better everyday.
Jen: We had the trout [which came off the menu last month] and when a dish reaches its peak, there's nothing more we can do with a dish. That's what great, we can experiment in the kitchen.
Ed: It's no longer evolving at that point ...
Jen: And we retire it. Everyone in the back of the house is just as enthusiastic and passionate and the results are really exceptional.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Ed: There are some days it seems like yesterday and others if feels much longer. For us, it has been longer than a year if you thnk about looking for locations and build out, etc. All the things we had to go through to open, it's amazing to think about how much we've been there. One year in restaurant years is like five years. I don't know if it's part of getting older, but everything seems like it was yesterday.
How was the actual opening? Were there any memorable screw ups or did things go smoothly?
Jen: We had our share of bumps in the road. When we first opened, the utility pole just outside the restaurant collapsed. We lost our phone line, our credit card machine went down; we've lost power.
ED: On a Friday, the Red Eye came out and said they were going to do a little blurb and I remember when it came out, Jen told me and I said "We're not ready for this." I was freaked out, we had only done practice dinners. Everyone in the kitchen was really tense and freaked out. That's when the storm happened. In the middle of service, lightning hit the utlity pole and it came crashing down. You could see it outside the window. I remember going back into the kitchen and told the guys to keep going as if it never happened. I don't know how many covers we did that night—it could've been 50 but it felt like 200. It was less than a week after we opened. Our plan was to do a soft opening, but then we started getting press during our soft opening and the grand opening wasn't that grand.
You just got named the No. 5 best new restaurant by Bon Appetit. Were you surprised?
Jen: Yes, definitely. It was a huge surprise. We had people in the Bon Appetit Chicago office calling to ask us for little requests, but nobody really hinted at the scale of the story. Before they did a small blurb on us. No one had expected that they would name us No. 5 in the country. It was very exciting.
Ed: I thought we were going to get the coolest bathroom or something like that. It was a susprise but we're happy.
Was that a goal, to get national exposure, when opening Ruxbin?
Jen: I think we've all had the ambitions of anyone who would put all of their time and hard work, there was always a quiet ambition. If you're going to go for it, go for it. When we were opening, we just wanted to get some people in the door and said, "Let's just start." We just figured that the bigger accolades would come down the road.
Ed: In the beginning, for the three of us, this was our life savings. But we're pretty young so it's not like we're about to retire so we wouldn't be in huge trouble. But when opening, we wanted to find out if owning a restaurant would be enjoyable. The thing I remember when opening was wondring if we would be able to keep the doors open.
Other than the professional side, how has it been emotionally?
Jen: We've always felt emotionally proud. But the whole Bon Appetit thing shed some light. We've always had the underdog mentality and we're not as well connected as some other chefs. We've always wanted to just provide a good meal for our neighbors, and to see it on a national scale ... last night, we got the crew together and I got really emotional for the first time. A lot of sacrifices have gone into opening Ruxbin and we're constantly feeling so blessed. We're really fortunate to be received the way we were.
Ed: In terms of emotion, it's been a lot of ups and downs. In terms of business it's been up. We've been blessed. There's been a lot of sacrifices in opening in terms of personal things. We found out about the Bon Appetit thing yesterday morning; it was a really early call. It was 8 o' clock and I got a call that my grandmother died. Then 30 minutes later I got a call that the Bon Appetit thing came out. That's why my sister isn't here. She flew to Korea. There was a lot of emotion going on and I didn't know if I should be happy or sad. If I didn't have the restaurant, I'd be in Korea right now going to the funeral, but there's a lot of sacrifices like that. I missed my cousin's wedding. I had another cousin who passed away from cancer. This has been over the last year. I postponed my trip to visit her by a week and I waited a week too long. I talk to my staff about that, too, about the things we've had to do. I get a lot of support from my family and Jen. I reflect on that and feel like a jerk, but then my family understands and supports me. In the end, you have to ask is it worth it and I hope it is.
What was the thinking behind not taking reservations?
Ed: If we were a much bigger restaurant if someone cancels it wouldn't be a big deal. But because we're so small, if tables cancel, it's hard. We're tiny. We're BYOB. Our margins aren't super high. When we first opened, part of the reason we didn't have reservations, we were thinking "who would want to reserve a table with us? No one know who we are."
What's next for Ruxbin? Any expansion plans?
Jen: There are some ideas now. We're getting to the place where we're able to consider that. We've had the fortune of working with a great friends this last year. There's stuff brewing, but we don't have a concrete concept just yet, but timeline-wise we want to open something within this coming year.
Ed: In terms of expansion, I don't think we will expand in the traditional sense, but open another location. We want to have some sort of syngery that makes sense.