Maria’s Community Bar matron Maria Marszewski greets Won Kim, the chef at the restaurant attached to the cherished Bridgeport tavern her family took over in 1987.
“Welcome home,” Marszewski the octogenarian says.
Kim, who’d been on sabbatical from his chef duties since November to work on art and to prevent kitchen burnout, deadpans: “Please don’t say that.”
The restaurant, called Kimski, paid homage to the Marszewskis’ Polish and Korean background and opened in 2016 as a complement to Maria’s. The family charged Kim with coming up with a menu including bulgogi-stuffed pierogi and fried rice made with a hybrid kimchi and sauerkraut condiment.
Kimski, as abstract of an experiment as it was, earned a mention in the Michelin Guide in 2017. But after six years, Kim says the Korean Polish (or “KoPo,” as Kimski calls it) fusion concept has run its course. It’s not about appropriation, something that Kim isn’t shy about discussing. They’ll keep potato and cheese pierogi and Polish sausage, but at 43 and a decade of hustling around town and receiving on-the-job training in the restaurant world, Kim is embracing Korean food without pandering to locals.
“I didn’t go to Korea and then use tweezers — you know, on fucking pubic hair, fucking herbs and shit,” Kim says. “But I think the hustle and the grind is equivalent to any fucking experience in any job.”
“You know, basically, I lean toward Asia; I’m fucking Asian — there’s nothing I can do about that, I can’t change it, and I can’t change what I crave either,” Kim adds. “Not to say that Polish food isn’t respectable and amazing in its own right. It had nothing to do with feeling weird about appropriating Eastern European food or anything. It was just really just a matter of, the joke’s been done, it ran its course, and like, I was just in a rut.”
When Kim returns as Kimski’s chef starting on Wednesday, April 5, he’ll debut a new menu. A big part of Kim’s journey is discovering what he’s worth. His ssam platter will cost $55 with a special white kimchi and sauce. Kim says he’s embracing a label veteran Chicago food writer Michael Gebert gave Kimski: “the highest lowbrow place.”
At its core, Kimski still needs to provide drinking food for Maria’s patrons. Fire chicken has gained popularity, showing America how Koreans use cheese in cooking. With that, Kim’s serving a bulgogi cheesesteak with a yellow cheddar sauce. That previously mentioned ssam platter comes with all the proper fixings, but what will set it apart is smoked brisket from Heffer BBQ, one of the many pop-ups Kimski has welcomed through the years. Maybe local customers weren’t ready for seafood seven years ago, but now Kim is curing his own salmon for a salmon hwe rice bowl with barrel-smoked trout roe, everything bagel spice, dill, and soy cream. Dinner specials will eventually make their way to the menu.
Kim and the Marszewskis, including Maria’s owner Mike and brother Ed (who serves as the de facto face of Marz Community Brewing), have turned Kimski into an incubator for culinary talent. In short order, another Kimski alum, Margaret Pak, will open her first standalone restaurant, Thattu.
In terms of his own public image, Kim himself can sometimes come across as surly. Every once in a while, he will erupt on social media, tackling issues from customer behavior to appropriation. He has reiterated that restaurant and bar workers can of course empathize with serving customers that aren’t always the kindest; COVID revealed more bad behavior, and at times it was so bad that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law that more or less fined customers for being jerks to restaurant workers.
“I have no intention of trying to be a celebrity chef or whatever,” Kim says. “I don’t speak my mind out of controversy. I speak my mind because there are some truths that need to be exposed. I think some people think I’m trying to be a shock jock-type situation. I’m like, ‘No, like, you don’t read. Just read what I wrote.’”
Kim will make the extra effort for those he respects. He says watching Pak succeed with Thattu is more important than any personal success. He used his artistic skills to design Pak’s first pop-up flier in August 2018 after urging his friend to branch out.
“Aside from learning how to be a prep cook, one of the biggest things Won taught me was to put myself out there and to push to do my own thing,” Pak says. “He showed me that I can’t try to cook — and please — everyone but I can and should cook the food that I love and get excited about.”
For some chefs, especially BIPOC chefs, finding the confidence to do the latter is hard. Hospitality is about pleasing diners, and there’s some insecurity that a white or “mainstream audience” will reject flavors they aren’t familiar with. And that extends to more than hurt feelings: It’s hurt bank accounts. In that way, cooking what’s true to you can become a financial risk that some cannot afford to take. That’s one of the reasons Kim continues with painting. Neither world is necessarily lucrative, but art helps Kim pay the bills.
In Chicago, there’s a wave of chefs, including Carlos Gaytán at Tzuco, Beverly Kim at Parachute, and Tim Flores at Kasama, who have found their grooves and the means to shed their worries and cook what they want. A few of those chefs are Asian American, and being part of that community matters to Kim, who calls out restaurants like Parachute, Jeong, and Perilla Korean American Fare. Many of these restaurants, even ones that aren’t Korean, like Wazwan and Bixi Beer, feature Kim’s art.
Both Thomas Oh and chef Andrew Lim of Perilla are excited to see what Kim unveils with his menu. Lim groups Kim with other Chicago Korean chefs of note, including Beverly Kim of Parachute, Bill Kim of Urbanbelly, and Bo Fowler of Bixi.
“Whether he likes to admit it or not, Won has been a voice in the Chicago culinary community for quite some time now, and I appreciate that he is now using his position to showcase his own culture,” Lim says. “I know that all of us came up without representation. I believe, as chefs, we have a responsibility to share who we are, and be present for the future generations. It is through these experiences and relationships that have inspired us at Perilla to make it part of our mission to uplift people of color, to create a place we can be proud of and call home, and to build a community of like-minded individuals.”
Kimski is a unique restaurant with a civic mission. It provided free meals during the pandemic for the community and Kim helped make that happen, recruiting other restaurants and ensuring operations went smoothly. That took a toll, and Kim admits that he may have quit Kimski if not for his sabbatical, which, beyond the time away from the kitchen, gave him time to explore painting. He even restarted his digital series, “Sleeping Is For Suckers.” He just returned from a trip to Texas where he recorded segments for another show that combines food and video gaming. It’s a collaboration with Hector “Hecz” Rodriguez, founder of esports team OpTic Gaming; the series is called “Eatiots” and Kim says it will be different from a “regular” food show.
“All I know is that I hate seeing lame white people constantly be the face of it,” he explains.
Born in Seoul, Kim’s family immigrated to America in the ’80s. They lived in Cleveland before moving to Chicago, and living in a crowded home on Chicago’s North Side in West Rogers Park. One of three siblings, he is still in contact with a brother. He speaks Korean, which is useful when ordering mandu from Joong Boo Market.
Kim’s mother, Sun-Hee Kang, is Kim’s mentor and his harshest critic. Kim says she sold street food in Korea and dreamed of opening a small restaurant in Chicago, but that’s only something she shared with her son later in life. Kim’s first restaurant job was as a waiter at a kosher Italian restaurant in Skokie. He attended DePaul University and Columbia College, studying theater and radio production.
His mother and family have visited Kimski before, but Kim says they get a special menu.
“I can’t give them any of the regular food items,” Kim says. “I have to go as traditional as possible.”
What will mom say about the new menu?
“I think she’ll say, ‘Good on you for trying,’” Kim says through laughter. “Or, like — ‘Hey when are you going to law school?’”
Kimski 2.0, debuts Wednesday, April 5, 960 W. 31st Street, open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, open until 8 p.m. on Sunday.