“Think of kimchi as Korean salsa,” says chef Bill Kim as he spoons a crunchy cucumber kimchi over his thin lemongrass-laced pork patties, triple-stacked on brioche buns for a Fourth of July party. The burgers, inspired by lemongrass pork sausage, exemplify the food Kim makes at his Chicago restaurants Urbanbelly, Belly Shack and BellyQ: intensely flavored with Asian and Latin ingredients, but so unmoored from any kind of tradition that it’s really more American than anything else.
Kim’s cooking reflects his personal story. He emigrated from Korea to Chicago with his family when he was seven. After college, he cooked at high-end restaurants alongside chefs like Susanna Foo and David Bouley. “I always liked working with my hands and wanted to do something different than the usual immigrant kid,” he says. While Kim was chef de cuisine at Chicago’s legendary Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, he met Yvonne Cadiz (now his wife), who was working in the front of the house. He and Yvonne, who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Chicago, eventually tired of the high-end restaurant world. They wanted to open a place that reflected their backgrounds, a restaurant where “my parents would feel comfortable,” Bill says. In 2008, they pooled their resources and said to each other: “Let’s jump off a cliff.”
They opened a spare, order-at-the-counter dumpling and noodle joint with a few communal tables and two huge gnarled wooden planks, salvaged from old Indonesian ships, nailed to the slate-gray walls as decoration. It was the middle of the financial crisis—in hindsight, a perfect time to abandon expensive tasting menus and focus on dishes that each cost $13 or less. They expected a quiet opening at Urbanbelly, so the entire staff consisted of Bill, Yvonne and a dishwasher. “But we ended up being so busy, serving 150 people on the first day, that we hired five more people on our second day,” Yvonne recalls.
That seems like a long time ago to the Kims, who partnered with Michael Jordan last year to open the 200-seat Asian-inspired barbecue restaurant and karaoke den BellyQ. They’ve also bottled a line of condiments, like Seoul Sauce, a marinade of soy sauce, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar; the line was recently picked up by Whole Foods in the Midwest.
On occasion, Bill and Yvonne take a break from empire building to indulge their hippie-dippie sides. (Yvonne often talks about “listening to the universe” and taking “life journeys.”) For the Fourth of July weekend, they invited a few chef friends to join them in Ojai, California. The five-acre property they rent every year, called Calliote Canyon, is owned by Los Angeles shoe and accessories designer Calleen Cordero. “We can connect with the earth there, which we can’t do in the city,” says Yvonne. “We aspire to do yoga…”
“But I’m not flexible enough,” Bill says, laughing. “So instead, we do nothing but cook and eat and drink.”
In addition to the burgers, Bill centered the July Fourth meal around roast chickens bathed overnight in a tangy, garlic-laden, Puerto Rican–style marinade. “It’s the vinegar that makes you want to keep eating,” he says. “That flavor lingers and haunts you.” Bill’s mother-in-law, Lola, gave him the recipe (she was thrilled when Yvonne, who never liked to cook, married a chef). He doctors Lola’s recipe, serving the chickens with a chimichurri spiked with the fiery Indonesian chile paste sambal oelek. “Lola won’t admit it, but I think she likes my take on her Puerto Rican dishes just a little better,” he says.
Bill Kim’s Chicago Belly Empire
A 38-seat noodle and dumpling joint with communal tables and order-at-the-counter service. urbanbellychicago.com.
The Kims’ second casual restaurant features sandwiches and blended Asian and Latin flavors. bellyshack.com.
This 200-seat modern Asian barbecue restaurant has eight tables where guests can grill for themselves; plus there’s a karaoke den. bellyqchicago.com.