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“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.”
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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.