Signature Dish: The Left Handed Cook's Thomas Kim
The Notorious P.I.G. is Kim's Asian take on a Mexican tostada
Courtesy of http://hilaryrobertsphoto.com
In the search for the Twin Cities' best culinary creations, we often come across dishes that stop us mid-bite and force us to reflect on the level of thought and artistry chefs put into their work. The efforts of the chefs are often laborious, and the end results are regularly consumed before the full concept can be appreciated. We've been tracking down some of these dishes to get the chef's side of the story; their thoughts, motivations, and processes. It's our hope that we can give you a deeper insight into the talents of Twin Cities chefs and to have a better understanding of what you're getting when you sit down to dinner.
Few people in this world have the ability to move into an entirely new town and not only acclimate to their surroundings but have an immediate impact on their communities. When Thomas Kim and his significant other/business partner Kat Melgaard came to Minnesota from L.A. 14 months ago and opened Midtown Global Market's hit food stand, the Left Handed Cook, people took notice, and they took notice in a big way. The food stall has won some of the highest praises from Minneapolis's most critical eaters.
The Left Handed Cook features Asian-fusion renditions of traditional comfort foods that come heartily accented with the flair of street food and sport expertly crafted flavor profiles that could rival many of the city's top fine-dining establishments. Behind the counter, chef Kim and crew work tirelessly to redefine what fast food can be.
"I would say that I had a fairly conflicted relationship with food," Kim says about his early years. "I was always a really finicky eater, and I always had to battle back and forth with my mom in regards to food. She is a really, really excellent cook, but she is by no means diverse. She cooks only Korean food, and it's what she does really well."
Kim explains the ridicule he faced at school because of his more exotic lunches. "Friends would come over to visit, they'd open up the refrigerator, and almost every single person would say, 'Dude, I think you have dead bodies in your refrigerator.' It took a long time to explain to them what kim chee even was," Kim says. "A lot of them didn't even know what sauerkraut was."
To get young Kim to eat the traditional Korean foods she prepared, his mother would wrap the food in tortillas, making Korean-style tacos and burritos. "My experience with having Korean fusion food was actually pretty early on," he recalls. "I always joke with her, because when the Kogi truck [a well-known L.A. food truck] started getting popular, she would always say that she should've made millions off of that: 'That was my idea!'"
By the time he was eight years old, Kim had discovered a passion for baking. Coupled with a love for PBS cooking shows and celebrities like Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook,, he experimented in the kitchen, fiddling with various recipes (resulting in three kitchen fires, two of which were fairly severe) until he began working in restaurants throughout high school and into college.
Graduating from college with a degree in film, he took to a short-lived stint in the movie industry, which didn't turn out exactly the way he expected. "I was working in Beverly Hills and Hollywood for a bit, and I just had a falling-out with the industry. I got into a fight on set, so I got blacklisted and couldn't get a job anywhere," Kim says. "My brother happened to relocate to San Francisco, and he was like, 'You can come live with me for a little while,' so I jumped up that way, but the only job I could get was as an assistant manager at a sushi restaurant. It was like a small little college saki-bomb kind of place. I did a lot of ordering for the front of the house, but one day one of the guys tripped on the line and his whole left arm went into the deep fryer. Through that, obviously we needed an extra guy, so they had me come aboard."
Finding a lot of support from the restaurant's owner, Kim excelled in his duties and was encouraged to pursue his culinary talents. The owner sent Kim to a Japanese chef versed in kaiseki, culinary techniques used to prepare traditional Japanese multicourse dinners. Kim recalls of the experience: "First he started me at the bottom. He had me sweeping floors and then washing dishes. Then he had me going shopping with him at 4:30 in the morning, and then I'd wash the vegetables and scale the fish. I think it was about eight months in before he let me touch a knife."
Again, encouraged to enhance his skills, Kim moved back to L.A., where he hopped around a few places before falling into a position working for renowned Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi. Kim helped Yamaguchi open a variety of new restaurants, but after two and a half years of doing that, he had the opportunity to help several alumni of chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's famous Japanese restaurant Nobu open a new restaurant that they hoped could rival other L.A. hotspots. The ambitious concept didn't take off the way they had planned, but Kim decided he was ready to go out on his own. He decided to open a small, gourmet burger place called the Standing Room, but in doing so he began to feel as though L.A. might not be the place for him.
Initially Kim had decided to try to sell his restaurant and move to New York, but when Kim's significant other, Kat Melgaard, returned from a visit to Minneapolis, she convinced him that Minnesota was the place for them. Kim sold his restaurant, and he and Melgaard packed up and headed for the land of 10,000 lakes.
Their initial plan did not involve opening another restaurant right away, but after a visit to Midtown Global Market to grab some food, they noticed a vacant stall. They decided to call Midtown's management to ask what it would take to open up a shop. From there the ball started rolling. They met several people in the local food scene, including Piccolo's Doug Flicker, the Strip Club's JD Fratzke, and the people from what would become their neighbors at Midtown, the Sonora Grill. Kim credits them for really helping him to figure out the local lay of the land.
The dish Kim shares with us this week is something he lovingly refers to as "the Notorious P.I.G." The dish is a perfect example of Kim's creative process. "I always start with a certain base. If we're doing something along the lines of kim chee, we'll start with a firm foundation of a more traditional recipe and then we'll start tweaking. That's how we approach all of our dishes. 'What would I do to a make it my own?' There's a Korean dish that uses fermented skate, but instead of doing that you could use a walleye or whatever's available here and it immediately becomes its own thing."
The Notorious P.I.G. essentially boils down to an Asian take on a Mexican tostada. He starts with a kim chee pajeon, which is sort of a Korean-style scallion pancake, in place of the tortilla. After a short stint on the grill, it's mounted with a fresh chimichurri, which adds a strong, herbaceous element to the dish. The pancake is then topped with a rich slow-braised pork shoulder dressed with a slightly spicy roasted scallion ginger sauce. The whole thing is then covered in cheese, which lovingly melts across the tender pork. The dish is garnished with arugula and pickled radishes. The resulting plate is a blast of perfectly balanced flavors. For the sake of this post, we had Kim plate it as he might in a full restaurant, but the dish typically comes in a foil to-go box. Considering that it's only $5, it would be wrong not to give it a try.
Thomas Kim and the crew of the Left Handed Cook have enhanced Midtown Global Market's reputation as a Twin Cities dining destination. Many of their compositions could easily be considered some of the best food in the Twin Cities. Kim and Melgaard have been in the state for only a little more than a year; we're excited to see what else they will contribute to the ever-maturing Minneapolis/St. Paul food scene.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.