It's a quiet Monday between lunch and dinner at The Rabbit Hole, the so-adorable you want to pinch its cheeks restaurant tucked into the northern end of the Midtown Global Market. But don't let its geography fool you. This is where flavortown begins. Los Angeles-born Korean chef Thomas Kim and his wife Kat have not-so-quietly been cranking out Korean-inspired wonders for the past year after taking The Left Handed Cook concept to a more formal setting. I plucked him out of the kitchen for an hour pick his brain about being the proud papa of a year-old "Koreatown"-inspired gem.
"We're not done," he says, on the almost-one-year-anniversary (the couple will be celebrating with a private party on November 3rd). The boyish chef, who together with his wife Kat, now supports a staff of 32. (Quite the change from their humble origins manning The Left Handed Cook booth at Midtown Global Market). Kim is not easily daunted. The anniversary of the restaurant, the couple's wedding anniversary and birthday of their almost-one-year-old daughter all fall during the same week.
The transition from market stall to busy full-service restaurant has had its challenges, but has been equally rewarding, he insists. The new digs have bestowed upon them the benefit of a wider, more diverse audience, but with great blessings come great responsibility. "I wasn't prepared for re-introducing ourselves," he explains. "I had to figure out logistics; how to get people to understand the food so they would try it."
At The Left Handed Cook, he says the duo had a decent handle on their audience base, and most of their clientele knew what to expect, given the casual vibe and perhaps more recognizable dishes. But now, he says, they can sometimes find themselves trapped in the "dichotomous" situation of their foodie following wishing for them to push boundaries, and the newer, more apprehensive diner looking for, perhaps, less adventure. New diners were often concerned about spice level, for instance, and so Kim initially became more conservative in that department. Eventually he felt he needed to regroup. He consciously decided to simply cook the kind of food they know with certainty is good, and hope diners would get it. So far, he says, its working.
One proven beloved dish has been the chili crab, his bewitching take on the traditional Malaysian/Singaporean dish. He uses tempura soft shell crab (less messy than the traditional, he says) which meets a tomato-based plum sauce, habanero, pickled onion, pickled jalapeno, egg and coriander. The whole of it coming together in a balanced, unforgettable taste sensation not found anywhere else. This dish alone has garnering regulars. Other big hits are the bacon fat fried rice (kind of a no-brainer, he conceeds; and also admits to "being a huge fan of pork"). Plus, their take on a bibimbap which was also their bread and butter at The Left Handed Cook, with seared pork belly and a poached egg instead of the traditional fried.
The Rabbit Hole is an evolution in more ways than one, says Kim. He has only just begun to ask himself if the food he's cooking would work in Korea, and not just any city USA. At The Left Handed Cook, he says he relied on more of a "global-influence" for inspiration. In that vein, he does not wish to imply that he is attempting to recreate"traditional" Korean cuisine. "We have actually received hate mail because our rice cakes incorporate duck confit, for instance, and traditionally that would not have been done. But then sometimes I ask 'When was the last time you were actually in Korea?'" You'd be surprised, he says, if you went to Seoul in 2014 and saw the kind of fusion food available.
So, these days, you might call Kim a more traditional kind of non-traditionalist.
One thing that does work in Korea: dining room call button systems-- discrete buttons on every table used to summon waitstaff for any reason. "I took it straight from Korea, where service is very minimal. They'll give you what you need, but otherwise they will leave you alone. We want to give full service, but also intimacy, which is something I really value. I don't want to be hovered around." He says that so far,Midwesterners can be hesitant to use it. "They'll wait until someone actually passes by with water and then say, 'Oh it's OK, it's only water!"
While Kim says he thinks he's always going to be fighting the battle of "authenticity versus creativity" he gives props to his front-of-house staff for being his "first line of defense," and that they've done an excellent job of their sometimes daunting task of education. And speaking of staff, he insists that the entire crew get a shout-out in this piece. "I don't know any chef, who, in the last four months hasn't asked 'Hey, do you have an extra cook?'" He adds: "The cooks that are with me are my people. They maybe could go somewhere else and make a higher wage. So, the fact that they are here really speaks to their dedication and passion."
The couple also continue to be humbled at the guests who come from far and away to experience the cooking, and stumble on Midtown Global Market in the process. Which, he calls, a major fringe benefit. The couple love the market, and they loved The Left Handed Cook, which he says, they want to "reconceptualize" and bring back in some form, but leaves the details at that, for now.
Mostly, he says he wants to "push the cuisine in a way that year five may not be recognizable to year one."
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