Chef Bill Kim on Leaving Your Mark on The World

Bill Kim is the owner of Urban Belly and a partner at bellyQ restaurant.

How has the industry changed since you started?
BK: Social media has really changed how we do business. It is an intricate part of the business. If you're not [using it], you're pretty much out of the game and don't know what's happening. For us to take a picture [and post it] on Instagram, and reach 5,000 to 6,000 people in one click is something you couldn’t do when I first started. It's really changed a lot and it's going to keep on changing. If you're not reinventing yourself, you become obsolete. It's very important to stay ahead of the game.

How do you measure success?
BK: We have a couple of people measuring why people come in, how they came in, how they heard of us, so we do a lot of analytical studies [of the] how's and the why's. Instead of just dealing with food, there's a whole department that handles [consumer behavior], marketing and our PR personnel really dive in and get to know the information our people are looking for and how they're hearing about it.

What was the “aha” moment that led you to invest in the space?
BK: Two to three years ago when we started Instagramming a lot more and people were asking for these items that we took pictures of. We were just like, "How did this happen?" But, obvious[ly] through Facebook and Instagram. I just really kinda opened our eyes to, [the ability to] speak once and amplify it by a thousand. It was proof of how it worked. Anytime we do events, people reply and we reply back. [The engagement] has really changed how we do business.

That's interesting, because in the past, people would say the first thing that gets cut from budgets is marketing and PR, but that doesn’t sound like it’s still the case.
BK: Marketing and PR are now hand in hand. It's no longer, "Hey, how can we cut?" That can't be. [Both are] a must [in] how we do business. And we have marketing and PR meetings once a week [to] see what our status is on social media, how we can do Facebook ads, things like that. As a chef, I would never think about being involved [in those conversations], but now I'm an integral part of what we do.

This weekend we had Chicago Gourmet, a big event for the city of Chicago and for us to document where we were, how we do things, what we're contributing. People are very curious now more than ever and they do their own research before they go to an event. They see your presence on social media and they'll find out where you are [and] how you are. The interaction between customer and chef or customer and restaurant, it coincides and that's how we do business. [By] doing a lot of interaction between our customer base.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned so far?
BK: Edit myself. Which means, people don’t want to know everything about you. Editing yourself is one of the things that I learned from business and also from my wife.

Tell me more about your investment in Chicago and your predictions for it?
BK: I got to grow up here. I came here when I was seven. Went to grade school, high school, cooking school, then I had to leave. I left for 10 years and came back. I always kept my watch and my clock on central time, so I always knew I was gonna come back. It's home and I feel like being part of the chef community gave me a voice. A voice of being part of [a] charity component, building a team within the Midwest, and also dealing with food. It’s not just about creating. I's about giving back and I've learned that throughout the years.

One of my big mentor[s] was Charlie Trotter and I got to spend five years with him. The thing that I learned from him is not the cooking. That's what everybody thinks. But [the biggest lesson I learned from him was] about giving. We are involved in a lot of kids charity in Chicago. We also are involved [in] three charities that give opportunities to people who need a second chance in life. That's a very big component and our kitchen is very diverse. We have some [who] aspire to become chefs, but we also have a lot of people that need a chance and we hire them. We take somebody who's never cooked before and give them an opportunity to have a job and hopefully a career path.

What challenges and opportunities arise as a market grows?
Some of the challenges and opportunities in Chicago as a food community is a lot of pressure for us to be able to perform as the number one restaurant city in the country (after Bon Appetit named it the 2017 Restaurant City of the Year). But I think the city itself has so much diversity. Chicago is built upon different neighborhoods. From Albany Park, to Pilsen, to Humboldt Park. A lot of cities don't have that. The diversity between the neighborhoods really makes Chicago very strong. And the pressures of us providing that kind of elevated food, knowing that we are out there promoting the city and trying to hire people….the one other thing we do is run into problem[s] with skilled labors. That's been a very hard thing for everybody. There's so many restaurants opening up. This week there could be 10 restaurants opening up and more and more and more, so there's people who are looking for job and also culinary students graduating. They want to be chefs within a couple of years, so it's kind [of] diluted the talent pool. We look at finding people that wanna have jobs, that wanna stay with us and grow with us, so that's been a challenge for our industry right now.

Where do you get your inspiration?
BK: Through travel. Also, through different cultures. Reading, watching a lot of different things, but everybody thinks you learn by eating. That's a given, but when you travel, when you see different cultures, when you talk to people from different countries [you notice] there [are] a lot more similarities than differences. When I met my wife, she's [of] Puerto Rican descent [and] I'm Korean. Our first holiday together, we had Thanksgiving at my mom's house. We go, we have Korean food, then we have some turkey. Then I go to [my] mother-in-law's house where we have Puerto Rican food. We have Tostones, lechon and potato salad. I don't know where the potato salad comes, but it's just there. [This] was an “aha” moment, "Why can't I do Tostones and blend the cultures together and tell a story through food."

This was] a love story told through food. I started opening my mind up to what we could do, where it [is] accessible to everybody. Both me and my wife spent 30 years in fine dining, cooking for elites [and] a lot of CEOs of different companies. I like to say we did our undergrad, grad, residency and got our PhD in cooking and now we have the freedom to kinda choose what we wanted to do. A license to cook. We chose to do something that [is] accessible to everybody. Very simply, it's counter service. You go up, you order and we'll bring the food out. We said we're gonna take some of the elements out of fine dining, which meant service.

Even though you get great service, we bring the food out to you and whatever that bowl of food [is] it's gonna cost less than $13. And we're still gonna put the maximum effort. It’s the same techniques, but approachable ingredients that everybody could afford and could also get at home, delivered and take out style. Which is huge now, with Blue Ribbon and other delivery platforms. We did that almost nine years ago. You had the fast foods of the world, then you have the fine dinings of the world, but there was no chef-driven, fast, casual sector that was driving and we wanted to be the first ones to do it. Editor’s note: Chef Kim is credited with starting the chef-driven, quick service concept.

What's a bit of advice that you'd tell your 18 year old self?
BK: "I would give [my younger self] the same advice that I would give anybody: Live out your dream. Go for it and do it at the highest degree of where you want to do it. I don't care if you're gonna be a doctor, a lawyer, a cook, a garbage person, it doesn't matter. Shoot for the top and work for the best. You can always work at the top and work your way down, if you choose. When you shoot for the top and you make it, it's very easy to trickle your way down. But if you start from the bottom and you work at the bottom and to go up, it's ... You get kind of complacent in life, so if you shoot for the top and if you choose to stay there, stay there, but you can always work your way down if you want to. I always say, "First, you have to dream." You have to have a dream of who you wanna become, because if you don't, there is no measurement of where you can go. It's very important to first dream."

What's next for you?
BK: We have a cookbook coming out on April 17th. It tells a story of Korean barbecue, but our way. It also tells my immigrant story of growing up in Chicago [and] working my way up. It was very important for me to tell the story about how as a seven year old grew up in a foreign country, because I was born in Korea, then came here. Everybody thinks when you become a chef you go from 18 and you shoot your way up. There are a lot of untold stories of us growing up in this country and having difficulties assimilating to a different culture. We struggled. We had to open our minds to the culture of the United States. And it shows in our food, it’s all the things that I wanted to do as a kid. I wanted a restaurant just for me. For selfish reasons.

I felt uncomfortable as I started growing up and going to Korean restaurants. I didn't wanna eat that food, because we ate that food at home. Then I was kind of uncomfortable going to an American restaurant, because I never went to American restaurants. So, when we said we're gonna do something, it wasn’t only about melding different flavors. It was about melding five generations of food together. It's all the things that I know of an American, it's all the things that I know of Korea or Asia. With all my travels, all my techniques, we meld the flavors and we have those [in our] restaurants. It's an immigrant story, but with techniques and the culture of America in our food. That's the book in a little nutshell, that it's accessible. You can buy a lot of ingredients at the local super markets and you don't have to go to an Asian grocery store to pick up these things, but it's Korean barbecue in our way.

What’s a business lesson you learned along the way of making the book?
BK: One of the things that I had learned is I cook for a living. I hire the best people that do what they do [and I don’t]: accounting, writing, photographraphy. I know what my weaknesses are, so I find people that do the best at what they do and work with them. I collaborate with them and learn from them. That's a business lesson from all throughout my career. I try to work with the best. You learn and you get to move on and reinvent yourself and really be open to new things.

The video portion of this interview ran on on December 29, 2017: How to Leave Your Mark on the World by Doing What You Love