Joe McPherson is the founder of ZenKimchi, one of Korea’s premier food blogs. ZenKimchi covers the ins and outs of Korea’s gastronomic scene, from restaurant reviews, recipes, recaps of food adventures, and even a handy tip or two for expats. One of Seoul’s biggest foodies, we were thrilled to interview him for our new series.
ZenKimchi’s one of the most popular food blogs in Korea. What drew you to pursue a career in food blogging?
It was an outlet and an efficient way to tell my friends and family back home all the cool things I was eating. When I first came to Korea, there were no running Korean food blogs. But I loved reading food blogs. So I decided to make a Korean food blog so that I’d have something to read. We’re now the longest running Korean food blog, and the hobby has become a bit of a business. But anyway, I have always loved food, especially exploring new (to me) cuisines. Culinarily, Korea was unexplored territory to the average westerner, so I used my blog as a journal for my explorations.
Top 5 restaurants in Seoul?
Restaurants are coming and going all the time. My favorites in the metro area are Jung Sik Dang, Star Chef, San Maul (in Anyang), Mapo Jeong Daepo and OK2. Jung Sik Dang has been on the forefront of “New Korean” cuisine, using modern techniques to make Korean dishes that are whimsical and full of flavor. Star Chef is a late night bistro that is popular with locals and expats. You gotta try “The Amazing Fish.” San Maul is a dirt road country restaurant that serves boribap and the best smoked chicken you’ve ever tasted. Tastes like bacon. Mapo Jeong Daepo is where I take visitors who are only in town a short while and want to really experience Korean BBQ. It’s a no-frills blue collar joint with a concrete floor and crowded tables that serves some of the best pork grilled over charcoal. For added fun, they pour an egg mixture into the wells that normally collect the rendered pork fat. The last one, OK2, or O Kitchen 2, is another modernized Korean and international restaurant that also gets playful with the menu, with Jeju horse carpaccio, gorgonzola ice cream and a sashimi platter that is like a mad scientist’s experiment.
You’re originally from the US. What inspired you to move to Korea?
I stumbled into studying Korean history during my last year in college. I fell in love with the history and wanted to visit one day. I got caught up on the wrong end of the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, and a friend who was teaching in Korea suggested I take a break and teach there for a year. When that year was up, I realized I didn’t want to go back. There was so much to explore, and I was having a great time.
If you were to cook Marja and Jean-Georges a meal, what would be on the table?
First off, I would be scared as heck to cook for them. I ate at one of his restaurants when I was in New York last year, so I’m a bit intimidated. When my family visited Korea for our wedding a few years ago, we made a feast of our favorite dishes on their final night here. It included a rich galbi jjim, japchae, homemade kimchi, and some Korean fried chicken from our favorite pub. It’s not fancy, but it’s my new comfort food these days. Then we hit the pubs and noraebang. We’d do that for Marja and Jean-Georges if that ever came to be.
Kimchi Chronicles is about making Korean food accessible for everybody. What sort of advice would you give people new to Korean cooking?
It’s not as exotic and complicated as you may think. Once you get some basics down you can play with it and make your own flavors. Many dishes, like bibimbap, fried rice, and kimchi jjigae, are excuses to clean out your refrigerator. Just throw in what you want. In a Korean household, they usually don’t make all those banchan (side dishes) at once. They usually make one or two in a large quantity and use it all during the week. Our refrigerator is stuffed mostly with containers of banchan, so getting a meal together is about as difficult at pulling everything out of the fridge. Another advantage to cooking Korean at home is that many dishes don’t take that much time to make. My wife, who is Korean, is baffled when I make a western dish that is braised or stewed for hours. When she’s in the kitchen, she makes her basic anchovy stock, which takes no time at all, chops veggies, tosses them together, and she’s done.