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My Brilliant Korea

A top L.A. chef returns to his first love.

July 14, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sang Yoon was born in Seoul and learned to love Korean food from his gourmet father. Now that he's a professional chef, he still has a fondness for his favorite childhood snack, spicy pollack roe. But he rarely cooks Korean food anymore.

He's too busy. As the executive chef at the landmark Michael's Restaurant in Santa Monica, he spends his nights cooking French-influenced contemporary California food.

And what Asian influences there are tend to be Japanese. There's nothing Korean at Michael's. "Just me," Yoon says with a laugh.

But on a recent day off, he turned out a full-scale Korean dinner from beef dumplings to dried persimmon dessert. Barbecued rib eye and short ribs, homemade kimchi, marinated vegetables, seafood and more--nothing was too much for him to undertake on this rare occasion.

"I think of [Korean cooking] as my personal comfort food, rather than as a business," says the 30-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate. "I don't want to get tired of it, take something I love and have to do it every day."

Yoon grew up in Santa Monica. His father, D.H. Yoon, had moved the family there to open the foreign offices of the Korea Times when Sang was a year old. The elder Yoon is an avid cook and taught him the fundamentals of Korean cuisine. Family vacations in Korea and Japan exposed the boy further to authentic East Asian flavors.

Still, Yoon's culinary education has been primarily Western. As a teenager, he worked briefly at Masa's and Stars in San Francisco. CIA externships put him in the kitchens of Lespinasse in New York and Robuchon in Paris. Then Yoon went to Modena in northern Italy, where he stayed on an olive farm for eight months and developed a love of Italian food and wines.

In Los Angeles, he worked at Cafe Del Rey and Chinois on Main. An opening for a sous chef brought him to Michael's, where he was quickly promoted to executive chef.

Despite all his training in Western cooking, Yoon has not changed the way he cooks Korean food. "I keep it pretty pure," he says.

The early dinner took place at the Pacific Palisades home of Yoon's girlfriend, Valentina Kenney. A small group of friends gathered outdoors at a wood plank table set with Asian rush placemats, fanned white napkins, crossed wooden chopsticks and raffia-wrapped sake containers that held sprays of orchids. A wisteria arbor gave shelter from the hot afternoon sun.

First, there were dumplings stuffed with beef, pork and tofu, cooked in a light broth made from beef brisket, daikon and fresh shiitake mushrooms. They were served in pale green Korean ceramic bowls that Yoon had borrowed from his parents. He garnished the dumplings with egg pancakes and green onions--both shredded in a flash with a chef's expertise.

The barbecue smoked nearby, ready for Yoon to grill the marinated meats. The marinade, Yoon says, should not taste of soy alone but should have a sweet flavor as well. He sweetens it with a shredded Asian pear as well as sugar and sweet rice wine (mirin).

To cook the bulgogi (sliced rib eye), he set a special heavy iron grill over the coals. The meat cooked on a dome in the center of the grill and the juices ran down and collected around the edges. The procedure is to slosh the beef through the juices before eating it. Rather than transfer the cooked meat to a platter, Yoon brought the grill to the table, where it became a fragrant centerpiece.

Yoon explained how to wrap the meat, along with rice and bean sauce, in lettuce leaves. The thick sauce was spicy from red chiles, yet complex with the flavors of Korean and Japanese bean pastes, garlic, onions and sesame oil.

He also barbecued galbi (beef short ribs) cut crosswise, flanken style, in thin slices. As his guests pondered how to eat the ribs with chopsticks, he explained that they should be eaten with the hands.

Just as at a Korean restaurant, Yoon lined up an array of side dishes. They included pan-seared tofu slices laced with spicy green onion sauce, marinated bean sprouts and sauteed Korean chiles combined with garlic greens. (The wrinkly green chiles are the same as the Japanese shishito. Some Korean markets label them "twist chiles.")

Yoon had made his own kimchi, rather than buying one of the many varieties available in Korean markets. One bowl held neat bundles of pickled nappa cabbage wrapped around daikon and cucumber.

Another contained a kimchi designed for warm weather. "In the summer, kimchis get lighter, less spicy, more like a pickle," he says. It was seasoned with salted shrimp. The sea taste dissipates as the kimchi ferments, leaving behind only the saltiness.

The backdrop for the assorted spicy flavors and textures was plain white rice, moist and slightly sticky as Koreans prefer it. Individual rice bowls stood in for dinner plates. In between bites, you rest your food there, flavoring the rice.

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