What's the Most Korean Thing about Ji Hye Kim's Kitchen? All The Michigan Produce

At Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, chef Ji Hye Kim interprets the food of her native South Korea through a lens of local produce. She explains why—and shares the recipe for her signature Spiced Apple Mochi Cakes with Miso Caramel and Walnuts.

It's not uncommon to see chef Ji Hye Kim at the Ann Arbor farmers market. Since opening her acclaimed restaurant Miss Kim in 2017, she's made a point to cook with fresh Michigan fruits and vegetables; each month, seasonality and availability (or just a lucky haul of cucumbers) drive what she puts on the menu. One of those dishes is her Spiced Apple Mochi Cakes, a fixture on the menu through the cold months. Fresh off a flavor-packed trip to South Korea, Kim chats about that cake recipe, launching her own business, and her favorite other Korean spot in Ann Arbor.

Chef Ji Hye Kim of Ann Arbor, Michigan
EE Berger

You were just in Korea for two weeks! Where did you visit?

We arrived in Seoul, then we went to the Southwest, where they're really known for food. I met a lady who has been making fermented sauces all of her life, and I visited the Buddhist chef nun Jeong Kwan, who was featured in Chef's Table.

Well that's a good place to start. You immigrated from South Korea to New Jersey as a 13-year-old, then attended the University of Michigan. Being a chef wasn't in the cards?

No. After college, I went back to New Jersey to work in an office. I married someone who worked for the U of M, though, so I came back to Michigan—and that's when I found myself missing my mom's cooking. She makes everything from scratch, and I couldn't find anything comparable at the Korean restaurants in Ann Arbor. So I started cooking more. And at the same time, I started working for Zingerman's Deli. They had all these great foods, mostly from Europe and America, but also they had great service. If a customer asked about olive oil or balsamic vinegar, the staff knew a lot about it and were able to guide them through. The food at Zingerman's was so connected to the people, to the stories. I wanted that for Korean food here.

What happened next?

I'd like to say that when I jumped into the food industry, I had a vision, but I really just started working for Zingerman's on a gut feeling. I wanted to do something more hands-on. Food felt more real to me than crunching the numbers. Zingerman's has a mentorship program called Path to Partnership. Each staff person decides if they want to go on that path, and how far. Some people are not interested at all. Some people are interested, but only up until getting experience as a manager. And some people go all the way to becoming a partner. At first, I was not at all interested. But once I started imagining what it would be like to have a business making Korean food that I enjoyed eating, with stories attached to it, somebody suggested that I do it in partnership with Zingerman's.

Sounds like fate.

To be honest, at first I wasn't that open-minded. I thought, What does a Jewish deli in the Midwest know about Korean food? But they know a lot about running a really good business—not just financially, but also a good product and good service. When I started as a food cart, and when I compared myself with other local trucks, I noticed that I was doing stuff differently because of the Path to Partnership guidance. For example, I was doing inventory every month when others weren't. I was calculating food and labor costs every month when others weren't. And I was working with the HR department and then providing benefits for the staff when others weren't. It was tougher and more costly for me in the short term, but it was really, really good practice for having a sustainable brick-and-mortar business.

How interesting. So did you ever do any formal culinary training?

I never went to culinary school. I gave all of my money to the University of Michigan! But also, I wanted to really deep-dive into Asian and Korean food at the start, so I thought that maybe I could achieve that without going to school for another four years. I did do stages, where I went to restaurants that I admired and worked under them for a short term, which was super helpful in conjunction with my self-education. I still can read Korean fairly well, so I did a lot of research and development work by looking at Korean sources directly. And a big part of the education also was to visit farmers markets. I parked my cart at one, and was able to see the seasons go by for Ann Arbor, build relationships with the farmers, and start imagining my menu.

And now, marrying Korean traditions with Michigan produce has become your calling card at Miss Kim.

Well, on a pretty straightforward level, using in-season produce makes sense for any restaurant, right? Because it tastes better. And it's often the same price or cheaper, so it's better value. In the height of the summer, you can buy cucumbers from the farmers market, or you can buy them at the same price from a commercial distributor—but the farmers market cucumbers are, like, four times more tasty.

Ji Hye Kim
EE Berger

No doubt.

And when I was first doing the food cart, at the end of the market each day, the farmers would negotiate. So like, I'd give them lunch, and they'd say, "Oh, you want to take the cucumbers I didn't sell for a little discount?" I may not have had a use planned for them, but I'd put a new dish on the menu to create a use for it. And I still do that.

Does that mean sometimes the food at Miss Kim veers away from traditional Korean cuisine?

Yes and no. So much of traditional Korean cuisine is about preservation of the summer's bounty. Whether it's grains being turned into alcohol, or vegetables and even fish being turned into kimchi and pickles. And each region is slightly different. The kimchis are different. The vegetables being pickled are different. One of the most amazing things I ate on this recent trip was a fresh Sichuan peppercorn that was foraged in the mountains, then pickled in soy sauce and aged for like a year.

But I am in the Midwest, in America. The lesson for me from that experience is not trying to import fresh Sichuan peppercorns that have been foraged from the mountainside in the east of Korea. The lesson is What is locally available? What is being readily used right here, where I am? That's more in tune with the spirit of Korean cuisine, or any cuisine with a long history. It would be less authentic, in a way, to try and import everything that I ate there. Because you're not going to be able to duplicate it anyway. Even the garlic is different there, more spicy. So to honor the tenets of Korean cooking, I use what's reasonably available, whether it's beets or Jerusalem artichokes or apples. I have all these amazing farmers right in my backyard—literally! Miss Kim is next to the Kerrytown farmers market that's been going on for over 100 years.

Spiced Apple Mochi Cakes with Miso Caramel and Walnuts
Carson Downing

That's a good segue to the recipe you shared with us, Spiced Mochi Apple Cakes with Miso Caramel. What's the story of this recipe?

At Miss Kim, I don't mind going a little off the cuff from Korean tradition with our desserts, because Westerners enjoy sweets slightly differently. So on our menu, we have seasonal mochi cakes throughout the year. The recipe is the baby of our pastry chef, Lillian De Tar. The fruit changes, but the base ingredients are not very esoteric—it's just rice flour, eggs, sugar. Traditionally, a Korean version would be steamed, but we bake ours for a more consistent texture and the crustier crust that we love. I like to sneak one right out of the tin, whenever we bake a batch, to eat on its own without the caramel, cream and nuts. I feel guilty, so I try to pick the smallest, ugliest one!

Some people may not know what mochi is. Can you explain?

Mochi is the Japanese name for a cake made with rice flour that has been milled until it's fine, almost a cornstarch texture. (I lost the battle to use the Korean term, tteok, on the menu since it's less familiar to Americans.) We wanted Korean flair for our desserts, and we have so many gluten-free customers—they should also have cake and eat it too! There are two different kinds of rice flour, regular rice flour or sweet rice flour (also called sticky rice flour). Sweet rice flour is not sweet at all actually; it refers to its stickiness, which creates a slightly chewy texture.

You're right that the cakes are delicious solo—but I could have eaten that miso caramel sauce with a spoon! What made you use miso in a dessert?

I love the Netflix show Salt Fat Acid Heat because it teaches novice cooks that salt is not the only salt. There's Pecorino cheese or fish sauce or soy sauce. Using miso (fermented soy paste) in caramel may sound weird, but it's really just salted caramel with a little more savory addictiveness. We use Japanese white miso specifically for this recipe, instead of a similar Korean condiment called doenjang, because doenjang tends to be very robust in its funkiness.

Get the Recipe: Spiced Apple Mochi Cakes with Miso Caramel

Do you have any words of wisdom for newbie caramel-makers?

Don't go too fast. Speaking from experience, you don't want to burn yourself. Because nothing is worse than a sugar burn. So take your time; put on some music.

OK, last question: I saw a video on our sister publication, Food and Wine, where you recommended Joon's Bakery in Ann Arbor. It sounds amazing!

Oh yeah. I love all the baked goods in Ann Arbor, but Joon's Bakery does a very specific combination of Korean and Asian flavors and slightly French techniques which I missed when I moved here. And their bread sort of strokes my junk food desires. Because, look, Zingerman's Bakehouse is classic. Their bread is risen for—I don't know, like 18 hours. The flour is locally milled. The crust is thick. The crumb is perfect. But sometimes I just really want a soft Asian-style bread with no structure. That's comfort for me, and an integrity of its own.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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