“Let's call it Asian with a touch of Latin,” says Chef Bill Kim, as he serves a dish titled “#8,” a somen noodle salad with shrimp, tortilla chips, orange segments, tomatillo, and fish sauce. The salad is a swirl of the sultry East meets the palm-swaying, Latino West—Asian-Latin fusion atop an Alami plate. Paper sheaths shed and chopsticks bared, the #8 doesn’t stand a chance. Crunchy and soft, bright with citrus and earthy flavors, it’s a balanced, well-developed dish, as one would expect of the former Executive Chef at Chicago’s now-closed Le Lan, the top-tier East Asian eatery formerly located in Chicago’s Near North Side.
But at the fast-casual Belly Shack, a second act to Kim’s counter-service concept Urbanbelly, which opened in 2008, you won’t see valet parking, a $$$ rating on Yelp, or even the stainless steel chopsticks so prevalent in Korea (Kim’s home until the age of 7). This chef-owner, having risen through the ranks of Susan Foo’s in Philadelphia, Bouley’s Studio in New York, and Charlie Trotter’s and Trio in Chicago, is hell-bent on following his instincts, and at this restaurant, they don’t have much to do with fine dining at all.
“It’s a love story,” Kim says over crispy plantain tostones. That his food is a labor of love is evident. He likes to show off the tostone press that he designed for the dish after pounding plantains between and destroying pair after pair of cutting boards. The plantains, sliced an inch and a half thick, are smashed into a crisp-able thinness. Then they’re twice-fried, slathered with chimichurri sauce and lime zest … and poof, Kim produces puffy golden coins from the banana’s tough Caribbean cousin. The chef elaborates on love and laminated menus as he sets down a comforting, pungent Hot and Sour Soup with Hominy, Chicken, and Cilantro. “When we [wife and co-owner, Yvonne Cadiz-Kim] opened up it was basically, ‘we’re telling a story’ about me and my wife: this is what I grew up with. This is what she grew up with. Here, the two different countries come together in one bowl.”
The build-out of the restaurant reflects the couple’s tale of romance, vision, and hard work. Most everything at Belly Shack was salvaged, from the particle board at the counter and skateboard “trucks” converted into bathroom-door handles to the maple table-top picked up from a 200-year-old church in Argentina (the base of the table was brought from an old railroad in Newark, NJ). Yvonne, an artist born in Chicago and raised in Puerto Rico, took care of the vinyl wall art. The black and white silhouette of the svelte Latina rocking sunglasses is Yvonne herself. Her t-shirt reads, “Realiza tu sueño,” Spanish for “follow your dream.”
In his steady, baritone, Zen-master voice, a few wisps of grey unleashed from his ponytail, Kim compares finding his purpose as a chef to that decisive point in any career. “As you become more established, you start narrowing things down, putting it all into perspective. You’ve gone to graduate school; you’re working for the best; you’re thinking about owning your own ‘practice’ or your own place. You think back to your parents, grandparents, or Julia Child—whoever inspired you. Everything in passion goes back to your past.”
“Chefs don't think, when they're 5 years old, ‘I wanna go into fine dining.’ Early memories form you. I remember toasting sesame seeds for my mom; that was something I loved watching and I loved doing, and that’s what made me become a chef.”
That’s not to say that fine dining is passé. The way Kim sees it, “the golden standard will never be out. There’s this rush of casual concepts, but fine dining sets the bar for all of us. The Daniels? The Davids? They’ll never be ‘out.’”
On the menu, guests are invited to interact with the vegan version of the Quinoa Ssam Salad, Marinated Chicken, and Asian Pear–Fennel Kimchi, and those with an intolerance to gluten, such as Yvonne, can finally play along. It’s a way for the chef to offer something that wouldn’t fly on a fine-dining tasting menu.
Overnight kimchi brings fresh, bright acidic flavors to the table with tomatillo, sesame, and lemon and lime skins blended together with a little Thai bird chili. And a dash of fish sauce never hurts. “Fish sauce is my salt,” he beams.
From a management perspective, Kim encourages his employees to learn how to do everything the “right way.” He tells them that when they get to where they want to be, they’ll be in charge of the task themselves. At Belly Shack and Urbanbelly, Kim takes orders and buses tables. “The last two and half years I’ve been the most expensive delivery driver and dishwasher in Chicago,” he laughs.
To further manage expenses, Kim assigns a goal of 25 percent to food cost, from top to bottom. It’s a far cry from the typical 50 percent or more assigned to food costs at upscale restaurants. And despite the budget, he makes no compromises when it comes to quality. A gallon of coconut water from the fresh, young green coconut used in his soft serve ice cream adds up in price. Kim, an admitted glutton for analogies, compares compromising on this one to a buying a Prada knockoff from Chinatown: “I cannot get that flavor from anything else.” To balance the cost of premium ingredients, the kitchen puts up with a butane burner or two. The trade-off seems to be paying off, since Kim’s soft serve, paired with toppings like Vietnamese Cinnamon Caramel Sauce makes for an irresistible end to the meal for nearly-stuffed patrons.
So what’s in store next for Kim? That’s strictly off the record. It’s safe to say, though, for every dream followed, you set yourself up to discover a new path—the wisdom of which leads us to wonder why Asian-Latin fusion concepts don’t give out fortune cookies.