The experience of good food, made well, and enjoyed with good people, can open a portal to appreciation of all that is beautiful and right in the otherwise generally messy, brutal and petty strivings of humankind. Despite this, the conversation about cuisine, like anything else, is prone to drifting into sectarianism.
Some purists fetishize tradition, seeking ‘truth’ in collections of dishes, preferably perfected across many generations, that are tied to a specific place and time. Nothing wrong with that. Food can be at its most transportative when connected to a deeply-mapped moment and place. The sense of enjoying a dish that’s made the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be made, unadulterated by modern, outside influences, can feel like an escape, a vacation, from our blaring, kaleidoscopic world.
But what’s wrong with zooming out and blurring the lines? Consider the cuisine of our own place and time – New York City at the dawn of the twenty first century. Here, in this place, the walls and borders of tradition and categorization are endlessly breached. Our own food culture is a living stew that’s been simmering for centuries, to which we can never stop stirring in influences, ingredients, flavors and techniques brought here, to this city, from the farthest reaches of the planet.
At The Good Fork in Red Hook, chef Sohui Kim mainlines that variety and vitality. Just don’t call it fusion! After being shut down for months in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, The Good Fork was one of the first Red Hook restaurants to reopen, just last month. We stopped by to speak with Sohui and to try her bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with rice grits, spinach, and gochujang curry sauce – a classic Good Fork dish that combines elements of old-fashioned comfort, heirloom Southern, south-Asian curry and Korean spice – a dish that’s also, may we suggest, quintessentially New York.
OK Sohui, what should we try today?
So at The Good Fork, we’re all about comforting, familiar food, with a little twist. I often introduce that twist with my sauces. My sauces are often not very traditional. There’s one dish we’re doing that I think is a really good example of the kind of cooking we like to do here. It’s a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin served with rice grits, a little bit of sautéed spinach, and a gochujang curry sauce.
It’s a good winter dish – total Good Fork-style winter comfort food. The gochujang curry sauce adds a lot of depth to the dish, it really lights it up.
Tell us about it.
Well, to break it down into parts, we’ll start with the pork. Pork tenderloin on its own isn’t a particularly flavorful cut of meat. It’s very tender and delicious in it’s own way, but it doesn’t have a lot of that rich pork flavor. So I wrap it in bacon! [laughter.]
Actually, before I wrap it in bacon, I brine the meat. The brine has lots of toasted peppercorns, some whole fennel seeds, whole coriander, whole cumin, some bay leaves, a little bit of red pepper flakes, and some fresh herbs – usually thyme, parsley stems – that kind of thing. Just a touch of sugar, and some salt too. I like to season pork perfectly by brining it before I cook it, because that way the flavors of the seasoning can really work their way into the meat. It’s just not the same if you season it after cooking.
So the tenderloin sits in the brining liquid in the fridge overnight. The next day, I take it out and pat it dry. Then I lay three slices of bacon on my cutting board, and I take a portion of the tenderloin and roll it up in the bacon. It’s like a little winter coat for the tenderloin. Then we put that in a nice sauté pan to just crisp up the bacon and brown it nicely on all sides. To finish it we put it in a pretty hot oven – like five hundred degrees – until it’s cooked to just about medium, so it’s perfectly moist and juicy and delicious and not dry. When it’s done we slice it into three pieces.
Then we have the rice grits. They’re from Anson Mills. I’ve been dealing with Anson Mills for quite some time. What I like about them is that they do their thing their own way. They’re not trying to cater to a mass market. They are really focused on producing very, very high quality products from these beautifully flavorful heirloom varieties of corn and rice and other grains. They’ve worked very hard to revive and cultivate these old varieties of grains that were once staples in Southern cuisine, but were then kind of lost over time as bigger farming operations started growing more standardized and less interesting grains.
Once you’ve cooked with their grits, there’s no going back. There’s just nothing that matches the quality of their products. They first became know for their traditional corn grits many years ago. Those were all the rage for a while. I was part of that rage and I’ve established a really good relationship with them over the years. A few years ago they suggested that I try one of their newer products – rice grits. The rice grits are basically broken bits of Carolina Gold rice, a very special varietal that Anson Mills put a lot of work into bringing back from the brink of disappearing. I grew up in Korea, so I love rice and I thought I’d try them. They’re just beautiful. They have a really subtle flavor, and they absorb the flavor of whatever they’re cooked with really well.
I make them just like I’d make a risotto. I start by sautéing a small brunoise dice of onions and a little bit of garlic. I just sweat them over medium heat until they get really nice and translucent and all that sweetness comes out. Then I add the rice grits and toast them, just like I would if I were making risotto – you stir the grits around in the pan to give every grain a coating of the oil that’s infused with that sweet garlic and onion essence. You don’t toast it brown or anything, you’re just giving it a chance to absorb some of that flavor before cooking. You can always bring out the really nice nutty flavors in grains by toasting them a little before cooking.
After toasting for a few minutes, I deglaze the pan with a little white wine, which adds a nice bit of brightness, acidity. I let that cook off, and then I add the stock. I use chicken stock. We make all of our stocks in-house, obviously. So we heat up the chicken stock and then add that to the grits. I add a bunch of stock to the pan and then just let it cook down, so the grits absorb all of that nice flavor. I don’t have time to stir it constantly like grandma might want me to, but it doesn’t really need it. It takes about twenty minutes, maybe a little more. Once they’re perfectly cooked I finish them with a little milk, extra virgin olive oil, and parmesan cheese.
They end up being just perfectly creamy. They look just like corn grits, but they’re made with rice, so the flavor is different. The rice flavor is mild, but it’s really delicious. It’s like perfectly cooked risotto times ten. It’s so good. You could just eat a whole bowl of those grits and call it a night, really. [laughter.]
Then there’s the spinach. You have this piece of pork wrapped in bacon and these grits finished with milk and cheese – the plate needs something green. So we take fresh spinach and sauté it very simply in a little olive oil with garlic, salt, pepper, and a little lemon juice. I’m a stickler for a little squeeze of lemon on almost anything. It just brings out flavors beautifully.
So, so far it’s like a total stick-to-your-ribs winter meat dish right? This is where we’re going to give it that Good Fork twist with the sauce. The sauce is what really makes this dish special. The sauce is the exciting part – it kind of transforms a classic dish of winter comfort food into something very different.
Gochujang is a Korean pepper paste. Growing up in Korea, gochujang is something that’s basically everywhere, all the time. In Korea, there aren’t a lot of things that you can cook without gochujang. It’s a staple that’s used for seasoning in almost anything. I was reading Bon Appetit a few months ago and they were writing about food trends for the new year. One of the editors called gochujang ‘the new sriracha.’ [laughter.] It’s just funny to think of this thing that’s so ubiquitous in Korea becoming a kind of hot new thing here. The equivalent would be if something like ketchup became a huge craze in Korea. It’s just funny.
Gochujang is made with dried red Korean chili, a kind of sweet, sticky, Korean rice, and fermented soybeans. It’s aged and fermented slowly, and it ends up as a bright red paste with a very round, intense flavor. It packs a bit of heat, but it’s not just heat – there’s a lot of rich, fermented flavor.
So we make a nice sauce for the gochujang. It’s a curry sauce. We infuse coconut milk with lemongrass, kaffir lime, and some other chilis and herbs. We add some white wine and cook it down, just layering those flavors into the sauce. We finish it off by stirring in a dollop of gochujang. You end up with a bright orangey-red sauce that just takes the dish to a whole other level. In this case, the sauce is the brightness of the whole dish.
Acid is really critical in any dish because it brings the more savory, earthy flavors to life. There isn’t much acid in this dish outside of the sauce. But the sauce is complex. It has all these layers of acidic flavor in it, from the chilies in the gochujang to the chilies, lime, lemongrass and wine in the curry sauce. It takes those homey, comforting, earthy flavors of the pork and grits and spinach and lights them up in some really great ways.
To finish it, I wanted to find something colorful for a garnish. I wanted something to make it pop. I was like, “I want some red on there!” Beets are in season. They’re red. So we add a little pickled beet at the end, which brings a little more tang at the end.
When I eat a dish like this, I always like to go for that perfectly composed bite, with a little bit of the pork and bacon, a little bit of the grits, a little bit of the spinach, and some of the sauce all together on the fork, so you get the creaminess of the grits meeting the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon and pork and the earthiness of the spinach, and then the sauce bringing all these layers of heat and sweetness and flavor to meet all of those other things. It just pops in your mouth in ways you’d never expect from a dish of winter comfort food like this.
You know, I can’t take all the credit for this one. Rego Vasquez is my guy in the kitchen. We’ve been working together for three years. I like having someone to bounce ideas off of when we’re planning the menu. I always encourage everyone in my kitchen to add their own two cents to the conversation. Rego knows a lot about different peppers used in Latin American cooking. I know a lot about peppers used in Korean cooking. We talk about peppers a lot. He tells me about Mexican peppers and I tell him about Korean ones and we learn from each other. When we were working on the sauce for this dish he was like, “How about curry and kochujang?” I was like, “Hmmm, that sounds really weird. I like it. Let’s try it!”
You know, fusion has become a dirty word when it comes to food these days, and I don’t like people calling our food at The Good Fork fusion food, because I don’t think of it as fusion food. To me, I guess the idea of fusion food means the idea of intentionally mixing ingredients from different cultures, as a sort of concept, so you’re forcing it in a way. I think there’s often a lot of mediocre cooking associated with the word, especially when it’s used as a concept to drive a menu rather than just letting it happen organically.
In reality, this is New York City. This is Brooklyn. It’s a very global place. There are people from all over the world here – so many culinary influences and traditions. You can call a restaurant French bistro or rustic northern Italian or new American or whatever. But the food itself, if it’s made from scratch and from the heart here in New York City, it’s going to be global, because you’re going to take some ideas from an Ecuadorean or a Mexican or a Korean line cook, or from someone with experience in French fine dining, or from a Colombian farmer at the farmer’s market. It’s all thrown together, and it should be.
So I don’t know how you would describe a dish like this. It’s the result of a chef who grew up in Korea and a chef who grew up in Latin America using their different sets of experience and knowledge to come up with something in a kitchen in Brooklyn because it tastes really good, not because we’re intentionally trying to combine ingredients from different cuisines. For us, it’s really about embracing all ingredients and being inspired by them and relying on smart techniques. Just don’t call it fusion! [laughter.]
So Sohui, what about you? How did you end up here, doing this?
I grew up in Korea, just outside of Seoul, so Korean culture and food are a big part of who I am. My grandmother and my mother were both great cooks, but I never, ever thought about cooking for a living when I was growing up.
One thing I always remember was these foraging hikes my grandmother would take me on. She was an avid Buddhist. She’d go on retreats to this monastery once a month to pray and meditate, and she would take me with her when I was a child. We would go on these long hikes in the mountains, gathering edible weeds and herbs and mushrooms, edible tree bark, all kinds of crazy things, and then we’d bring them back to the monastery and create these feasts. I wish I had known then what I know now – I would have taken notes. [laughter.]
I moved here to the States when I was about ten years old. I went to school, chasing my father’s dream of me being a lawyer. [laughter.] I went right to the brink of going to law school, and then I realized, “You know, this just isn’t calling me at all.”
I took a day job selling architecture books, but food was what really interested me. I would cook all the time for friends. I loved having dinner parties. Everyone kept saying to me, “You should have a restaurant.” I was like, “You know, you’re right. I should have a restaurant.”
When I was in my late twenties, I quit my job and went to culinary school. I was just completely bitten by the restaurant bug as soon as I got a taste of it. I did my internship at Blue Hill, and met some amazing chefs and became completely enamored with the whole process of creating really great food.
When I met my husband Ben, it was so great because he was one of the only people I had met outside of work who was as interested in food as I was. On our first date, he cooked me osso buco and shucked oysters. He never did it again, but I was really impressed! [laughter.]
We ended up moving down here to Red Hook, and we just fell in love with the neighborhood. We’d always say, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to have our own restaurant?” One day Ben came home and said, “I found the place.” This was it. The whole idea was that he would build it and I would cook and people would come.
I remember one day before we decided whether or not to do it, we sat right out there on the sidewalk. This was before Fairway or Ikea opened. Back then there were knee high weeds growing out of the cobblestones along the whole length of Beard Street. There were packs of wild dogs living along the waterfront. Red Hook felt like the end of the world, in a really nice way. We sat outside for an hour and counted the number of people and cars that passed by. I think we saw something like a total of ten people. [laughter.]
We were like, “OK, this totally isn’t going to work, but let’s try it anyway.” We opened seven years ago. Early on, it was just our friends and neighbors coming in for dinner, but somehow the word got out. Four weeks after we opened, Peter Meehan from the New York Times came in and he gave us a nice writeup, and that was when it started. Ever since then, we’ve had people coming in from all over the place. I guess we were just really lucky to get the kind of attention we got.
It’s kind of eerie now, after Sandy. With Fairway and so many of the neighborhood businesses still closed, it’s like we’ve suddenly gone back in time to what it was like back then, when we first opened. A lot of people are still hurting, but slowly, slowly, the neighborhood is coming back to life.
The Good Fork is located at 391 Van Brunt Street, between Coffey and Van Dyke, in Red Hook.
Photography by Heather Phelps-Lipton. All rights reserved.