Interview with Joe McPherson of Zen Kimchi

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What's This?

Zen Kimchi took the #6 spot as our community’s pick for Best Food Bloggers of 2011. It is no suprise. Joe McPherson started Zen Kimchi in 2004 when Korean food was still not in the limelight. Some may say that the rise in popularity of Korean food may have quite a bit to do with Zen Kimchi. Joe took a few minutes to answer some of our questions on Korean food, and blogging and on Korea dining tips.

FriendsEAT: Joe, where did your love for Korean food begin?

Joe McPherson: I’ve always been interested in exploring different cuisines. In college I fell into studying Korean history and loved it. But we had no Korean food where I lived. It always felt like it was a big hole in my culinary knowledge. When I had a chance to move to Korea, I jumped on it mostly so I could learn about Korean food.

FE: When did you decide to start the blog; why?

JM: It started as emails to my family and friends from the plane trip in early 2004 to tell them my experiences. To save on spamming their email boxes, I made the blog. I noticed that I was writing a lot about food. I had also discovered food blogs and read them heavily. I was disappointed that no one was doing a Korean food blog, so I dedicated my blog to food and wrote the type of posts that I would want to read.

FE: There are seven of you currently working on Zen Kimchi. After you, who’s been there the longest?

JM: Shin and Tammy joined at around the same time when I was looking for a little help. One’s in New York, the other in San Francisco. They’ve since had some success in writing for newspapers, magazines, and even being on TV.

FE: What roles does each person have at Zen Kimchi?

JM: Shin and Tammy help me edit. They also come up with great traditional and innovative recipes. Taeyang helps with the So Cal scene, and others contribute what they can. What I have been looking for is different regional takes on Korean cuisine with distinct entertaining voices.

FE: What has been the biggest change that you have seen in the outlook of the market towards Korean food since you started the blog?

JM: I no longer have to explain basic ingredients like gochujang. In the second season of Top Chef, I was livid that a contestant on a Korean food team made a coconut panna cotta. Coconut is alien in Korea. But only judge Ming Tsai made note of it. To the other judges and contestants, Asian food was Asian food. These days, people are more aware of how starkly different Korean food is from Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. And the old racist assumption that Korean food is all dog meat is fading away.

FE: What dining tips would you give to someone traveling to Korea?

JM: I’ve given lectures and have written a multi-page chapter in an upcoming book that covers that. But quickly, go to places that are loud and crowded but avoid places with lines out the door. Leave your hang ups at home because the best Korean restaurants break a lot of culinary and western etiquette rules. I’d also suggest learning how to read Korean. It’s very easy. It only took me two hours, but for most it takes a couple of weeks. Most Korean restaurants don’t have English menus, and when they do, the translations are freaky. The other thing that surprises people is that barbecue restaurants tend not to accept single diners unless they order at least two portions. That, I hear, is to offset the cost of all the side dishes they give. Korean restaurants specialize in single dishes. So you choose the dish you want to eat and go to a restaurant that cooks it. If you’re looking for good restaurants (shameless plug coming) you can go to ZenKimchi Dining (, where we have restaurant info organized by cuisine type and location.

FE: What are your favorite Korean restaurants(anywhere in the world)?

JM: There’s a rustic country restaurant at the foot of the mountain near my house called San Maul (“Mountain Village”). It’s the type of Korean food that Americans don’t know about and, to me, is the real deal. Rather than being smothered in gochujang, the dishes have more of a sesame oil flavor, and they serve a smoked chicken that tastes like bacon. Mapo Jeong Daepo in the Mapo neighborhood of Seoul is one of my favorite barbecue places. I also love barbecue restaurants that double as butchers. In Queens, Joe DiStefano took me to Shikgaek. They specialize in seafood. Make sure to get some grilled shellfish (Jogae Gui) and some Andong soju. They’ll know what you’re talking about. And also share some shots with the hard-working staff.

FE: What dish would you recommend to a novice of Korean food?

JM: I tell people right off that Korean food isn’t a user-friendly cuisine. It’s an acquired taste. But like all acquired tastes, it becomes your favorite thing once you acquire it. Barbecue is always a great starter. If you don’t like kimchi, try grilling it first. A dish that isn’t well promoted but always reaches the tops of the Korean food polls I do is DalkGalbi. It’s chicken smothered in spicy paste and cooked at the table with sweet potatoes, carrots, and onions. The remnants are made into a fried rice.

FE: Where do you see Zen Kimchi in five years?

JM: We are actually becoming a serious company. We’ve been testing the market and will launch ZenKimchi Treks in a few months. They will be culinary walking tours. We are also working on some treks with Korail, the national rail system. We will also start hosting cooking classes, special events, and we are even trying to put together a cocktail expo. (Wish us luck.) So you caught us at a time where we’re going through some big scary but exciting changes.

FE: What tip would you give someone who is interested in starting a food blog?

JM: Find a niche. Find a level of consistency that you’re comfortable with. Try to last a year. Find your own voice. And food writing is not sitting at a restaurant and judging dishes. It’s about describing food in an entertaining way.

FE: When did you first hear about the contest? How did it feel?

JM: Surprised. We never place in these contests. Maybe Korean food is getting more popular.

FE: What are your hopes for Korean cuisine?

JM: Like taco night, I would like to see it become a part of people’s everyday lives. Families can have bibimbap night, where they make their own rice bowls. Summers will include Korean-style barbecue and cucumber muchim. A person coming home from an exhausting day at work on a cold day will whip up an easy but comforting bowl of kimchi jjigae. Kimbap is packed in kids’ lunches. Korean food isn’t as exotic as people think. It’s comfort food.

FE: Anything that you would like to say to everyone that voted for the blog?

JM: Placing in this contest has been a wonderful surprise. We strive to make ZenKimchi entertaining as well as informative. Please participate in our growing community.

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Blanca Valbuena
I am one of the co-founders of FriendsEAT. Obviously, I love to eat. Other passions include A Song of Ice and Fire, Shakespeare, Dostoyevski, and Aldous Huxley.
Blanca Valbuena
Blanca Valbuena

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