When Meichih and Michael Kim finished eating lunch on a recent afternoon at Orchard City Kitchen in Campbell, each folded their cloth napkins neatly into a proper, compact rectangle.
Exacting attention to detail in both food and service is ingrained in the two chefs who together lead the kitchen of Maum in Palo Alto. They opened the modern Korean restaurant after cooking at some of the country's best restaurants: Meichih at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York City and Benu and Michael Mina's RN74 in San Francisco; Michael at the Michelin-starred SPQR and Namu Gaji in San Francisco; and both at Tom Colicchio's Craft in Los Angeles, where they met.
The Kims are partners both inside and outside the kitchen: They're also married and parents to a 4-year-old boy who loves sushi and market peaches.
Despite their illustrious culinary resumes, the pair seems genuinely taken aback by the recognition they've received at Maum.
The tasting-menu-only, 16-seat restaurant garnered lots of buzz when it opened last summer after running quietly as a private dining space. Then, in June -- less than a year after opening to the public -- the Kims won their first Michelin star. Last week came a favorable review from the San Francisco Chronicle's new restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, who described Maum, which means "from the heart," as upending our assumptions about Korean food in a "sincere, nostalgic" way.
"We're always surprised when people are like, 'We've heard so much about you,'" Michael said, laughing. "I'm like, 'From who?'"
True chefs, their minds are inside the kitchen more than anywhere else -- except maybe, as young parents, at home with their son.
I had lunch with Meichih and Michael recently for the inaugural feature of At the table, a new series for my Peninsula Foodist newsletter. I'll be interviewing local chefs over meals at restaurants of their choosing. The Kims chose Orchard City Kitchen in Campbell, a more casual project from fine-dining chef Jeffrey Stout.
Over tater tot poutine doused in Japanese curry, budae jigae and an arugula-stone fruit salad, we talked at length about why they got into cooking, their creative process, where they eat on their days off, how they balance the restaurant with parenthood and, of course, that Michelin star.
Michael, what part of Los Angeles did you grow up in?
Michael: I was born in east LA. When I was 7, I moved to Diamond Bar, which is kind of a suburb of LA -- a big Korean and Asian community.
I assume that food was a big part of your upbringing.
Michael: It always was. My dad and his family was such a food-oriented family so it was always a big part of my life. ... It was always based around fish. We would sometimes go really early in the morning to the Newport Beach fish market where they would pull up the boats and then sell fish. I remember doing that with my grandparents and my parents at least once a month. There's a Korean mackerel dish that's braised in gochujang. We would get fresh mackerel from the market and we would make that. (At Maum), we serve a mackerel for our no-meat option in kind of an homage to that. We do either a grilled or braised version.
Meichih, was food a big part of your upbringing? (Meichih was born in Shinjuku, Tokyo, but grew up in Southern California and is of Taiwanese descent.)
Meichih: More eating out.
So what drew you to cooking as a career?
Meichih: After college, I took a desk job. I did that for two years. I couldn't see myself moving forward and being ambitious in that area. So I decided to apply to go to cooking school at night.
What actually happened was, I was in college and I wanted to recreate a dish my mom made at home. It was katsudon. I called her up. ... From that point on it was like, I really like doing this. I like working with my hands.
Michael: It takes a special person to be a cook. In the sense of ... it doesn't necessarily translate to going to school or anything like that. I think you have that innate skill where you just go into a kitchen and you find the flow. You understand how everything works, or how everything should work. I didn't really enjoy school. When I was in college, I was a hospitality major. There were portions of that education where it didn't really mesh. Once I got into the culinary aspect of it, it was like riding a bike. You just know what's happening.
Where were your first-ever cooking jobs?
Michael: I worked in a Japanese-French restaurant in Pasadena, (Maison Akira). It's one of the mainstays in that area. (The chef, Akira Hirose) was a Japanese chef who trained in Paris under Joël Robuchon. (He was) one of the innovators of that Japanese nouveau (cuisine) of the late '90s, early 2000s. I worked with them for about a year.
Meichih: Per Se. Most cooks start very young. They don't go to college. I worked for a few years after college. By the time I started cooking I was already in my mid-20s. I vocalized that I really wanted to work there and work hard.
What was that kitchen like?
Meichih: As a first job it was very stressful. Everybody's looking behind you ... Because the menu was constantly changing, you would feel comfortable with something and then it would change.
What was the worst mistake you ever made there?
Meichih: You get berated about a lot of things. I do remember breaking a bottle of vinegar in the pantry. I had to clean it with bleach. Now the smell of bleach traumatizes me.
When you opened Maum, were you thinking about getting a Michelin star?
Michael: Internally, yes. At the end of the day if you open an ambitious restaurant you want to be validated with good reviews or accolades. ... (Although) that was kind of on the back burner for us, especially in the beginning. We were like, 'Let's just get it up and running.'
Meichih: No. (She laughs.)
How significant was that moment to you?
Meichih: Internally, I always had a goal to have a restaurant by the time I was 35. I just turned 40. When that didn't happen ... you have goals you want to attain and when you don't it's a little (disappointing). But for things to happen the way they did so fast ... It's been a blessing.
Michael: At the end of the day you want something like that, of course. It was a huge achievement professionally and personally. You're in a group of very decorated chefs.
How do you think critics who are not well-versed in Korean food should approach writing about Korean restaurants?
Michael: There's so much literature out there, history. You can always experience these restaurants in Santa Clara, San Francisco minimally, Oakland, even LA. (By dining out), you can get a CliffsNotes version of what traditional Korean food is. Even just (go to) Korean markets.
What is growing at Maum's farm in Los Altos Hills right now that you're really excited about?
Meichih: Tomatoes, all different varieties. We're seeing things you wouldn't be able to purchase, like a squash leaf. Last year we made a chip out of it. (This year, they're using it in the ssam course instead of a perilla leaf.) (Being a seasonal restaurant) forces you to be more creative and not replicate. Part of my experience at Per Se was not to replicate ingredients on a menu.
Michael: The Korean squash are amazing. They're so sweet and fragrant. I always look forward to those.
What is your process for developing new dishes? How much of it is done together or separately?
Meichih: It's all done together. We bounce ideas off each other. It takes time. We'll actually conceptualize a dish and then you have to work on it. You tweak it and you come back to it, whether it be the flavors or tasting, plating it. It's nonstop. We're telling our cooks all the time, 'Taste. Taste. Taste everything.'
Tell me about a dish that went through that process.
Michael: We do a freshly milled buckwheat noodle. It's a play off naengmyeon. We make a white kimchi. We were originally going to do it with chicken stock. The chicken stock was so rich and gelatinous that the liquid -- we try to serve it ice cold and it was thick. So we changed it to a combination of dashi and chicken stock. (The final dish is a tangle of chilled buckwheat somyun served in mulkimchi broth and ice.)
I How do you balance your work and home lives as co-chefs and parents?==
Meichih: I think it helps for me to be in the industry. I understand what it takes to work in a restaurant. We just get it done. We have to.
If you had no financial constraints, what would your dream restaurant project be?
Meichih: I would love to do a rice spot that's Taiwanese -- comfort food, something that people can eat every day but with higher, better quality. ... Also, I love egg sandwiches. It's something I always eat.
Michael: I'd open up a grilled fish restaurant in Jeju island (in Korea). You can see it on our menu -- it revolves a lot around seafood. It's one of our favorite things.
What do you think in general of the Peninsula dining scene?
Michael: I think it's up and coming. With Anthony (Secviar) at Protégé (in Palo Alto) and Robbie (Wilson) at Bird Dog (in Palo Alto), Greg (Kuzia-Carmel) at Camper (in Menlo Park) ... these restaurants didn't exist five years ago.
Meichih: They have more personality. ...I guess the other question is also, as more restaurants pop up my first thing is, where are they going to find the labor for it? The shortage is everywhere.
On your days off, do you go out to eat more than you cook at home?
Michael: Yeah. We just don't like cleaning. We have our regular places: Great China (in Berkeley), Pho Hanoi in San Jose, Hamano in Noe Valley, Thien Long (in San Jose), Los Carnalitos (in Redwood City).
Have you seen a shift in how people perceive and receive Korean food in the Bay Area since you started Maum?
Michael: It's a mixed crowd. We had a guest the other day be like, 'I've tried things today that I've never tried before in my life.' That's great.
Meichih: But then some people are like, 'What is this?' But, you know, we're not trying to play it safe.
Why did you choose Orchard City Kitchen for our lunch?
Meichih: It has been on our list of places to go for a while now. Cyrus Schultz, the general manager and part owner, is a former colleague of mine when we both worked at Benu. It is important for us to support friends when we know how tough running a restaurant can be. Also, we're always trying new places to add to our list of go-to's in the Peninsula.