Miss Kim: A Taste of Culinary History

by | Feb 14, 2024 | Food, Michigan, Travel

When you step into Miss Kim, a popular Korean restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you aren’t just coming for a meal; you’re stepping into a culinary journey across history and cultures. 

Miss Kim: A Taste of Culinary History

Recently, we had the privilege of sitting down with Chef Ji Hye Kim, the owner of Ann Arbor’s Miss Kim, for an unforgettable conversation filled with stories deeply rooted in her Korean-American heritage.


Contributing to Ann Arbor’s Culinary Mosaic

Curious about how Miss Kim contributes to the diversity and richness of Ann Arbor’s food scene, we asked Chef Kim for her thoughts. She replied, “There are many great independently owned restaurants that do Asian food, and there are wonderful chefs here. But I think Miss Kim is one of the few in Ann Arbor that is chef-driven and focused on Korean food. Korean food is diverse within itself: high-end, casual, street food, vegetarian dishes, and regional cuisine. I think Miss Kim highlights that diversity of Korean food within the Ann Arbor food scene.”


The Zingerman’s Influence

Miss Kim is part of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, which is well-known for its food-related ventures. When Chef Kim initially revealed her plans to open a Korean restaurant in collaboration with Zingerman’s, some questioned pairing a Jewish deli with Korean cuisine. Her response was unequivocal: “That’s the point. I’m going to teach them. They know the business, and they know how to run a restaurant. And Korean food is where I come in, right?” 


We asked Chef Kim in what ways Miss Kim has influenced or been influenced by the culinary ethos of Zingerman’s Community. She said, “We adhere to the “traditionally made, full-flavored” culinary ethos of Zingerman’s, with emphasis on the use of local and artisanal ingredients, made with care, and sharing service that makes people smile. Even though Korean food has not necessarily been a part of Zingerman’s culinary lexicon until Miss Kim came into play, in this sense, Miss Kim is very much a Zingerman’s restaurant.”

From Zingerman’s perspective, what impact has Miss Kim had on the food scene in Ann Arbor? Chef Kim replied, “I’m not sure what others in Zingerman’s think of this.” She continued, “Miss Kim is one of two full-service restaurants (besides Roadhouse), and we have very different menu offerings, so I think it shows Zingerman’s depth beyond the traditional Jewish sandwiches that people associate with it.”  

An Artful Evolution: Miss Kim in Kerrytown 

The restaurant in Kerrytown is an intriguing blend of historic charm and modern art. The building is steeped in interesting stories from its past. It reads like a novel, with chapters as diverse as Miss Kim’s menu. At different points in time, this space has been a church, a mill, a catering space run by the famed Zingerman’s, and another restaurant you may remember, ‘eve the restaurant.’ 


Chef Kim had this space in mind while working on documents to launch her restaurant. “So I guess I manifested it to happen,” she mused, reflecting on her journey to secure the location. 

The space is bright and cheerful. Gary Horton’s artwork adds a layer of color and playfulness, becoming integral to the restaurant’s identity. For Chef Kim, Horton’s artwork isn’t just decorations but fundamental threads in the restaurant’s narrative. “I cannot imagine a bare wall without his work in here,” she remarked, underscoring the symbiotic relationship between art and cuisine.


Connecting The Past With The Present

But the history doesn’t merely dwell in the physical space; it is woven deeply through Miss Kim’s menu. Chef Kim shared how centuries-old Korean cookbooks and traditional cooking techniques inspired her. 


Her approach was guided in part by historical cookbooks she studied. Studying these culinary narratives, Chef Kim discovered interesting factoids—not just about food but also about Korean culture, values, and attitudes—that she has ensured are reflected in her dishes.

She wanted to see what other things her ancestors did, and in the process, she found some really fun stories. One she shared was about a cookbook belonging to a rich lady. It had a warning. “These recipes need to stay in our family, so do not give it to the daughters that are marrying out to another family,” Chef Kim shared. And another cookbook was written by a grandmother specifically for the granddaughter who is marrying out. “I want her to have these recipes like in her arsenal.” 

“That gave me a deeper understanding of how the food was enjoyed,” Chef Kim explained.  

When she thinks about a new dish or a general menu, she always recalls the stories she learned by studying historical cookbooks. Staying true to one’s culinary heritage doesn’t mean rigid adherence to age-old recipes but understanding the spirit of traditional cuisine and enriching it with contemporary elements. 

It is through stories that she connects you to Korean food. And she had a story for nearly every item on the Miss Kim menu. Here are just a couple,   

No Sad Sides

“I love potatoes. These are my mom’s ideas of snacks. She would just boil potatoes and put it in front of me and then say that was my afternoon snack. No junk food allowed,” Chef Kim said, smiling mischievously. 

She took her mom’s idea and used it “as a snack instead of just relegated to a sad side. But then I wanted to dress it up a little bit,” Chef Kim said. 


If you want to taste this whimsical medley of boiled, fried, and seasoned spuds that evoke childhood nostalgia with every bite, look for “smashed potatoes” on Miss Kim’s menu. I could live on her snack potatoes. 

Spotlight on: Rice Sticks 

An intriguing part of our conversation revolved around the quintessential Korean street snack: rice cakes, aka rice sticks. Chef Kim shared her vivid childhood memories of being enticed by the rice sticks sold by a vendor outside her school, which her mother called “delinquent food.” 

“You know, the moment she says delinquent food, I wanted more. Right,” Chef Kim shared. 

Which grade she wasn’t sure, but young enough, she didn’t have money of her own. But she discovered she could trade the carton of milk she got during lunch for the rice sticks. All the kids were doing it. It didn’t take long for the school to discover the rice sticks market and shut it down, making it against the rules to trade your school milk for rice sticks. But this didn’t deter Chef Kim. 

“I saw you do that, and I’m going to tell on you unless you do my penmanship homework,” she remembered her classmate saying.

She had a moment when she could do the right thing. She could come clean and be forgiven. Chef Kim reminisced in a wistful voice, “Or I can just continue living the life of a delinquent, getting the delinquent food, and succumbing to the blackmail.” 

“I did his homework; my penmanship is beautiful,” she said, laughing. 

Those same rice sticks, albeit evolved, are now one of the most popular dishes at her restaurant. There are several variations of “Tteokbokki” on the menu.


Her Other Inspiration: Farmers Market

Sometimes, getting all the ingredients for traditional Korean recipes in Michigan is impossible. How does Chef Kim stay true to traditional Korean food? What if her grandmother was here? How would she cook? 

Chef Kim said, “So, she’s not going to shell out a whole bunch of money for vegetables that’s imported from Korea that’s not in the best condition. She’s going to go to a local farmer’s market and haggle with local farmers to find the most, like, closest proximity that’s fresh and cheap and locally grown.” 

Chef Kim uses many locally grown vegetables, haggling with the local farmers at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and shopping at the local markets such as the Hyundai Asian Market.  


A Dash of Respect

Chef Kim, proud of her Korean heritage yet enthusiastic about experimentation, was candid about her culinary training. She revealed that she wasn’t classically trained and learned much of her craft on the job at Zingerman’s. 

During her time at Zingerman’s, where she held various roles, including cheesemonger, Chef Kim absorbed invaluable lessons about the food and running a restaurant. Reflecting on her experience, she emphasized the importance of tradition, artisanal craftsmanship, and the significance of sourcing locally. While her work at Zingerman’s wasn’t directly tied to Korean cuisine, it taught her essential values like tradition and the art of working with local artisans, Chef Kim explained.


She eloquently illustrated her philosophy with an example, citing the nuanced differences between mass-produced balsamic vinegar and the artisanal varieties from Modena, Italy. “You can buy not-so-great balsamic vinegar, labeled balsamic vinegar, outside of Italy, or you can buy balsamic vinegar from a family that has been making balsamic vinegar for hundreds of years. It’s from Modena. Geographically, it’s not local, but to me, that’s sort of like a local product, just because they use what’s available in that area, and there’s a terroir to those products. They really pay attention to that. We just happen to get it from far, far away.”

Chef Kim’s Lessons

Chef Kim is not only a restaurateur who has harnessed her Korean background and passion for food but also a culinary historian of sorts. Ingredients and recipes are snapshots in time. What’s considered traditional or authentic has grown from centuries of adaptation and experimentation. 


Chef Kim’s chili flakes story illustrates this perfectly. She didn’t see chili flakes being used in the cookbooks she was studying. “Korean food is so known for having spicy elements,” she explained. Chili peppers are from Latin America and didn’t come to Korea until about the 17th century. “I don’t see chili flake-based dishes until the end of the 18th century,” she added. 

With each anecdote, Chef Kim filled our senses with flavors and memories, infusing every dish with a sprinkle of magic. Her storytelling was the icing on the cake, as they say. We look forward to seeing what surprises Miss Kim cooks up next! She mentioned this year’s goal of offering in-person cooking classes. Sign me up!



Plenty of photos from our visit to Miss Kim in the gallery. Take a look and enjoy.

Plus, you’ve got to check out the snappy video we made for our visit during Ann Arbor Restaurant Week!

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