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The Intersection of Korean and Cajun Cuisine at Kjun
The dishes at the chef Jae Jung’s pickup-and-delivery-only restaurant in the East Village include Cajun-spiced honey-butter potato chips, gumbo with a side of okra kimchi, and phenomenal fried chicken.
July 16, 2021
For her restaurant Kjun, the chef Jae Jung, who was born and raised in Seoul and spent years cooking in New Orleans, finds the intersections of Korean and Cajun cuisine in dishes including kimchi jambalaya and soy-and-bourbon-glazed steak bibimbap.Photographs by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker
The other night, a group of friends, sitting around a West Village dining-room table for the first time in a long while, collectively gasped. A cardboard takeout box, its flaps carefully folded to allow for ventilation, had been opened to reveal a generous pile of arrestingly beautiful potato chips: almost weightless, yet crunchy; as glossy, transparent, and subtly bubbled as stained glass; slicked with brown butter and honey and dusted in Cajun spices. Fried to order by the chef Jae Jung, they are a highlight, among many, of the menu for Kjun, a pickup-and-delivery-only Korean-Cajun restaurant she’s been running since April, first from a dormant catering kitchen on the Upper East Side and now from the basement of a coffee shop in the East Village.
For now, Kjun is takeout and delivery only, in part so that Jung can keep operations small and have a hand in every order.
Potato chips—the honey-butter variety has been a craze in Korea since 2014, and the Cajun-inspired flavors produced by Zapp’s, in Louisiana, since the nineteen-eighties, are some of the best snacks on the U.S. market—were just one of the intersections that jumped out at Jung as she considered two of the food cultures closest to her heart. Born and raised in Seoul, she inherited her passion for cooking from her mother, who for many years owned a kimchi restaurant, running through three thousand heads of cabbage a year. Though her parents urged her to avoid the business, the call proved too strong: in her late twenties—“my last chance to go big,” she told me recently—she flew to New York to enroll, sight unseen, in the Culinary Institute of America.
Her shrimp-and-oyster po’boy is layered with tomato kimchi and sauce rémoulade, and finished with cilantro and sliced radish.
“One of my friends in Korea said, ‘If you go to America, you gotta go to New Orleans,’ ” Jung recalled. Jazz Fest immediately endeared the city to her; New York, to a native of Seoul, was familiar territory—New Orleans was like another planet. When it came time at the C.I.A. to do an externship, she returned to New Orleans, spending several months, in 2009, in the kitchen at August, a contemporary-Creole restaurant, enjoying the afterglow of the Saints’ Super Bowl win, experiencing Mardi Gras, and learning to appreciate brass-band music. For four and a half years after graduation, she cycled through some of the city’s most famous establishments, including Dooky Chase’s, whose beloved proprietor, Leah Chase (who died in 2019), Jung considered a friend and a mentor—“my Creole grandmother,” Jung said.
Many of the menu’s items are bracingly spicy, but plenty of others provide cool relief.
All the many methods Jung learned for making gumbo contributed to Kjun’s, which starts with a dark roux and includes pasture-raised chicken and andouille sausage. The traditional accompaniment of rice reminded her of soup in Korea, which is also often served with rice, plus kimchi; picking up her mother’s mantle, Jung makes several varieties of it using vegetables common in the American South, where, of course, pickles also reign. The gumbo comes with a side of okra, brined in salt and vinegar for at least two months; tomato kimchi serves as condiment, layered atop a creamy rémoulade, in an excellent po’boy featuring cornmeal-fried shrimp and oysters on a crusty French-style loaf that Jung gets from a Vietnamese bakery. Almost everything is spicy, but there are pockets of relief: a cool watermelon salad, with both fresh cubes and pickled rind, in a yuzu-honey vinaigrette; silky white grits with mascarpone and provolone.
Pork ribs are seasoned with a Cajun spice mixture and glazed in a Korean-style barbecue sauce.
For months before she launched Kjun—the fulfillment of a longtime dream that she began to plan for in earnest after she left her job as Café Boulud’s sous-chef, at the end of 2019—Jung made fried chicken every single day, in an effort to perfect her recipe. “At some point, I really couldn’t swallow it,” she said. “I would take a bite and spit it out.” Her tenacity paid off: the final, phenomenal product is marinated in buttermilk and gochujang before it’s coated in a Cajun-spiced Korean pancake batter containing rice flour, cornstarch, and potato starch, which helps make it extra crispy, as does frying it twice. Like the chips, the chicken comes in a box whose flaps have been folded to ward off any hint of sogginess, packed by Jung herself. “I touch everything,” she said. I’d eat anything she touched. (Dishes $9-$45.) ♦
Published in the print edition of the July 26, 2021
, issue, with the headline “Kjun.”
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