When you think of a “chef,” you generally think about a guy in a big white toque, searing foie gras and plating dishes with tweezers. In the culinary world, it is the (mostly white, mostly male) fine dining chefs who get the most attention, even though most of us spend our dining dollars in restaurants that are much less fancy, with equally excellent food. BBBop, Sandra Bussey’s fast-casual Korean fusion concept, is one of those great-but-low key restaurants in Dallas.
Bussey, a classically trained French chef, has been gradually expanding her bibimbap-influenced bowl concept across the Metroplex. After opening two BBBop locations on Lower Greenville, one in Carrollton, and a forthcoming restaurant in Bishop Arts, it’s clear that Dallas has an appetite for these healthy, Korean-inspired dishes. We sat down to talk with Bussey about her background, why she chose a fast-casual concept instead of fine dining, and Korean food’s explosion into the mainstream culinary consciousness.
After spending so much time as a private chef, not many people know much about the woman behind BBBop. What’s your background?
I met Greg [Bussey] in culinary school, where we were attending with Jeff Bekavac at California Culinary Academy. I decided to come back to Dallas and do my internship at the Four Seasons, and Greg headed off to New York to work at the Aureole Hotel. He wanted me to come with him, but I didn’t think that I wanted to live in New York City. I missed him, so I moved up there and we worked in restaurants there for about two and a half years before moving back.
When I moved back, I taught at Sur La Table and worked at Central Market in Fort Worth. Then I was approached through a mutual friend about a private chef job for a family where the wife was half-Korean. She needed a chef that knew Korean food and other things as well. Coming from culinary school, I’m more of a classically trained French chef, but I grew up eating Korean food every day. That’s how I got my first gig, and I worked for about two years in Preston Hollow.
That job was a little demanding. Being a private chef means being on call on the time, and I really wanted to have a kid and I couldn’t swing those hours anymore. I decided to find my own clients and work with multiple families. I wanted them to be my clients, I didn’t want to be hired help. That worked out really well for me, I had about six rotating clients, and it was a lot of fun. It let me do things that I obviously can’t do here at BB Bop.
How was that transition for you? Going from cooking only French food to getting back to the roots of Korean food?
There are a lot of similarities, I think. French cooking teaches technique, and you can always apply those in every cuisine. I’m not going to use the same sauces, but I know the rules of emulsification. I know how to reduce a sauce. That applies in every cuisine, I think.
What about the flavors? That’s certainly polar opposite. Was that exciting or a little overwhelming?
I liked it. Being in a first-generation Korean family, you eat Korean food every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We ate Korean food all the time, so going to culinary school was really eye-opening for me. I used to think I hated Indian food, now I love it. There’s nothing out there that I won’t eat — I love it all. I kind of strayed away from Korean food for a long time, but I always came back to it. It’s like coming back to comfort food. You may stray away, but you’re always coming back.
What would you say was your favorite thing to dig into when you started developing the BBBop concept?
The sauces were the most fun for me, I’d say. With the rice bowls, we went through all Asian cultures and expanded upon the Korean rice bowl concept. I really found joy in creating the sauces and playing around with flavors. You’d never find coconut curry in Korean food, never, so that’s been really exciting to learn and perfect.
What does your family think of your take on Korean food?
As long as everyone understands that we’re not trying to be authentic Korean, we’re good. We’re trying to introduce Korean food to the masses, and I think sometimes we get mistaken as trying to be authentic, and people say that we don’t know what authentic Korean food is. I grew up on Korean food that was very authentic, so I know exactly what it is, it’s just not what we’re doing here.
Is that challenging? Do you feel like it’s difficult for Korean people to accept a concept that’s so different?
When we first opened, we decided that we weren’t trying to focus on the Korean palate at all. We went totally non-traditional to appeal to the American palate. We were running into the opposite kind of questions, really. People were looking for fried rice and orange chicken and beef and broccoli, that kind of stuff. But as Dallas is getting more and more food-savvy and Korean is becoming mainstream, we’re pushing those boundaries even more. Before, we were scared to do that. We’ve added dumplings, and that’s my mom’s actual recipe. We have a “for realz bop,” which is an authentic Korean bibimbap.
You’re definitely right that Korean food is becoming more popular in the mainstream food culture. Why do you think that is?
As Korean-Americans, we always joke that the service isn’t great at Korean restaurants. It used to be that if you’re non-Korean, you’d get a look like “what are you doing in here?” They were not friendly. Even now, when you order and go beyond what is normally ordered by Americans, they sort of discourage you away from it. They think you won’t like it. The reason that Korean has become more mainstream is that a lot more people are willing to venture into these environments and understand the sort of cultural difference.
What about kimchee fries? That was definitely not a thing in the mainstream prior to the food truck explosion. Has that helped?
It’s a great way to introduce kimchee. I love kimchee fries. It’s just a great combination of the fried potatoes with pickle and spice. It’s basically taking the place of Snuffer’s cheese fries or whatever. It’s the same sort of exuberant, indulgent dish.
What about the fast-casual style? Coming from a high-end background, what about this place appealed to you?
When my husband and I first moved to Oak Cliff, we thought we’d do more of a sit-down, neighborhood restaurant. If Greg and I had opened a restaurant at the time, it would have been something along the lines of Gemma. That’s maybe more high-end than we would have done, but a casual place with great food that the locals love. I don’t know how we got to fast-casual, actually. My brother Steve was studying to become a pastor, and he wanted to do a restaurant. Being our first, we wanted to do something simple. We didn’t want to have a huge wait staff or hostesses, we wanted to cut down on as much labor as possible.
Were you heavily influenced by Chipotle?
In the very beginning, yes.
How did you make your concept different than so many other assemble-your-own meal places?
At the end of the day, we’re still mom-and-pop. Seriously, my mom and dad are making all the sauces. They hand-roll every single egg roll. I make every dumpling in the kitchen. Everything here is made from scratch. Nothing is frozen.
So it’s legit is what you’re saying?
Is that something that you’d consider at some point, doing a more upscale Korean concept?
Well, our next location in Bishop Arts, or near Bishop Arts, we are going bigger. The new space will be 3,500 square feet. We’ll have a full bar, great cocktails, and a huge patio. We’re still going to have the counter service, but we’ll also have wait staff.
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So you’re basically getting your neighborhood joint that you wanted all along?
Yep, just in a different way.
I have to ask — what about the two Greenville Ave locations? Was it kind of terrifying to open two locations on the same street?
Yes, absolutely. But I think people who live here know that Mockingbird is this sort of forcefield that no one really crosses. We’d actually signed this lease almost two and a half years ago, before Trader Joe’s was confirmed for the street. We had an opportunity to get this spot, but it was really risky for us. It was the same year that some guy was shot or stabbed or something just down the street, and that happened right after we signed our lease. This building took forever to complete, and we were watching this area skyrocket. We ultimately made the decision to stay here because our real estate broker told us that we just couldn’t pass up this location. They’re really only two miles away from each other, but it all seems to have worked out okay.