The first thing you probably should know about chef Ji Kang is that once he ate squiggling octopus tentacles in Korea. That's hard-core dedication to local cuisine, even though he swears he'll never try it again.
Kang, who is the executive chef at Samar, began his culinary career before he even knew it. His grandmother owned a hostel in Korea where she cooked from scratch and was a gracious host to travelers from around the world. Kang was exposed to these traits early life and since has learned just how valuable they are to him now.
Here's our chat about his upbringing and career, including what he learned after a stint in restaurant ownership:
Where are you from? I grew up mainly in Austin, but lived in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tampa Bay and in Richardson for awhile too. After high school, I went to culinary school at the Dallas Art Institute.
Do you think Austin has changed much since you moved away in 2006? It's incredible how much it's change. I went there this weekend, and I honestly didn't recognize a thing.
Tell me about your grandma. My grandmother had a hostel in South Korea, she was really big into presentation and making people feel warm and welcome. She's the kind of person that people meet and they instantly love her.
You opened your own restaurant in Houston a couple of years ago [which is now closed]. What did you learn from owning a restaurant? The one thing I took the most from opening a restaurant was that it takes a ton of dedication and customer service is just so important. Honestly, before I opened the restaurant, as a chef, I thought the food would be the main attraction. But after that experience, I learned that the front of the house managers do a lot of work in keeping the customers happy and making sure they build relationships and make sure the people that came in left happy.
I suppose as a chef you think you can control everything with good food, but maybe it's not the case if customers are upset about this or that. Exactly. That was the biggest challenge. I was stuck in the back cooking away and I never experienced what the customers were saying about service or atmosphere.
Do you now have a different philosophy on how the back of the house works with the front of the house? Definitely. Especially at Samar. I diligently work with the front of the house to make sure all the servers are OK and they know what we're producing. Plus we have to make sure they're talking to the customers about what we're doing. I communicate with the GM constantly now.
Do you interact with Stephan Pyles much (who owns Samar)? Yes, all the time. Once a former employee of his told me that no one can work a room like Stephan. You have no idea. Stephan can make a table happy with a smile. He's just one of those guys. I've learned so much from him in terms of how he approaches a table and what he says to a table. I've been blessed to work with someone like him.
Do you think that gracious hospitality is a learnable quality? It takes a certain personality for someone to be able to go up to stranger, introduce themselves and build a relationship within 10 seconds of meeting.
So, you went to Houston to open your restaurant, then came back for the job at Samar. Do you look at Dallas differently now? I was working at DISH before I went to Houston and at that time I saw a huge difference between Dallas and Houston. The neighborhood my restaurant was in was sort of like Austin -- a little hippie with restaurants doing a lot of different stuff. Then, I came back to Dallas and started doing things the old DISH way. But, in the time I've been back I've realized that Dallas people aren't so shaped into a specific mold. Their palates are much more adventurous now.
In all, has the scene changed? Since my time here at the Art Institute, yes. It's not such a steakhouse culture. And there are a lot more casual restaurants doing unique food at a lower price point. And that's great for people because then when they go into fine dining they're more comfortable with it.
What are some of your local favorite spots? There's one spot I really like, Dan Sung Sa [11407 Emerald St.]. It's a bar, but they do great late-night street food and comfort food. I like to have a drink there and reminisce about my grandmother's cooking.
Do you have any food shames? Probably In-and-Out animal fries, but I don't like to tell everyone that.
What's the best thing you've ever eaten? When I worked at David Burke's Fishtail in New York we had a dish called the angry lobster. It was baked, but it had this spice that was just amazing. It's probably the best thing I've ever had.
What's the worse thing you've ever eaten? I went to Korea about 10 years ago and my uncle took me to a seafood restaurant and he showed me this octopus and said, "We're going to eat that today." And, I thought great. But, he didn't tell me it was going to be alive. So, the sushi chef basically just pulled the live octopus out of the tank, cut the tentacles and put it on the plate, while it was still wiggling.
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So, you're saying squirming octopus tentacle is no good? I will never eat that again.
Did your uncle get a good laugh out of that? He didn't think I would do it. But, you have to try everything once.
Wow, and you did. How long did you work in New York City? I worked at Fishtail for four months and then I worked at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel for about eight months. That was an amazing experience. A year in New York is like four years at culinary college.
Probably cost about the same too, huh? A lot of people say New York so expensive, but it's about the same as here once you get rid of the car, insurance and gas. It's not really much more.