Jennifer Kim’s mom keeps a bottle under her kitchen sink containing knobby, gnarly roots and a continually replenished volume of clear, high-proof spirit.
“She has this ongoing ginseng vodka,” says Kim, the chef behind Andersonville’s Korean-Italian Passerotto, which just closed its doors for good on Saturday. “It’s probably moonshine. But she’ll put a little spoonful in tea or something else. Fucking Koreans and ginseng: that’s our go-to for everything. Ginseng fixes all. It’s a curative, and restorative, and an anti-inflammatory, and there’re so many different infusions.”
Kim has a jar of it herself, steeping on a shelf in a newly dedicated storage room, next to the turmeric honey, ume plum gin, and some dozens of other ongoing preservation-fermentation projects she’s undertaken during the pandemic. Passerotto might be closing, but this room represents a new beginning, arising out of something very old.
I talked to Kim a few days before Passerotto’s last carryout-delivery services. It’s closing in part because she needs time to reconcile the joy of cooking with the necessity of making a living in a broken industry. “How do you share the bounties that you have made, and also still be able to pay rent?” And she was getting ready to say goodbye to the community that formed around her restaurant just over two years after it opened in what seemed, at the time, like a cursed location. Despite it all she sounded upbeat.
“I’m extremely upset,” she says. “We’re taking time to mourn and grieve but we’re also taking time to celebrate because there’s been this great untethering.” Kim is a onetime pharmacy student who switched tracks and came up in the kitchens of a handful of One Off Hospitality restaurants—Nico Osteria, Avec, Blackbird—before making her name at the short-lived cured seafood-focused microdeli Snaggletooth.
Later, amid rising acclaim, Kim became one of the city’s most outspoken chefs on restaurant reform, particularly with regard to the way the industry treats its most marginalized and vulnerable workers. But even under restricted business operations, that work and the work of running a restaurant during the pandemic became ever more exhausting. “Anything that you do for the restaurant or with the restaurant or in the restaurant always sort of has this dark cloud of ‘and then don’t forget you also have to make money.’ It kind of takes that little bit of joy and magic out of what you’re doing.”
Like many restaurant workers, Kim and her crew found ways to keep the lights on, even though they decided collectively not to reopen the restaurant’s patio or dining room. Instead, early on, along with heat-and-serve meal kits and takeaway family dinners, they began offering DIY quarantine kits for making your own kimchi or XO sauce.
Preservation, fermentation, and conserving are the sort of time-consuming, low-and-slow kitchen projects Kim relished as a professional chef—the kind of work the whole staff put their hands in and bonded over but still found precious little time for.
The anxieties of running a business only became more aggravated with the pandemic, but at least there was more time. “I thought, why don’t I spend that digging deeper into Korean history?” she says.
“I was really focusing on, ‘what is fermentation to Korean culture?’ A lot of that was done in large family gatherings or even a couple people that lived around each other who were like, ‘We’re going to come together and make big batches and split it between everyone in the neighborhood.’ I just really love that about Korean cuisine, but in the midst of a pandemic, small gatherings are not encouraged. That part of my life is missing right now, but I could still pay homage.”
In July the restaurant introduced its Preservation Pantry, rolling out a dazzling selection of seasonal farmers market and foraged preserves: summer squash sott’olio, sweet corn and pepper confit, juneberry capers, perilla leaf bitters, blueberry chojang, and peach ssamjang. Along with older projects like vinegars and vermouths aging since the previous season, these items sold out quickly, and as it became apparent the restaurant would be closing, they weren’t replenished.
But informed by texts such as Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and the more recent Noma Guide to Fermentation, as well as a staff field trip to South Korea in January, Kim didn’t stop experimenting. In May she macerated a bunch of unripe green plums in sugar, and babied them for 104 days until she had maesil cheong, the medicinal plum syrup Koreans use to sweeten teas or spike sodas. “It’s those two items, and it’s time and care,” she says. “I never actually made it from step one. You can always just buy it. But those two things eventually turn into three different things.” Two weeks ago she strained the syrup, and soaked the plums in soju, which she reckons will be fragrant, lightly sweet, and ready to bottle by Thanksgiving. From there she’ll pit the plums, chop them, and mix them with gochujang and sesame oil for maesil-jjangahji, ready by the New Year—she says it’s a great sub for ssamjang in family-style grilling, especially for seafood.
Kim also macerated some of those plums in Letherbee Gin, and has Polish-style sauerkraut and pickles going, as well as some brined Russian rye apples. “They’re time capsules,” she says. “Every time you open a jar of something or eat something, it imparts a memory from somewhere before, or it imparts a new memory. It’s like, what are we trying to remember from this time? And what do we want not to forget.
“I’m rediscovering for myself a physical act of cooking that gives me an excuse to go see friends and drop something off on their porch and be like ‘I thought of you today.’ It’s love bottled.”
At the same time she’s also starting to think in terms of scale, with cases of tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash to process, jar, and hand label. She has her signature Mama Kim’s red cabbage in the works, and once napa cabbage fully comes into season she’ll get to work on classic baechu kimchi. Once the dust settles after the restaurant closes, she’ll address how she’ll introduce these things to the “alternative economy” so many restaurant workers have pivoted to. These things will likely be offered via Instagram (@jennifer.skim), but she hints that a number of Korean banchan are being reserved for a pop-up in the next few weeks, modeled after pojangmacha, South Korea’s ubiquitous outdoor street food tents. She still needs to pay her rent, after all.
Meanwhile, “Sometimes you gotta sit and let shit get good,” she says. “Let it do what it needs to do to turn into something else. Go be a human being that doesn’t have a title or a restaurant, and just do the things that make you happy as a human.” v