Well Done

How You Can Try One of New York’s Most Buzzy Tasting Menus Without Ever Leaving the Subway

Dae Kim in front of Nōksu. Photography by Alex Truong. All images courtesy of Kim and Nōksu.

Mackerel marinated in vinegar; poached in caramelized ginger oil, carrot sauce, caramelized onion demi glaze; and served with Chinese lettuce compressed in perilla oil. Pear sorbet with black sesame cream. These crafted delicacies venture far from what one might typically associate with a quick bite on a subway platform (if anything, the $1 pizza slice or late-night french fry come to mind). But chef Dae Kim is reimagining where and how we encounter a $225 tasting menu: Take the 32nd Street stairs that lead to the MTA’s Herald Square station and, armed with a six-digit door code, find yourself in Nōksu, the intimate restaurant he captains with restaurateurs Bobby Kwak and Joseph Ko.

While the 29-year-old chef is no stranger to fine dining, having cut his teeth at Per Se and Silver Apricot, Nōksu’s much-anticipated opening last fall marked a turning point in Kim’s career. Five months in, Kim shares where he seeks inspiration in the city, how he tries to unwind after work, and why black truffles are overrated. 

Photography by Brynne Levy.

What has the experience of opening a restaurant been like, especially since this is your first time in the executive chef role? What have you learned about yourself as a chef?

The past couple of months have definitely been challenging. It's not just being an executive chef of a restaurant—it's also a personal thing. I knew that this was definitely a heavy shoulder, responsibility-wise, but it was definitely more than I thought. It's pretty chaotic, in a half good way, half bad way. I’ve grown as a person little-by-little, learning how to be a good leader, which I'm still trying to figure out.

What do you do to decompress? 

I try to be by myself. I'm an extreme introvert, so either staying at home or staying in a place where it's very calm and peaceful, with no people walking around, just to try and clear my mind. Having my own time seems very valuable these days because I'm surrounded by a lot of people here, from early morning to late night.

Your first hospitality job was as a dishwasher and a laundry boy in Chicago. When did you know you wanted to be a cook?

I don't think I had that moment. I just naturally followed the wave, step-by-step. I didn't have any choice back then. I was never like, “Oh, man, this is the moment. Let's get this job. This is my passion.” I never think that way. 


It sounds like it was more practical.

Yeah. There might have been a few moments where I was reading a cookbook and how a chef would talk about food. But in general I was more concentrated on the present than the future. I lived day-by-day basically. 

Were there any chefs that you looked up to back then?

Thomas Keller, chef of French Laundry and Per Se. Chef Corey Lee at Benu. Paul Bocuse. Charlie Trotter from Chicago. I’ve read their cookbooks thousands of times. The cookbooks are stapled up because I’ve read them so much. I didn’t treat them nicely. It shows how much you loved it by making a little damage.

And are you happy that you became a chef?

I don't know about happy, but I definitely feel privileged and fortunate. In the end, it's business. You need money, you need support, you need somebody else. I'm very fortunate and lucky to have that backup from my two owners, Bobby and Joe.


Nōksu is situated in a place where many New Yorkers spend hours of their days: the subway. How does the menu you created channel the city?

I cook a lot with squab, which is an homage to the great Chinatown in New York. Chinatown is one of my favorite places to go and walk and then get inspired. If you go Chinatown, there's always birds hanging on the ceiling—chickens or ducks with a yellow or dark glaze. I got inspired by those birds [and the history] of Chinese immigration in New York.

Other than that, I don't want to say Nōksu is inspired by a specific source. Our PR calls it a Korean restaurant, but I don’t really think it’s Korean food. There are a lot of Korean ingredients, but if you taste it, you don’t really feel the Korean flavor a lot. If you want Korean food, you should walk one minute away from Nōksu; there’s a lot of Korean restaurants out there. I try not to isolate one thing. I use Ethiopian spices, South Asian flavors, French techniques, Chinese ingredients… The cuisine I’m making is a melting pot. That’s the whole concept of this restaurant. It's being a little ambiguous.

Where does your mind go when you're in the kitchen? What is it like when you’re in the zone?

If you try to put so much meaning into a dish, it makes you very stressed. I put so much meaning into every single dish because I’m trying to prove myself to people. I don't want it to be a thing that everyone can duplicate. Cooking is all about copying at the end, but not 100 percent. It's, How can I make this dish my own thing? How can it transform my style? That's the biggest challenge as a cook for me right now.

What has surprised you the most about cooking so close to the New York subway? 

People say the subway is always dirty, and that all these disgusting things happen there. I try to look at it in a different way. What's the most iconic New York City culture? People dancing around, singing music, and doing graffiti in the subway. It’s inspiring me to think about how we can create a culture at Nōksu. When you go inside Nōksu, it feels like you’re in a different world. That surprise element makes you feel something. 


What’s your favorite train line in New York, and what's your favorite thing to do on the train?

The BDFM and the ACE. Just observing people. I don't really touch my phone in the train. I tried to read a few times, and it didn’t work. 

Switching gears to a few rapid-fire questions, If you could choose between breakfast, lunch, or dinner, which one would you choose and why?

I like to spend more time on dinner. It's a more personal thing. During the day, your body's moving around; the food doesn't really go inside until you feel peaceful.

What’s an underrated ingredient in your opinion? What about an overrated one? 

The most underrated ingredient is the potato. Potatoes are the most diverse cooking starch. You can steam it, you can roast it, you can grill it, you can blanch it, you can bake it… You can create so many things with potatoes, and they adopt flavors really well. Overrated is black truffles. They’re everywhere, and people are charging so much money for them. A good truffle is really great, but there's so many bad truffles out there.


Do you have a go-to bodega order? 

I'm a big bodega fan and a big fan of cheap food. I like bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll. Chopped cheese is also good. I love eating McDonald's. I love eating Burger King waffles. I love Wendy's. Krispy Kreme is my favorite donut.

Is there a kitchen etiquette rule that you live by?

It's okay to be in the weeds, but just don't fuck it up during service. 

Is there a dish that represents where you’re at in your life right now?

A roast chicken from the market that’s standing under one of those heat lamps. I'm at that moment right now.