Local chef Juno Kim is a firm believer in the adage “Buy experiences, not things.” In fact, it’s what led the 28-year-old to leave his job as a store manager and buyer at a luxury clothing boutique nearly four years ago to pursue a career in cooking.
“It got to the point where I really didn’t like the idea of selling people things they didn’t need,” he tells the Straight by phone. “So instead, I was like, ‘You know what? I want to bring people experiences instead.’ ”
Spurred by a love of dining and “cooking at a very high level”, thanks to business lunches during his retail days, the former UBC economics student began experimenting in the kitchen, trying his hand at a new recipe at least once a week.
After completing his undergraduate degree in 2013, he established Juno Kim Catering, and now crafts “multisensory” experiences for Vancouverites working in all sorts of industries.
From charred corn and shaved smoked ribs sprinkled with crisp chicharrón dust, to onion-smoked wild boar, to ice cream with pickled rhubarb and brown butter crumble, Kim’s artful dishes have dazzled guests at special events and dinners hosted by local hubs like Hootsuite, the Burrard Arts Foundation, and lululemon lab, as well as at galas for internationally recognized names such as the Bono and Bobby Shriver AIDS advocacy organization (RED) and Kinfolk magazine.
With less than five years of professional cooking experience under his belt, however—and zero formal training—Kim is quick to acknowledge that his gastronomic influences emerge from beyond the kitchen.
“Anything from efficient and intelligent design to something artistic, to some flavour that I ate, or seeing my mom make something,” he says. “I would never do it the way she does, but just seeing how someone does it so differently inspires me to think outside the box and approach a technique or dish in a different way.”
And while his thoughtful, multicourse meals have made him one of the city’s most in-demand caterers, the young chef is perhaps best known among keen epicureans for his innovative pop-up dinners. An impressive Monday-night series at 33 Acres Brewing Company—which ran for over 60 weeks—saw Kim flexing his creative muscle with bacon-and-kimchi burgers, sous-vide flank-steak “bennies”, and roasted-squash risotto, for example, while a one-off collaboration at the Birds & the Beets led him to concoct tasty twists on katsu and takoyaki—always with a focus on local, ethically sourced ingredients.
Most recently, Kim conducted a pop-up dinner at Union Wood Company’s East Vancouver studio—the last in a three-part series—where he worked alongside friends and fellow chefs Josh Gale and Sean MacDonald to create and execute a custom, six-course dinner in support of hunger-fighting charity Mealshare.
“It was a good example of what an event can do to build community as well as to make a difference,” he says.
The pop-up concept offers Kim the freedom to pursue his passion and the flexibility to build his skill set by travelling or enrolling in workshops. It’s also a great way for the community-loving chef to collaborate with other cooks, mixologists, and artists.
Guests at the Union Wood Company dinner, for example, went home with loot from local makers like Woodlot, LISSU Linen, and Lost Boy, and Kim partners regularly with Vancouver-based photographer Luis Valdizon, who is the man behind a handful of images shared on the chef’s mesmerizing, over-15,000-followers-strong Instagram account (although, as a freelance food stylist, Kim isn’t too bad at the whole food-photography thing himself).
“A lot of people like to bring down Vancouver, and I think that’s a silly way to approach it,” he explains. “Instead of bringing the city down, I want to build community and showcase people that are doing interesting things, whether it’s cooking or making candles or making cards or industrial lighting.”
A self-described “social entrepreneur”, Kim also gives back to Vancouver—and, more specifically, his adopted ’hood of Gastown—by volunteering his time with A Better Life Foundation’s Greasy Spoon Diner Supper Series, where a different chef is invited every month to cook up a meal at Save On Meats. Proceeds from the events benefit nonprofit organizations that work to empower those living in the Downtown Eastside.
During these dinners, Kim meets even more budding creatives, which helps build a “functional competitiveness” with his peers. That’s “not about one-upping the next guy, but supporting the people you’re genuinely interested in,” he stresses.
“There’s a lot of talent in Vancouver, and it’s just nice to be surrounded by people who consistently inspire each other.”