Exacting attention to detail in both food and service is ingrained in the two chefs who together lead the kitchen of Maum in Palo Alto. They opened the modern Korean restaurant after cooking at some of the country's best restaurants: Meichih at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York City and Benu and Michael Mina's RN74 in San Francisco; Michael at the Michelin-starred SPQR and Namu Gaji in San Francisco; and both at Tom Colicchio's Craft in Los Angeles, where they met.
The Kims are partners both inside and outside the kitchen: They're also married and parents to a 4-year-old boy who loves sushi and market peaches.
Despite their illustrious culinary resumes, the pair seems genuinely taken aback by the recognition they've received at Maum.
The tasting-menu-only, 16-seat restaurant garnered lots of buzz when it opened last summer after running quietly as a private dining space. Then, in June — less than a year after opening to the public — the Kims won their first Michelin star. Last week came a favorable review from the San Francisco Chronicle's new restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, who described Maum, which means "from the heart," as upending our assumptions about Korean food in a "sincere, nostalgic" way.
"We're always surprised when people are like, 'We've heard so much about you,'" Michael said, laughing. "I'm like, 'From who?'"
True chefs, their minds are inside the kitchen more than anywhere else — except maybe, as young parents, at home with their son.
I had lunch with Meichih and Michael recently for the inaugural feature of At the table, a new series for my Peninsula Foodist newsletter. I'll be interviewing local chefs over meals at restaurants of their choosing. The Kims chose Orchard City Kitchen in Campbell, a more casual project from fine-dining chef Jeffrey Stout.
Over tater tot poutine doused in Japanese curry, budae jigae and an arugula-stone fruit salad, we talked at length about how and why they got into cooking, their creative process, where they eat on their days off, how they balance the restaurant with parenthood and, of course, that Michelin star.
Michael, what part of Los Angeles did you grow up in?
Michael: I was born in east LA. When I was 7, I moved to Diamond Bar, which is kind of a suburb of LA — a big Korean and Asian community.
I assume that food was a big part of your upbringing.
Michael: It always was. My dad and his family was such a food-oriented family so it was always a big part of my life. ... It was always based around fish. We would sometimes go really early in the morning to the Newport Beach fish market where they would pull up the boats and then sell fish. I remember doing that with my grandparents and my parents at least once a month. There's a Korean mackerel dish that's braised in gochujang. We would get fresh mackerel from the market and we would make that. (At Maum), we serve a mackerel for our no-meat option in kind of an homage to that. We do either a grilled or braised version.
Meichih, was food a big part of your upbringing? (Meichih was born in Shinjuku, Tokyo, but grew up in Southern California and is of Taiwanese descent.)
Meichih: More eating out.
So what drew you to cooking as a career?
Meichih: After college, I took a desk job. I did that for two years. I couldn't see myself moving forward and being ambitious in that area. So I decided to apply to go to cooking school at night.
What actually happened was, I was in college and I wanted to recreate a dish my mom made at home. It was katsudon. I called her up. ... From that point on it was like, I really like doing this. I like working with my hands.
Michael: It takes a special person to be a cook. In the sense of ... it doesn't necessarily translate to going to school or anything like that. I think you have that innate skill where you just go into a kitchen and you find the flow. You understand how everything works, or how everything should work. I didn't really enjoy school. When I was in college, I was a hospitality major. There were portions of that education where it didn't really mesh. Once I got into the culinary aspect of it, it was like riding a bike. You just know what's happening.
Where were your first-ever cooking jobs?
Michael: I worked in a Japanese-French restaurant in Pasadena, (Maison Akira). It's one of the mainstays in that area. (The chef, Akira Hirose) was a Japanese chef who trained in Paris under Jo