Brooklyn, the spiritual home of “makers” and hordes of bearded mixologists, is now not only a borough but a brand. “Very Brooklyn,” diners say (with either reverence or disdain) when they enter a coffeehouse or restaurant plastered with subway tile and reclaimed wood. Nowhere are people more convinced of Brooklyn’s brilliance than in the borough itself. Cross the bridge from Manhattan and you pass a municipal greeting: “Welcome to Brooklyn. Believe the Hype!”
I say this not entirely out of bitterness — though I am part of another stereotypical Brooklyn horde, families pushed out by soaring rents — but with a heavy heart. Brooklyn is a kind of food wonderland, full of bread “labs” and whole-animal butchers. But as the years have passed, some additions to the scene feel more calculated than organic (the north star of Brooklyn-ness), while others are attempts to do something new for its own sake. The authenticity that created the Brooklyn ethos seems increasingly absent.
So it was refreshing, almost a relief, to come across “The Good Fork Cookbook” (Abrams, 2016) by chef Sohui Kim. You probably missed this one; it had the unfortunate fate of being released at the beginning of November, a time when no matter whom you voted for, you were almost certainly not focused on new cookbooks. And that’s a shame. “The Good Fork,” named for the restaurant Kim opened in the waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook a decade ago, is a collection of invitingly original recipes that manage to be both cutting-edge and homey. It’s a powerful combination, one that also helps explain how Brooklyn became Brooklyn in the first place.
“The Good Fork” is not structured in the usual way, with appetizers, main courses and desserts, but chronologically. The opening chapter tells the story of Kim and husband Ben Schneider’s move to Red Hook and how they built a close-knit community by throwing fantastic backyard parties — the real version of the kind you see in food magazine spreads, with wildflowers tucked into Mason jars, mismatched china and impossibly hip artsy types in attendance. You will want to hate them, but don’t: The look was dictated by (small) budgets, and the food was an eclectic blend inspired by Kim’s culinary experiences, which included an early childhood in Korea, followed by a move to the Bronx and a series of cooking jobs at desirable New York restaurants. There were fried pork dumplings, homemade pasta with lamb ragout, and a feast I plan to make for my next summer bash: Vietnamese-style ribs with pickled vegetable salad and sweet Chinese sausage and scallion corn bread. The food was, Kim recounts, “everything I knew, everything I had tasted and everything I liked.”
Apparently the guests liked it, too, and that led the couple to mimic the vibe when they opened the Good Fork. The next chapter provides recipes for the restaurant’s opening menu, and these are among my favorites. Kim’s roast chicken, served with a rich pan sauce fragrant with roasted garlic and funky Chinese fermented black beans, is now my weeknight roast chicken because it’s startlingly delicious and, more important, the simple sauce can be made ahead in big batches and frozen, so cooking dinner amounts to thawing the sauce and throwing a few chicken breasts into a hot pan.
I am also a fan of the Brussels Sprouts Caesar Salad — though it’s a little heavy for a weeknight, so I’ll save it for entertaining — and the Dr. Seuss-inspired Green Eggs and Ham Risotto, which mixes the rice with an emerald puree of peas, spinach and parsley, and tops it with crispy Serrano and a quail egg. (Without the egg, the dish doesn’t deliver on the promise but impresses nonetheless.)
The idea of simply cooking food you like without branding the concept was, and remains, risky. Chefs fly high when they can call themselves the Cronut guy or the Korean chicken expert. As Kim’s brother told her when the restaurant opened: “You can’t put wild boar ragout and pork dumplings on the same menu. It’s stupid.”
But good things to eat, carefully sourced and cooked with the same technique and attention to detail found in fine-dining restaurants, soon became its own style: Brooklyn style. Within a few months after the Good Fork opened, Manhattanites were crossing the bridge to see what all the fuss was about.
The succeeding chapters provide an assortment of recipes based on a theme. One, “Lessons,” comprises dishes inspired by Kim’s cooks that include an easy arctic char served with a sassy take on a Niçoise salad, with fingerling potatoes, green beans, radishes and jalapeños; and a Miso Caramel Ice Cream that beats out most any salted caramel version I’ve tried. “After the Storm” focuses on comfort foods that were go-tos after Hurricane Sandy flooded Red Hook, such as pork chops with creamy leeks and spaetzle, and biscuits served with a sweet-and-spicy butter spiked with gochujang (Korean chili paste) and honey. I can open to almost any page and find something I want to eat.
What thrills me is that I can — eat it, that is. Nothing in the book — not even the traditional Korean dishes in the final chapter that are served at Kim’s new restaurant, Insa — is intimidating or requires endless sub-recipes. (Full disclosure: I did have to make that ice cream twice, because my fear of curdling the base meant I pulled it off the stove the second I could swipe a clean line down the back of a wooden spoon, which, apparently, was a tad soon. But the not-quite-frozen version was plenty tasty, too.)
My only true gripes are that the ingredient lists don’t always consider what home cooks have access to: The green risotto calls for four ounces of Serrano ham, which generally comes in three-ounce packs — unless your local butcher slices it to order, because you live in Brooklyn. And Kim, who after all is a restaurant chef, sometimes can’t help gilding the lily. For example, that same risotto instructs you to deep-fry the ham, when crisping it in a frying pan is far easier and the taste is arguably as good.
Those problems, though, are fairly easy to spot and adapt to without undermining Kim’s intentions. “The Good Fork Cookbook,” like the best of Brooklyn, mashes global flavors with a distinctive spirit. The results are delicious. Believe the hype!
By Sohui Kim
224 pp. $29.95