As a soldier wields his sword and a painter his brush, so does Alex Boyce, founder of Oh Na Mi kimchi, approach his latest craft.
His tools are salt, chili and the mysterious force of fermentation. His medium: the humble cabbage.
We caught up with Alex over a few beers, getting his perspective on kimchi world domination and how good he had it growing up and eating his mom's Korean cooking. We also learned that he personally knows the inventor of the kimchi hot dog and could even get us the original recipe if we wanted.
Cropbox: So let's start with the basics, what exactly is kimchi?
Alex Boyce: Kimchi is fermented vegetables. It's a Korean dish that's been part of the cuisine for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. And I think it's also a way of life for Koreans, dating back to when you had to preserve your vegetables underground.
CB: What's it made from?
AB: Well today's kimchi is made from cabbage, but it's made from any vegetables you can preserve.
CB: Anything else in it?
AB: Salt. And bacteria. Naturally occurring bacteria in the vegetable your using and the other things you add like the garlic and ginger. These things are added to help the preserving process by adding more bacteria to the mix.
CB: So where are you from and how did you end up here making kimchi?
AB: I'm originally from Delaware. I came to Amsterdam almost seven years ago now. And I came here as an artist but eventually I grew a little bit disenchanted with the scene here. So I decided to start working in kitchens... because that's one of the things I've always done - worked in hospitality. I found my love for cooking somewhere in there. I've always loved food, but then when you start to prepare it in a professional way it changes everything. You learn so much.
I started out cooking at an Italian restaurant and from there I wanted to make pizza so eventually transitioned to that. I then ended up at Restaurant Pllek.
I started at the bottom there, just washing salad, trying to be creative when I probably shouldn't have because you have to learn all the basics first. Year after year, the chef would put me in charge of this or that and eventually I got up to the junior sous chef and the kimchi came at some point in there.
CB: So did the kimchi come from an experience at the restaurant? Or how did you get interested in that?
AB: I managed to get kimchi put on the menu [at Pllek] actually. There was an event where I had to make it and I had some beginner's luck. Looking back, it was a really good batch but then I think I got a bit too confident and over the next year of making kimchi at Restaurant Pllek I was still sort of figuring it out and learning it.
CB: I imagine it's sort of temperamental to make.
AB: Now I have it down to a science, which it really is. And because I always use the mother bacteria, I can get it going fast and I know exactly how it's going to happen. When you're first starting though, you don't know how it will react, you think it's ready when it's bubbling but it's not, or maybe there's too much salt, or not enough salt.
CB: So did you have a base recipe that you started with?
AB: Well I started out just Googling recipes and then I eventually got a book that I decided to use to follow one recipe exactly how it was written. And that gave me a really good idea of how it should be. I just did a small amount and then standardized it.
The second dish I got on the menu at Pllek was a vegan dish. It's based on mung bean pancakes and inspired by a trip I took to Israel.
So you take mung beans, soak them, make a mixture with kimchi and make these little beignets or fritters. There's also white tahini, a carrot salad with a date syrup and citrus dressing and then some cumin seeds and chervil. And also black tahini.
If I may say so myself, if everything is done well, it's a great dish. It's really well-balanced and it's nutty and spicy and crunchy and it's fresh from the salad. It's a little bit of everything.
CB: What's black tahini? That sounds delicious.
AB: It's so simple, it's really just black sesame seeds, roasted. The roasting makes it have almost a popcorn flavor. You just blend it to a paste and add just a little bit of oil until it becomes almost like a black motor oil. Add a little bit of salt and a little bit of sugar.
CB: What or who has been your biggest inspiration?
AB: My parents, both of them. My mom, for forcing us to eat Korean food when we were growing up. And then my dad for being able to take that Korean food and take kimchi and make fusion dishes.
He claims he invented the kimchi hot dog... Which might be true. I can't imagine anybody else in the 1980's was doing kimchi hot dogs. There's a new hotel opening up in the center, it's going to be a 4-start hotel but they've got a kimchi hot dog on the menu [at the restuarant].
It's great because it all comes full circle. I kinda feel like my dad was a foodie before it was cool to be a foodie.
CB: How did you grow up eating?
AB: My mom got a lot of resistance from us, so she didn't just cook Korean food. If she had only cooked Korean food every day, we would have hated it. And where I grew up it, we were sort of the outsiders. We were the only Asian family in our neighborhood. So if everybody else was having white bread with ham and cheese and mustard, we wanted it too. Or spaghetti with meatballs.
And you don't realize how good you have it when your mom is cooking fresh vegetables from the garden. It's not until you get older that you realize you had so much stuff that other people didn't really have.
CB: What motivates you?
AB: I think it's mainly introducing people to kimchi. I think somewhere either in the back or front of my head I see kimchi as something that you're gonna find in every single country in Europe at some point. And I want to have something to do with that.
I was recently in Paris and all of a sudden that became a dream of mine, to see how Parisians, with such a long history of cooking and French cuisine, would treat kimchi and what they would do with it and how that would be different from Dutch chefs.
And I think it's possible. I know people will eventually be receptive to it and that's what motivates me to keep making it and to keep going. Just to see it happen. Seeing that we're changing eating culture.
CB: What's your favorite food memory?
AB: From childhood, my mom had a Thai friend so she would always make red or green curry. And it was always so good, so full of flavor, but always way too spicy. And it would just kill me. I just remember the heat, it was like you're always going in for the flavor but then you get the heat on the side so it's like you're getting punished every time but you want more.
It was just that she put too much of chili in but I don't think I've ever had it like that since. That's one of the memories that I want to recreate here but nobody gets it wrong as good as my mom.
CB: Okay, now for some rapid fire...
1. Dinner in front of the TV, okay or not okay? Shouldn't be okay, but I'm guilty as charged
2. Breakfast for dinner or dinner for breakfast? Either one. I love both.
3. Champagne or martini? Martini. Vodka.
4. Food on a skewer or food on a tiny spoon? I don't like these questions! I want them all. I'm indecisive.... Okay, food on a tiny spoon.
5. Would you rather have a coffee or red-wine spill on your favorite outfit? I wouldn't want coffee, I don't want to smell that all day.
6. Buffet or sit-down dinner? Sit-down dinner
7. Soup or salad? Salad
8. Nutella or Speculoos? Neither. If I had to choose I guess speculoos but it's better if you make it yourself.
9. Worst food to get stuck in your teeth: Kale or poppy seeds? Kale because you don't know it's there.
10. Edible flowers or edible gold? Edible flowers
11. Crushed ice or cubed ice? Crushed ice. Who doesn't like crushed ice?
12. Pizza or pasta? I refuse to answer that!
13. Sing in the shower or sing in the car? Car
14. Are you a hunter or a gatherer? This is gonna test my masculinity maybe, but I'd say I'm a gatherer.
In the box today:
Sticky brown rice
Sesame-braised shiitake mushrooms
Blanched spinach with spring onion and chili
Mung bean beignet
Julienned daikon radish and golden carrot salad
Korean sunshine courgette