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Bite Me

How I Learned to Love Kimchi

I've put some strange things in my mouth -- rats and worms and hooves and eyeballs -- but there's other stuff, purely pedestrian by comparison, that I won't touch. Not even for money.

Brussels sprouts, for example. Blech. Brussels sprouts are nothing but foul little cabbages with none of a cabbage's goodness and all of its funky, dirt-tasting evil concentrated in one mouthful.

Celery salt is wonderful, and a welcome friend in my kitchen, but celery itself? Forget it. Many otherwise phenomenal egg- and chicken-salad sandwiches have been ruined by the blind addition of celery. This vegetable deserves a place of shame in Satan's mise en place.

Not about a restaurant

I've had penis before -- as the topper to a very rustic cassoulet -- but I have trouble eating testicles. I tried them once, but never again. Let's just say it's a guy thing and leave it at that.

My blacklist goes on: movie-theater hot dogs, black trumpet mushrooms, Southern Comfort, water chestnuts, kimchi. Most of these are simply matters of personal preference -- or self-preservation, in the case of the movie wieners -- but there's a story behind my ban on kimchi.

About midway through my kitchen career, I realized that I made a much better sous chef than head chef. There were a lot of reasons for this -- I'm more adept at pledging loyalty than inspiring it, for one, and then there's my rather loose relationship with such grim business realities as bill-paying and staff management -- but the most important reason was also the most basic. I was good at being a sous chef. An executive chef is like a general in a busy kitchen. He sees the big picture and plans in advance, orchestrating force deployment and the delivery of men and materials with an eye toward what will be happening hours, sometimes days, in the future. A sous chef, on the other hand, is more like the wizened lieutenant in every good war movie. He's down in the trenches with his grunts, pitching in beside them and passing on the orders that come down from above. If the chef is a good one, and experienced, then his sous can trust that those orders will be smart and rational. But if the chef is bad or weak or drunk or crazy -- like Kurtz lounging bloated beneath his mosquito netting at the head of the Nung River -- then his sous becomes more like a haruspex, reading signs and portents in the pig's blood and trying to untangle the good orders from the bad ones, the brilliant from the suicidally stupid. It's an unenviable, but sometimes immensely entertaining, position to be in.

I was in that sort of spot -- commanding a very good line being pulled to pieces by a chef in the final stages of terminal meltdown -- when I had my kimchi experience. Guys were walking out on me left and right, talking treason over missing shipments of side towels (which the chef was hoarding in his office, doling them out like gold ingots in an attempt to keep linen costs down) and rotten shipments of produce signed for because the chef could get them at B-grade prices. I'd taken to hiring indiscriminately, bringing on board anyone who could sign his name and knew which end of a knife was the pointy one, because I knew that by the time his paperwork cleared, I'd inevitably be in desperate need of a body -- any body -- to fill space as a commis, busboy or dishwasher.

This was when Johnny, a Korean banquet captain who'd stuck it out for months, told me he had a brother (or cousin, I was never sure) who'd just walked out of the family restaurant where Johnny had worked and needed a job. Johnny said his brother (or cousin) "would do anything." I loved Johnny, because he was always smiling and, in a pinch, could cook when he wasn't out on the floor serving B-grade squash soup and watered-down mimosas to a businessmen's brunch. So I hired the guy sight unseen, telling Johnny to bring him in on Friday.

Friday came, and it was a disaster. I had three guys (myself included) working a line that needed eight, and one dishwasher -- Johnny's brother (or cousin) -- where there should have been three. And as much as I'd like to say he pulled off his dishwasher's jacket the minute things got rough and showed us the scarlet S on his Underoos, instead he was hopelessly buried, slammed by rack after rack of the wretched refuse of the restaurant industry. After we finished service at 11 p.m., my crew and I wiped down, and then I pitched in to help the new dishwasher. We were finished by 1:30 a.m., thanks to some last-minute assistance from Johnny. And then the brothers (or cousins) brought out their dinner...and the kimchi.

At the time, what little I knew about Korean cuisine came almost entirely from M*A*S*H reruns. But I did know the traditional method for preparing kimchi: You start with cabbage, preferably Chinese (or Napa), salt the hell out of it for a few days, pack it into a glass or pottery jar with some ginger root, garlic, green onions, a little sugar, maybe some sesame oil, raw white vinegar, rock salt and all the red chiles you can get your hands on. When all of the ingredients are sealed together in an airtight, waterproof, leak-proof receptacle, you bury said container like a land mine in an unmarked hole in your back yard. Then you move -- preferably to another province. Entire towns can be effectively depopulated during kimchi-burying season, with generations of new people moving in, wondering what in the hell that godawful smell is, then moving on again without ever figuring it out.

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