With Ajjuma, Sunny Lee Plans to Put Korean Sides Front and Center


The chef Sunny Lee, who will open her new restaurant Ajjuma this fall, with a selection of banchan dishes.

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

When the chef Sunny Lee was growing up in Andover, Mass., if her family wanted to eat Korean food, they had to make it at home. “I was always in the kitchen,” she said of her childhood, learning the tastes and textures of traditional dishes from the Korean side of her family: her father, grandmother, and aunts.

Upon arriving at the Culinary Institute of America, Ms. Lee, now 30, pushed Korean food to the back of her mind and mastered the school’s European curriculum, later shooting to the highest realms of fine dining. But after cooking at Blue Hill and Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, Dover in Brooklyn, and the kitchen of the avant-garde Paris chef David Toutain, she realized (at age 27) that she was already burned out on that style.

“There’s a disconnect between people and food once you enter fine dining,” she said. The kitchen becomes so focused on preparing the dish, she said, that “it’s easy to forget that you are actually doing this in order to feed the people in the dining room.”

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Living in New York, she said, got her hooked on Korean restaurants and the home-style food they served. “I noticed that the people I was eating with, whether they knew Korean food or not, would always light up when the banchan came,” she said. “It was like Christmas.”

Banchan are small side dishes that arrive unbidden with Korean meals, covering the table with different colors, ingredients and textures. Most banchan spreads include at least one type of kimchi, plus other pickles and salads, proteins like marinated tofu and salted fish, and steamed or stir-fried vegetables that change with the seasons. Most Korean restaurants in the United States use traditional ingredients to make banchan, and restaurants like Atoboy and Hanjan have incorporated their own spins on the dishes.

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