Steve Joo remembers exactly what he ate on his first visit to Chez Panisse.
It was 2006, the summer before Joo started at the New England Culinary Institute. He was visiting a friend in Berkeley. “We sat upstairs,” Joo said, “and had a wood-oven baked squid dish with potato coins, sungold tomatoes and aioli. It opened my eyes to something great.”
Joo had always been curious and excited about food. A religion and economics major at Oberlin, he abandoned his early plans of entering the church ministry and designed his senior term project around learning the craft of preparing sushi at a Japanese restaurant in South Carolina. By then, he already knew food was in his future, but it was that memorable meal in California that set Joo on a course to become the chef de cuisine at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Valley just a few years later.
And it was this meal that led him to meet another talented Bay Area chef named Julya Shin, with whom he’d start a California-Korean pop-up restaurant in Oakland called Nokni.
Inspired by his “mindblowingly great” meal at Chez Panisse, Joo spent his first externship in culinary school working at the legendary mecca for California cuisine. Shin had already been working there for three years, and under her and other chefs, Joo first learned the art of preparing the food that made such a deep impression on him.
Following Joo’s internship at Chez Panisse, he and Shin continued to cross paths in their personal and professional lives. After an internship at Terra in St. Helena (where, five years later, Joo would become chef de cuisine in 2012), he moved back to New England to finish school, but returned to the East Bay in 2008. Three years later, he worked at Pizzaiolo with Shin, who was then heading the kitchen at the popular Temescal restaurant. It was here that the idea for Nokni first sprouted between the two Korean-American chefs. Over the years, they’d talk about Korean food whenever they’d meet, trading memories and experiences of what they’d eaten. Joo lived in Korea for five years during his youth, and in 2013, he decided to go back. He lived in Korea for a year, to get an in-depth, first-hand education about his culture’s cuisine.
Shin admits she had a less holistic understanding of Korean food. Growing up in Baltimore, the Korean food she knew was informed by her great aunt on her mother’s side, who prepared dishes in the style of the region her family was from, Kaesong, North Korea, close to the border of South Korea. Her family ate “lots of wild greens, like wild watercresses,” and they never had gochujang (red chili paste).
Shin learned to cook from this great aunt, but she first got into the restaurant world as a way of getting by. In 1995, as a young artist who had studied printmaking in St. Louis at Washington University, she moved to Oakland because she liked the art scene here and it’s “so much better to be poor in California.” But she said, “I was a really bad artist.” Disenchanted by the insular art world, she enrolled in a culinary program at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Valley while she worked full-time restaurant gigs, working front of the house. “Waiting tables, managing front of the house, you feel more connected with people,” Shin said. “There was something very honest and direct about giving hospitality, as opposed to art.” Eventually, she transitioned to working in the back of the house. Her first line cook job was in Berkeley at Jim Masur’s long-gone Mezzini Trattoria, but she also spent time in the kitchens at Bay Wolf, Paula LeDuc catering and Lalime’s, before ending up at Chez Panisse in 2003, where she befriended Charlie Hallowell. Shin eventually would become chef de cuisine at two of Hallowell’s restaurants — Pizzaiolo and Penrose.
Although steeped in so much experience with California cuisine, Shin still thought a lot about Korean food. “Since I was finished with whatever I had to prove to myself at Pizzaiolo, when I heard that Steve was going to take some time off and go to Korea, I invited myself to visit him.” Shin spent two weeks with Joo, “eating through a lot of Korea.” She was amazed by the diversity and seasonality of the food there. “If it’s crab season, you know it’s crab season. During mugwort season — it’s in everything,” she said.
When Joo returned to the Bay Area in 2014, Shin was ready to move forward with Nokni. “I asked him point blank, ‘Should we open up a restaurant?’” They began to talk about menus, but also how their Korean restaurant would be different from the rest that already exist in Oakland and the Bay Area.
One particular restaurant in northern Seoul — Koong in Jongno-gu — was especially inspiring to Shin. “The feel of the place was really light and airy. The food felt healthy and thoughtful. The service was friendly and really efficient and welcoming, and the aesthetic of the place was so beautiful. At a lot of Korean restaurants here, you don’t get that whole package,” Shin said.
Shin and Joo don’t deny that there’s a craft behind the food that’s already being served at Oakland’s Korean restaurants. “It has a lot of heart. The food is really, really strong,” Shin said of Pyeongchang Tofu House on Telegraph Avenue in particular. And they do not claim to be pioneers of making their mark on Korean food. “FuseBOX did a great job,” Shin said of the West Oakland Korean restaurant that closed this April. “They had a lot of tongue-in-cheek dishes too.” But, generally, the menus at most Korean restaurants in the Bay Area are limited to the same standard dishes, like bulgogi, soondubu and bibimbap.
With Nokni, Shin and Joo want to create a “whole package” experience for diners, but also one that challenges and excites them as chefs to create beyond the standard fare. To push the boundaries of what people (including Koreans and Korean-Americans) expect and assume Korean food and ingredients to be. And to execute lovely, thoughtful presentations of the food, to best showcase its colors, textures and flavors.
In early June, Nokni popped up for two nights at the old Hina Yakitori’s space in Temescal (Hina is in the process of moving to a new space) for a coursed ssam dinner. Ssam, is a traditional style of Korean cuisine, where diners wrap bits of food in fresh lettuces, leafy greens, seaweed, thin rice sheets or other edible wrappers.
But Nokni’s ssam feast was anything but traditional. The menu included a housemade tofu, which looked as if an artful woodland fairy chef had prepared it. Wrapped in a dried fig leaf, the mildly flavored, supple block of tofu was topped with flower petals, morel and maitake mushrooms, wispy fennel fronds and fresh spring peas. Duck isn’t a common protein found on most Korean restaurant menus, but Nokni offered wood-smoked liberty duck at this meal as its main course. Its crispy bits of skin and fat, succulent flesh and gamey giblets were a natural fit to wrap up with a variety of fresh lettuces and greens. A smearing of pungent ssam-jang (fermented bean pepper paste) tied together each bite. Ssam is an signature dish for Nokni, Joo said, because it’s a fun, interactive and visually pleasing way to enjoy Korean food. Part and parcel of that whole package experience Nokni strives to be.
As for the name — Joo came up with calling his pop-up “Nokni,” but his niece came up with the word — Korean gibberish for “uncle.” Joo liked its playfulness. “In a way, it’s an analog to what we’re doing with our food,” he said. “It’s rooted in something Korean, but the food that we do isn’t exactly an existing vocabulary.”
If you have to define it, though, “California-Korean” is probably the best way to describe what Nokni is. “For better and for worse, when that label is thrown out, people get it, especially people from this area,” Joo said. Fresh ingredients are central to the food, like farm-direct produce from Riverdog, Full Belly and Terra Firma and local proteins sourced from Monterey Fish, Sonoma Poultry and Llano Seco.
Nokni is a pop-up for now, but Joo and Shin’s long-term goal is for Nokni to become a brick-and-mortar restaurant. They are already looking around for possible spaces, but they’re not in a rush. “As much as we want to find a brick and mortar and it’s on the front of our minds, there’s a lot of flux and changes happening. It’s like buying a house. You wait and see,” Shin said. Until then, they’re using this time as a pop-up as a learning experience — to better understand how they work together and can build on each other’s strengths. And a chance to experiment with their offerings.
After their early June coursed meal, they changed their format to a no reservations, casual counter-service dinner for their second series that month (June 22-24 at Hina). “Labor cost being one of the biggest challenges to a lot of restaurants, playing with that model has been really helpful. It’s been incredibly informative for us,” Shin said. They decided to continue this more casual, a la carte format for their July pop-up series at Hina as well as future events. At their most recent pop-up (July 17-19, 24-26), they served smoked kimchi-brined fried chicken, fried green beans with sesame corn pudding, fried okra, fried oysters, summer dwenjang (bean paste) ratatouille served with barley rice and vegetables, and their take on Korean drunk food, corn cheese pancakes, made with mung beans, cheese curds, Brentwood corn and kimchi.
“A lot of people want to really give voice to a lot of aspects of Korean food that aren’t being included,” Joo said. “For me, just by doing this work — figuring out the best way, the most delicious and fun way given our capacities — lends a point of view to that overall conversation about what Korean food can be.”
Nokni’s next pop-up will take place from 6-10 p.m. on Aug. 7-9. Find the menu and more details here.