Under the Knife with Chef Joe Kim | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Under the Knife with Chef Joe Kim

Sometimes life happens while you're making other dishes

Joe Kim, chef at 5 Fusion, grew up in La Pine. Although he was born in San Francisco, his parents divorced when he was 6 and his mom moved to La Pine to raise Kim and his sisters. His mother never remarried, still lives in La Pine and has devoted her whole life to raising her family.

Kim's dad is Korean, but was born in Osaka, Japan, in a bomb shelter during World War II. He came to the United States as an exchange student from Kyoto University, met Kim's mom and married her. After the divorce, he remained in San Francisco to run his Japanese restaurant.

Kim spent school vacations in San Francisco cooking alongside his father in his restaurant in Oakland near Lake Merritt. He hated the long hours, and felt that this business was not for him. After graduation, he enrolled in business school and decided that life would be better spent in a suit and tie than a chef's coat.

He was wrong. After spending two years as a loan and stockbroker in San Francisco, he realized that it was cooking that made him genuinely happy, so he decided to buy an 85-seat Japanese restaurant of his own. In only four years, Kyoto Sushi in Pacific Heights grew from a fledgling business into a flourishing establishment. Then, the economy crashed, and like many restaurateurs, he felt the intense pinch.

In 2010, Kim retreated to Japan to live, learn and wait to see what life had to bring. But his sojourn only lasted a month. A few weeks after leaving the states, Kim's sister contacted him to report that his mother was gravely ill. His new plan: Return to Oregon and be with his mom until her health issues resolved. To keep himself busy, he took a job at 5 Fusion and Sushi Bar. It was meant to be temporary, until his mom recovered (she did). But in 2012, 5 Fusion owners Lillian and Mike Chu promoted him to executive chef, a role he retains today.

Although his main focus at 5 Fusion is high-end Asian fusion, Kim remains fascinated with the more molecular side of food, playing often with ingredients like agar agar, elaborate emulsifiers and liquid nitrogen. One of his longtime culinary idols is Chef Grant Achatz, executive chef of Alenia in Chicago, who is famous for his work in molecular gastronomy. After having the opportunity to work with Achatz he discovered that Achatz' inspiration was ignited by legendary chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.

A few months ago, Kim began contacting Keller, asking to shadow him in the kitchen at his famed Napa Valley restaurant. Chef Keller agreed, and Joe describes his experience as similar to playing football all your life and then suddenly being allowed to play in the NFL.

"For a chef it was the opportunity of a lifetime," explained Kim.

Recently, I was invited to attend one of 5 Fusion's fundraising dinners to benefit local charity Volunteer Connect at which Kim expertly showcased some of the dishes that the French Laundry is famous for. It was spectacular.

Later, I sat down with him to talk food, extreme fighting and snow peas.

The Source: I know Grant Achatz of Alenia in Chicago and Thomas Keller are your culinary idols. What chefs do you admire here in Bend?

JK: There are many restaurants here in Bend with different things I love to eat. When I want duck, I go to Zydeco; charcuterie, 900 Wall; and for carpaccio, I think Ariana has the best. Juri Sbandati makes the best gnocchi I have ever had, in New York or even Italy. His gnocchi with cuttlefish is superb.

What ingredients are you cooking with most right now?

Spring peas, fiddlehead ferns and fresh strawberries. I also work with a lot of Pacific yellowfin tuna and Australian Wagu beef. The best products are seasonal and consistently of high quality. Consistency is very important in the restaurant business.

Where do you shop for food in town?

I rarely cook food outside of the restaurant. At home, I'm not sure I have ever even turned on my stove. Newport Market always has quality ingredients, although I usually don't buy more that a bag of apples. Love the farmers market, too. Since it's so close by the restaurant, I can just pop over if I need some fresh ingredients.

What person would you most like to cook for?

Cooking for a famous person would be too much pressure. I just enjoy cooking for people who appreciate great food and flavors.

Last weekend on earth. Where would you eat?

I would go to New York or Tokyo. To me the two are interchangeable. I speak Japanese, so I could go anywhere in Tokyo. New York has every kind of food imaginable. It wouldn't be hard to find a great meal anyplace in New York.

If you were not a chef, what would be your dream job?

Cage fighter. It was my other career option, but my knees and shoulder needed surgery.


Yeah—It's big in Japan...that was part of the move.

What music inspires you when you are in the kitchen?

We listen to Pandora in the kitchen, and since our ages range from 18 to 45, we can be listening to anything from Barbie Girl to Metallica. A little Journey gets mixed in there, too. We just listen to whatever is on until someone can't tolerate it anymore.

What is your favorite cooking-themed movie?

I recently saw Spanglish with Adam Sandler. I thought it was the epitome of the life of a restaurant chef who is struggling to balance life and work. Sometimes the pressure of too much success can take away from the joy of what you do.

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