On the Line: Spencer Kim of Spencer's Bistro, Part One

Photo by Brian Feinzimer

Strong work ethic and passion for what you do are very important qualities every chef should have. While speaking to Spencer Kim, it was very apparent he possessed both. I learned how his family was an influence, as well as how that influence ultimately helped advance his career.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true. We are picky eaters. At least for me, that's not true. I am picky when it comes to creating dishes and cooking dishes for work. But if someone else is cooking a meal for me, I'm not picky at all. I'm just grateful that someone else is putting time and effort into a meal. Plus, I know a lot of my cooks and chefs that I've worked with (including myself), that partake in fast food restaurants every now and then.

Most undervalued ingredient: Peppercorn. There are lots of varieties of peppercorn; each with its own unique qualities that bring out the flavors of a dish just as much as salt.

One food you can't live without and why: Rice. I don't know why I can't live without rice other than the fact that rice is the only food that I know I will end up craving if I don't eat it for a while, consistently.

Describe the concept and cuisine at Spencer's Bistro. The cuisine at Spencer's is European with a twist of Asian. We do pretty much everything from scratch like our pita bread, yogurt for the tzatziki, fresh pasta, and marshmallow for our s'mores. We cook the dishes to order in order to ensure quality dishes. We do ask of our guests to order and pay first at the register such that they don't have the burden of tipping and waiting for the check at the end of the meal. We bring fine quality dishes at a very affordable price in a relaxed environment. Good food should be enjoyed by everyone.

Most popular items on the menu: Greek grilled chicken. Garlic herb-crusted white fish risotto. Milanesa sandwich. Mid-rare seared salmon pesto pasta (It's seasonal because all the basil used in the pesto is from my backyard garden.).

Your earliest food memory: Shrimp juk (Korean shrimp rice porridge). My grandma used to make it for me as a baby.

How did your parents influence your decision to become a chef? Both my parents cook all the time at home. They taught me the basics of cooking: skills, knowledge, philosophies, appreciation. I think it was these basics that drew my interest in the culinary arts to begin with. My father told me that if it weren't for his engineering career, he would have liked to go into the culinary field. It was all this and more that influenced my decision to aim and try to become a chef.

Tell us about your culinary school education. I attended Cypress Community College because the general manager at Coco's by Downtown Disney area said he would hire me if I can get him proof of culinary school enrollment, and Cypress College was the closest and cheapest school I could find on such short notice. But I am glad I went there because if it wasn't for the support and recommendation from the dean, Mike Bird, I wouldn't have ended up at Roy's, the place where I refined my skills tremendously.

Regarding your time at Roy's, what did you learn about the industry outside of the kitchen? The biggest thing I learned outside of the kitchen from Roy's was marketing. Aside from marketing, they have graciously exposed me to customer relations, front of the house logistics and training, and basics on bookkeeping. A lot of the ideas employed at my restaurant rooted from what I learned from Roy's.

Best culinary tip for the home cook: It's all about repetition. It'll get easier bit by bit the more you repeat a task or recipe.

Favorite places to eat. Zait and Zaatar, What's Up Men, and (I know, I know... but because of nostalgia) McDonald's.

What is your beverage of choice? Coca-cola in the glass bottle made from real sugar a.k.a. Mexican Cola. You can find it pretty much anywhere these days.

What challenges did you experience when opening Tommy Bahama (Laguna Beach), and how did you overcome them? Efficiency and training were some of the challenges we faced. It was thru trial and error that the kitchen became more efficient; everything from storage configuration to logistics and execution.

Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?): Family of three came in one night, they told us that their kid has coeliac disease, but loves pasta marinara. They asked if it was possible to make a gluten free pasta marinara. I couldn't say no to the request; the kid was too cute. I ended up making pasta using rice flour. And thankfully, the kid enjoyed it.

You're making breakfast. What are you having? Rice, go chu jang (Korean chili paste), sesame oil, and over easy egg. I don't know what it's called, but when it is mixed all together, it always hits home for me.

Your best recent food find: Toum from Zait and Zaatar. It's creamy, refreshing, and best of all, garlicky.

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about opening a restaurant? How much I'll appreciate silence.

Spencer's Bistro is located at 6084 Orangethorpe Ave, Buena Park, (714) 736-0557; www.spencersbistro.com.

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