In the world of fine dining, winning recognition from the James Beard Foundation could be likened to getting an Oscar nomination. It’s a really big deal.
So when it was announced last month that Joe Kim Jr., executive chef and co-owner of downtown Bend’s 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar, was the only Oregon chef outside of Portland to be nominated as a semifinalist for recognition as “Best Chef: Northwest,” it was a major coup.
Never before — not since the Beard Foundation began its national awards program in 1991 — has a Central Oregon chef been nominated for this award, which is regularly dominated by Seattle and Portland restaurateurs. In fact, Kim is only the sixth Oregon chef outside of Portland to gain this attention in the last 10 years.
There are 20 semifinalists in each region of the country. The 2014 Pacific Northwest list includes seven chefs from Oregon, 10 from Washington, two from Montana and one from Idaho. The number will be trimmed to five finalists Tuesday, with national winners to be honored in New York on May 5.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be included among the greatest chefs in the Northwest, let alone the country,” said the soft-spoken Kim. “It’s not something that happens on a regular basis, especially in Bend. We work hard, and I think it validates a lot of what we’ve done.”
The nomination is perhaps even more meaningful because the foundation’s namesake, James Beard, was an Oregon native. Some say he was the original American foodie.
Beard, who was born in Portland in 1903 and attended Reed College in the early 1920s, gained fame as an eccentric New York chef and food writer. By the 1950s, he had become a national personality, hosting the first cooking show on television. He died in 1985, and his cremated ashes were spread across the sands of Gearhart, on the Oregon Coast, where his family vacationed during his childhood.
Beard’s Greenwich Village brownstone, in the heart of New York City, thereafter became the home of the James Beard Foundation. Julia Child was among those who led the effort to purchase the home, North America’s only historical culinary center. On nearly every day of the year except Sundays, chefs from throughout the United States present multicourse dinners to guests who pay $170 and more, per plate, to sample their cuisine. Ariana and Andres Fernandez of Bend’s Ariana Restaurant have been offered that rare opportunity on April 5 (see box at right).
The awards program began in 1991 to honor culinary professionals of all stripes — not only chefs, but also beverage experts, journalists, designers and others involved with the restaurant business.
Kim, 32, was born in San Francisco into a multicultural household: His Korean father was born and raised in Osaka, Japan, and first came to the United States — to Silverton, just east of Salem — as a foreign exchange student in university. His mother was first-generation Irish-American.
“I was kind of the pingpong ball,” Kim said. “I bounced back and forth between the American and Japanese cultures. As I get older, I’m beginning to figure out who I am. It’s great to keep the parts of me that I feel are unique. I take everything that I love about French, Italian, Japanese and Korean cuisine to prepare what I feel is simply American food.”
Although he spent his teens working in the kitchens of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, Kim attended Oregon State University, graduating with a business degree in 2005. He quickly discovered that dressing in a coat and tie “just didn’t suit me,” and he returned to San Francisco to study Japanese cooking under Kazu Yamaguchi at the Kyoto Restaurant. That led him to travels in Europe and Asia, where he took careful notice of the cuisine along the way.
He came to Bend, and 5 Fusion, in early 2011, working first as a part-time sous chef before being elevated to executive chef within his first year. Last summer, he became a 50 percent owner of the restaurant.
“He had a passion to cook,” said 5 Fusion partner Lilian Chu. “He was too good to be just an executive chef, so I offered him a partnership. He is the soul of the kitchen. “
Kim credited Lilian and her husband, Chinese chef Mike Chu, with encouraging his professional growth. “Until I worked with Mike, I didn’t have a clear understanding of Chinese cooking,” Kim said. “It’s the way you treat the ingredients that makes Chinese food great. And I’ve learned that’s true of other styles of cooking, as well.”
Kim demonstrated his skill beyond the sushi bar at 5 Fusion’s monthly charity dinners, which since 2011 have raised $148,000 for 28 local nonprofits. These five- to seven-course wine-pairing dinners often bring local guest chefs to the fore, providing Kim new opportunities to learn from others.
And it’s that desire to learn that has quickly elevated him to elite status.
“I have a real drive right now,” he said, “and I don’t know what the end goal is. I want to become a better chef every day and to create something different that I’ve never seen before. When I have a truly unique idea, I’m very excited about it. Japanese culture is very ingrained in me — so I work every day to become the best I can be at what I do.”
Early last year, Kim spent individual weeks working in the kitchens of two of this country’s most acclaimed chefs, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. “These were chefs who I completely idolized growing up,” he said.
He took away the sense that cooking must be fun for the chef as well as the diner.
“I was reminded at Alinea that a dish triggers an emotion,” he said. “It may remind you of something from childhood, for instance. Different scents and flavors trigger memories.
“At the French Laundry, Chef Keller said we go to restaurants because we want to have a good time — so why not have fun with it? I think that’s maybe the biggest thing I learned. I can go ahead and pair tastes that may appear odd, but I’ll have a good time trying things.”
Now, he said, he has no boundaries as a chef. “There’s a lot of fusion confusion,” Kim said, “but I think that any good recipe, unless it is completely traditional, is fusion. I use whatever I can, whatever is new, exciting and tastes good. It’s the layers and subtleties of different foods that make diners take notice, more than any particular use of spice.
“I want diners to just sit and enjoy, to get lost in the company, the food, everything … I want to give them Neverland. And I want to be Peter Pan. I never want to grow up, and I want everyone else to be in Neverland with me.”
Kim will show off his culinary sensibilities June 9-10 to a panel of James Beard House visitors from New York and Seattle. Kim — who will turn 33 on June 9 — is turning the event into a two-day birthday party, and he’ll serve the same nine-course dinner to 25 guests both nights.
“I’m preparing a dinner that reflects my life as a chef,” he said. “I’m very excited.” He will be assisted by his 5 Fusion kitchen staff, which includes sous chefs Jake Starr, Remington Oatman and Hasani Davenport.
A limited number of tickets are available from 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar (www.5fusion.com). The meal includes wine pairing and tickets are $200, or $175 for James Beard Foundation members. Proceeds will provide scholarships to Cascade Culinary Institute students through the James Beard Foundation.
— Reporter: email@example.com