DongJo Kim: kitchen visionary


When DongJo Kim came from South Korea to the United States to attend the University of Utahhe couldn’t cook as much as a scrambled egg.

Within two years, Kim was drawing up plans to open her own restaurant. Now, nearly four years later, he has more than 7,000 Instagram followers jump at the chance to eat his food.

Kim brought a bite of Korea to Allegheny County through her food in October 2020 with an unconventional take on an American classic — corndog.

Although many who taste Kim’s food will tell you that her food truck, named The BoonSeek, was destined to be a hit, Kim thought otherwise when it first opened at the height of the pandemic. of COVID-19.

After building his business over the past two years, loyal customers gather in huge lines outside the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum to eat his food. The menu features three variations of corn dogs, as well as traditional Korean street food.

Kim majored in chemistry in college, but instead of studying the periodic table, he was much more interested in honing his new found passion for cooking. Kim said he was motivated to cook after dreaming about the food he grew up with.

“You know, first I started cooking because it was cheaper, and then I started missing food from back home,” Kim said. “I used to try to watch videos to learn Korean cuisine and I started loving cooking more and more.”

Romita Das | senior photographer

Kim met his wife, SuOk Lim, while he was in college and moved to Pittsburgh to support her while she studied at Pitt to earn her master’s degree in social work. Meanwhile, Kim said he continued to create his own recipes while working at a Korean restaurant and started dreaming of opening his own restaurant.

“I started working at a Korean restaurant in Pittsburgh, and I had been cooking for a while, so I wanted to open my own restaurant so I could help introduce more people to Korean cuisine,” Kim said.

Kim decided to take a leap of faith and attempted to open his own restaurant in December 2019. The pandemic hit soon after and Kim said it was “painful” when he had to scrap his plans.

“It was a little painful when the pandemic hit because it was obviously a blockage for my goals,” Kim said. “I wasn’t very optimistic because the pandemic started, and I saw so many restaurants and businesses closing because all the people stopped eating out and were so scared, so I thought that it was not the right time to open a restaurant. ”

For a few months, Kim said he felt completely “lost.” His well-laid plans and dreams seemed threatened as he watched other restaurants fail during the pandemic.

“When the pandemic started and I saw the lockdowns, I felt really lost and I didn’t know what to do anymore,” Kim said. “I knew I couldn’t open a restaurant at the time, but I didn’t want to give up on my dream.”

Lim said she saw her husband lose hope and decided she would help him through the odds, guiding him towards opening a food truck. Lim said she thought a food truck would be a better start for him at the time because it seemed like a lower risk.

“I felt really bad for him because he had worked so hard to get his restaurant and the pandemic kind of ruined a lot of that hope, but I didn’t want him to give up, and so I tried to think of ways to help her. “, Lim said. “I thought a food truck would be easier to start because people still need food, and it was kind of like a curbside pickup, so it would be good for the pandemic. , so I told him to try to start a food truck.”

Lim said he saw a newly invigorated spirit in Kim as he began testing recipes and preparing for the opening of his food truck.

“He started getting excited about the food truck idea, and I saw a new change in him,” Lim said. “He started to have more hope and started creating new recipes and ideas that would be better for a food truck.”

Kim said he was grateful for his wife’s unwavering faith in his success. He fed on his strength to conquer his fears and eventually spent his life savings on his food truck.

Romita Das | senior photographer

“My wife helped me a lot, and because of the pandemic, I couldn’t really afford to hire people, so she offered to help me get started and it felt good to see how much she believed in me,” Kim said.

Despite the pandemic forcing many restaurants to close, Kim opened her food truck window in March 2020 at the height of the closings. He installed his truck in front of Lawrenceville’s 11th Hour Brewery, where he was waiting for his first customers. Kim said the first few hours were agonizing as he waited for someone to take a chance and try his food.

“I was really worried when I first opened because I was afraid that no one would come, especially because there were no students, and while I was waiting I had always scared that I made a mistake,” Kim said.

Finally, he served his first customer, then his second, then a swarm of people at lunchtime. At the time, Kim said he felt overjoyed and shared his happiness with his wife via text message amid orders.

“Then after a while a customer came and then they kept coming and there were lines because they liked my food,” Kim said. “I was so happy and I kept texting my wife while she was in class because I was so happy they liked my food.”

Lim said she felt enormous pride when she heard people were lining up for her husband’s food.

“He kept texting me saying, ‘A customer came by’ and ‘They liked the food,’ and I felt so proud of him because he was so happy and I just saw how much his hard work has paid off,” Lim said.

Kim said that after that day, the lines kept forming. Her cooking has become a new trending spot, with customers posting her creations online.

“My customers, they seem to really like my food, and, you know, I have very loyal customers that I see all the time, and they’ve really helped me on social media and on campus because they talk to people about my food,” Kim said. “Every time I come back to campus, I see even more people waiting to try my food than before and it’s because of the support from my customers.”

Kim’s business has exploded and he now employs two people and is looking to hire another employee to help manage the order flow.

Javes Ahn, one of his employees, said Kim’s work ethic is inspirational and considers Kim a food visionary.

“You know, I started working at the food truck because I thought it would be fun, and I’m glad I did it because DongJo works so hard, and it’s super inspiring because you can see at how happy he is doing his job,” says Ahn. “He clearly loves food, and he often gets creative with his menu and he clearly has a good idea of ​​what kind of food people will like.”

Kim said that in light of his success, he is now looking to the future and hopes to open another food truck. But he hasn’t given up on his restaurant dream either.

“I want to open another food truck so I can do lunch and dinner shifts at both the brewery and the university,” Kim said. “I also want to hire more employees so I can work more on the business itself and open more trucks or even maybe a restaurant hopefully in the future.”

Both Kim and Lim said they are grateful to their loyal customers, who call themselves “BoonSeekers”. They said they couldn’t have done it without their support.

“We owe a lot to our customers and followers on Instagram, who we call BoonSeekers,” Kim said. “Thanks to their encouragement and advice for our business, we were able to survive the pandemic.”

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