Our interview this month is with Lee Kim, the talented chef who is currently breathing new and exciting life into the menu offerings at Burattino Brick Oven Pizza through his usage of unique topping combinations and ingredients (the most compelling among the latter would have to be the wild boar meat sausage and pepperoni). Chef Kim talked with us on topics ranging from his process when it comes to creating the restaurant’s “Limited Edition” menu, to how his background as a competitive martial artist influences his kitchen discipline, and much more.
FlavorfulWorld.com: Your establishment is doing its part to tackle an ongoing problem with wild boar overpopulation by being the first L.A. pizzeria to serve wild boar pepperoni and sausage on its pizzas. Tell us how you came to this solution, and how you moved it from concept to implementation.
Chef Kim: One night I was watching a local new channel. They were talking about how wild boar population is out of control and how they don’t know what to do about it. I thought: “ wow, that’s a lot of gourmet meat running around! I bet it would taste great on a pizza!” At the time I just started working on our Limited Edition menu, so the part of my brain responsible for producing pizza recipes immediately connected the dots. The very next day, I started putting together a list of ingredients for a gourmet wild boar pizza, and soon we had our first item on the Limited Edition menu: Wild Boar Sausage & Black Garlic.
My partner, Emil Chiaberi, loved the idea of the Limited Edition menu, but he also thought that its appeal would be limited mostly to foodies. He suggested that if we really want to popularize wild boar, we should go with a topping that everyone already loves and understands – pepperoni. Pepperoni, of course, is by far the most popular pizza topping in the US.
However, wild boar pepperoni wasn’t readily available. Unlike sausage, which is relatively easy to make, pepperoni, requires a more complex cooking process. Because there was no existing demand for wild boar pepperoni, none of the meat processors wanted to experiment with it. Finally, my partner found a supplier in Illinois who was willing to give it a try. And that’s how we became the only pizza restaurant that makes wild boar pepperoni pizza. By the way, our supplier still doesn’t list wild boar pepperoni on their website. They make it especially for us. My partner turned out to be 100% right – Wild Boar Pepperoni outsells Wild Boar & Black Garlic by about 20 to 1.
Wild boar overpopulation is a serious issue. But frankly, I’m not an environmental activist. I’m a pizza activist who is more concerned with overpopulation of boring pizzas than boars. But I am a friend and inhabitant of the environment, so when my pizza is environmentally sound, it’s a win and love it.
FW: You’ve competed internationally on Uzbekistan’s Taekwondo team. How has the discipline and training involved with that pursuit prepared you for life as a chef and restaurateur, and what parallels have you found between the two endeavors?
CK: Martial arts have been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember myself. It formed my character and my approach to everything. Martial arts taught me respect, which is very important when you work with people. It taught me discipline and focus, which, gave me my work ethic. It taught me that mistakes cannot be separated into big and small, because even a very minor mistake can have dire consequences. Thanks to my training, I know how to organize and prioritize my time, but never disregard even the smallest detail of the smallest task. You learn to appreciate precision – that every millisecond, millimeter, and milligram counts. So, it’s respect to all, discipline and focus, precision, attention to detail, organization, and tenacity. I think these are all good qualities for an aspiring chef to have.
FW: What has been the most unanticipated aspect of venturing into the culinary professional world? If you could offer one piece of pertinent advice to your younger self on the first day of your restaurant’s journey, what would it be, and why?
CK: Before I became a restaurant owner I’d already managed it for over 3 years, so from a purely operational stand point there were few surprises. The unanticipated aspects were psychological ones. I’ve never owned a business before, so I didn’t quite understand the difference between people working with you vs people working for you. Before, I was only responsible for myself and my family. All of a sudden, I was responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing, both financial and emotional. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of pressure, and it took me a bit of time to adjust. If I could transfer one knowledge to my younger self, it would be the understanding of the difference between being a manager and being a boss.
FW: Lingonberries, duck prosciutto, and dried persimmons are just a few of the more exotic ingredients you utilize when topping your pizzas. What is your process, regarding flavor combinations, for putting together ingredients whose tastes complement one another?
CK: My goal is to always create excitement, to give my customers something they’ve never tried before. Usually, I get an idea for the main ingredient and then build around it. But perhaps “build” isn’t the right word here. I imagine around it. The process is about following your intuition and, I’m not afraid to use this word, inspiration. I also love studying history of different ingredients – where they came from, how they are being produced, what place they occupy in different cultures. This is not advice or recommendation, it’s just something I like doing. I feel that it gives me context and inspiration. Sometimes, it evolves into a consistent theme. For example, Venison & Lingonberried Brie has a distinct Scandinavian spirit. At other times, different cultures harmoniously fuse on my pizza crust.
FW: The Burattino website calls you Burattino’s “Pizza Artist.” Aside from toppings selection and arrangement, what aspect(s) of pizza-making do you feel provides you the greatest degree of artistic license, and how do you apply that license in a way that allows it to keep evolving?
CK: Cooking is more than combining ingredients and following recipes. It’s part artistry and part magic. Different people can (and do) take the same recipe and same ingredients, and produce very different results. Every famous chef has a recipe book out. It doesn’t mean you can buy it and become a chef.
The phrase “we use only the best, freshest ingredients” are the most overused words in the pizza business. Cooking is much more than combining ingredients. It may work for those who don’t understand or don’t care about the difference between good and great. Using the best ingredients is a good start. To make great food you must possess some sort of talent, a bit of a magic touch if you will. I dare to believe I have it.
The only rule that applies to any art is that it’s interesting and that it works. In the case of culinary art specifically, the only end result that matters is joy. I can’t deliver it, if I don’t feel it myself. To feel it, I must be inspired. Anything that involves inspiration is artistic in nature. I can’t use a machine to make my crust. Nor can I put the process on a conveyer.
FW: Some of your more inventive pizza toppings are found on the Limited Edition menu. How long does a pizza typically spend in rotation as a limited-edition option? How are new pizzas evaluated before earning a place on that menu?
CK: We don’t have a rotation planogram. The only rule we go by is excitement, meaning a pizza stays on a menu for as long as it remains exciting to both my customers and myself. Our Limited Edition Menu is still new, all of the items are in high demand, I personally get a huge kick out of making them, so we have no plans to eliminate any of them. But I do have some new intriguing ideas, so there will definitely be a few new items soon.
FW: Wild boar seems like a versatile and healthy alternative to standard pork. What can we look forward to as far as forthcoming menu items that might feature wild boar meat in different forms?
CK: A combination of wild boar and caramelized apples is very appealing to me, so that’s definitely something I’m going to explore. There may be some additional dishes, like wild boar sausage sandwich and wild boar sliders, but I’m not sure yet, because I try to keep non-pizza items to a minimum.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
CK: “High Kick: A journey from a martial artist to a pizza artist for dummies.”
FW: When you aren’t cooking/eating delicious things, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
CK: Playing with my two daughters, exercising, making extensive use of Google to learn about cooking and history of culinary arts.
*Note to readers: Learn more about talented pizza artist Chef Lee Kim and see the latest pizza creations that Chef Kim is throwing down by visiting https://www.burattinopizza.com/. That’s also a good place to read up on the nutritional facts about the virtues of wild boar meat. You can also follow Burattino on Facebook and swing by YouTube to catch glimpses of the chef doing his thing in the restaurant kitchen and see the vast variety of pizzas he’s put together.
This article first appeared on FlavorfulWorld.com.