This NYC Korean-Inspired Restaurant Pop-Up Is Not Afraid to Have Fun
With Doshi, Chef Susan Kim is creating her own playground.
After years spent working in restaurants—among them Chez Panisse, Agern, and Insa—chef Susan Kim has been using her pandemic time to finally launch her own business. But Doshi—short for doshirak in Korean, which means a packaged meal or boxed lunch—is not a restaurant of her own, but rather a roving Korean-inspired food pop-up with menus and locations that change.
As thousands of hospitality workers found themselves out of work due COVID-19 and its effect on the industry, many new pop-ups have emerged in New York City—some of them with the intent to become full-time businesses, not a temporary lifeline. But for Kim, the idea for Doshi came about before the pandemic. She just found herself suddenly having the time to actually act on it: “It’s been a slow ferment,” she says.
Though she purchased the domain and LLC for Doshi about a year before the start of quarantine, the concept of a lunchbox that is prepackaged has been a fortuitous plan during a global pandemic that has many working from home and eager for delicious and nutritious options.
This August, Doshi launched with a five day pop-up at Winner, a Park Slope bakery that also dared to open during the pandemic. The menu featured dishes such as crispy tofu with kimchi mayo; greens, beans, and garlic scapes with doenjang (a fermented soybean paste), sesame, and poppy seeds; an icy seaweed broth; and, a soy vinegar pickled egg with sungold cherry tomatoes, purple daikon, jalapeño, and onion.
Kim, who was born in Seoul, and raised in California, is quick to mention that her versions of doshirak may not be traditional, but they’re authentic to the kinds of meals she ate growing up in a working-class family that ate Korean dishes alongside Kraft singles that her mom would sometimes cut into equal parts and place over rice.
They also draw upon Kim’s seasonally-focused cooking ethos developed in her time in restaurants. “Working at Chez Panisse was foundational to my approach to cooking—regardless of the kinds of cuisine we were learning about which there is seasonal California cooking with touches of French and Italy,” she says of her time spent at Alice Water’s acclaimed spot. “Those skills you can apply to any cooking methodology—i.e. Korean food for me—it helps you think with intuitiveness and make smart decisions.” After starting off as a garde manger and eventually working her way up to manning the grill station, she got poached by Claus Meyer, who was heading to New York to open Agern, hot off his success as a co-founder of Noma.
She began working on his new restaurant in 2016. It was “a bit of shocking change” for Kim. For one, the restaurant used electric stoves and sous vide machines, rather than the open-fire grill she had been trained on. And the food itself, while stunning and artistic, was not “craveable,” like the scolding hot pot she’d head out to eat at Koreatown’s BCD Tofu House after she had punched out.
Once Agern earned three stars from the New York Times, she left, eager to try out different parts of the food world that were more flexible than what the restaurant model offers. “I saw a freelance hustle here that was very different from what I was aware of in California, which was mostly private chefs or working at tech companies,” she says of finding work as a food stylist and working on cookbooks, while balancing working on the team at Insa, a Korean barbecue restaurant. But that year, taking a trip to Korea, where her parents had returned to live, was really the seed of Doshi.
“It was seeing how room temperature, transportable food can be such a pleasurable experience,” she says. Doshirak can be found everywhere from convenience stores and train stations. “It’s a way of life there.”
Aesthetics are important: each doshirak is “not sound cliche, but like a wrapped gift,” she says.
And though they can often be presented with compartments, Kim doesn’t use separators; she's not afraid if her dishes touch. Getting a little messy is part of the fun and she wants each bite to be kind of like a “choose your own adventure.”
“When I was getting stressed about Doshi things at the beginning, my friend was like, “we’re just playing,” and I loved that.” Play—both the ability to have fun with her cooking and playing well with others whom she collaborates with—is essential.
Since launching at Winner, she’s held events out of Hunky Dory in Crown Heights, and Kitty’s in Hudson, as well as collaborated with a natural dyer, Kalen Kaminski of Upstate, offering her boxes wrapped in stylish tie-dyed bojagi cloth for pick-up. With each event, her menu changes by what equipment is available in their kitchen. “It almost a way to curate. Seeing what they have helps you pair down a lot of things,” she says. Hunky Dory, for example, has a professional fryer, which allowed Kim to highlight market vegetables like fried eggplant, squash, and peppers with a perilla corn daenjang dipping sauce, to complement owner Claire Sprouse’s cocktails.
Sometimes Kim still misses the community and consistency of restaurants—“pop-ups can get lonely”—but she appreciates the mobility and freedom of the Doshi structure, and is excited that with each new location she enters, she meets new people in the neighborhood. She’s been struck by how business owners have generously offered up their space to her, especially as a new, untested concept. Her dream pop-up? Hosting an event at H Mart.
Though Kim imagines that she may want to evolve to have her own production space with a public-facing to-go window, for now, she is happy. “After that initial pop-up at Winner, even though I was exhausted, I found myself walking home and voguing while listening to Black Parade,” she says. “This is a playful and spiritual return for me, no matter how it grows.”