Amidst the chaos that usually marks the eve of a new launch, Chef Boo Kim is a beacon of calm as he greets me at his restaurant—Dirty Buns—in Lower Parel, Mumbai. The place is almost ready and, despite the name, it is a clean and classy space with wooden interiors stencil-graffitied walls and an elegant bar counter, held up by white pillars and arched bar cabinets. No stuffed shirts here though; the vibe is entirely groovy, as revealed by the ‘Let’s get dirty’ sign, emblazoned in neon pink right up front, a disco ball towards the room’s end and a wall of carefully curated Hollywood nostalgia.
“I just wanted to create something that’s friendly to everyone. But messy while you eat it!” he tells me, gesturing to the sign. For a few years now, Kim has been a fixture in Mumbai’s hospitality scene, having worked at Bandra’s seafood hotspot Bastian. Last year he booked a one-way ticket to his hometown Chicago, planning to take a break from the culinary world. But when an opportunity to venture out on his own came along, he was back on familiar professional turf.
Kim hopes Dirty Buns will be the Cheers for Lower Parel’s office-goers, where everybody knows their name; a place where the late-shift crowd can loosen their ties, slip off their heels and bite into a hearty (and messy) sandwich. “We’re talking hip-hop nights, 1990s playlists, classic jams. You’ll even find me behind the counter shaking up something good,” he says with a grin. Perhaps a Dirty Boo, the signature martini that’s Kim creation?
Dirty Buns opened on June 27th and, now that the frenzy of its opening is over, the chef—who loves to travel—is probably getting his suitcase prepped to hit the road. But before that, he sat down with National Geographic Traveller India to talk about interesting journeys, from the past and, no doubt, the future.
When was the last time you travelled? Did you eat anything that stood out from that trip?
My last trip was in 2018, when I went to Thailand for about three weeks. I love Thailand, all the street food is amazing. That has inspired some of the flavour profiles I’m trying to do over here (at Dirty Buns). Another place that I travelled back to was Chicago, my home and a land of great sandwiches. After I left Mumbai last year, I went to Chicago to be with my family. What I realised, once I was back there, was how much I missed sandwiches. Not only does a good sandwich satisfy me but it is simple and easy to make. My personal favourite is a meatball sandwich, which is so tasty and can be made quickly without much hassle. My menu here has been influenced by keeping it simple and easy.
What’s your favourite travel destination for food?
I guess I’d have to say it’s one part of America. Honestly, Chicago is a huge source of inspiration. I try to go back every six months, and from there I travel to New York, Los Angeles and the other big cities of the United States. Wherever I go, I sample so many different types of foods. It is this variety which I’m trying to bring over here. A few of the dishes on my menu are inspired by food from the west coast (of the U.S.A.) and then there’s the ‘comfort food’ that we’re serving here, buns and rolls influenced by food from the Midwest.
On the road, what kind of food do you enjoy?
I love mom-and-pop shops, the smallest stalls in the corners of roads. Fine-dining restaurants have their own charm, but there’s the whole hassle of making reservations well in advance… and again, I’m a go-with-the-flow guy, so I don’t like planning ahead.
Since your heritage is part-South Korean, how has that influenced your cooking?
My grandma, mum and sister all taught me how to cook South Korean food. While growing up, I would help my mom, grandma and aunts in the kitchen for Sunday dinners and family get-togethers. I have learned a great deal from them, especially my grandmother. From her, I picked up my attention to detail and passion for cooking. Whenever I’d go back home, my sister, mum and me would have a fun food competition to humour each other. We’d all make different versions of the same dish, because I wanted to experiment beyond the traditional flavours used in South Korean food. I wanted to bring those roots here, and make people understand what real South Korean food tastes like; strong pungent flavours of kimchi, my special Korean fried chicken and more—all the while using olive garnishes and a special kind of pickle. All tied together under baos and buns, which are a tasty and messy treat.
In India, what’s your favourite Indian city for food?
There’s still a lot of India left to discover for me–in fact, I’m planning on a pan-India tour next year, where I’ll start with the North East and then go to Kerala. Within India, my go-to place would be Mumbai, at a South-Indian joint called Dakshinayan in Juhu. I love dosas and idlis. When I go over there, I get myself a big two-feet long sada dosa. Then I sprinkle some gunpowder on it and scarf it down with some sambar and chutney.
Is there a destination you keep returning to? Why?
Thailand. I love that place, especially Bangkok. I have a friend who owns a restaurant there, which was awarded a Michelin star just last year. That’s my go-to haunt, after which I just hop on a boat to travel to one of the nearby islands, so I can relax by the beach and forget about everything for a little while.
While you travel, what’s typically on the itinerary for you?
I don’t really go by an itinerary. For instance, when I go to Bangkok, I don’t go to any restaurants other than my friend’s. Mostly, I just set out for a walk around the hotel or hostel that I’m staying at, and that itself is an adventure for me. While I’m walking, I take in the sights and think to myself, ‘Oh that looks good’, and ‘Oh that tastes good’. Every street has a new range of food items and everything is always so unique and tasty.
What to you is the most exciting destination for street food?
I’m torn between Mumbai and Bangkok as my favourites. In Mumbai, the choice is easy—Neelam Foodland in Khar, a haven for chaat-lovers. This is where I scarf down my favourite sev puri and pani puri. Actually, I work out right next door to Neelam’s. So after my workout, when I’m famished, I just walk next door and treat myself to some sev puri and samosas.
As for Bangkok, the city is amazing. Walk down a street and there’s a guy selling Pad See Ew (Thai stir fry noodles) in one corner, another selling chicken wings and just two shops down… one selling salad. So, within 100 feet, you can get a full meal, all within five dollars. The best part is you can wash down this feast with a creamy iced-coffee.
What do you seek out more when you travel: nature, culture or adventure?
I seek culture. Every part of a country you go to is different. Everyone makes their own version of the same thing. That’s what I’m trying to do over here. I take the classic items, but I put my own spin on everything.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.