Kimchee, the spicy Korean delicacy of fermented cabbage and assorted veggies, and Chef Boyardee, hold divergent yet profound influences in the life of writer and restauranteur Sang Kim, who runs the Windup Bird Cafe in downtown Toronto.
"I actually thought Chef Boyardee was real," said Kim, whose childhood after coming to Canada with his parents from Korea in 1975 was marked by poverty, hardship and those red cans of ready-to-eat-meals. His parents' marriage dissolved in those early years as well.
Growing up in Toronto's hard-bitten Jane-Finch corridor with a mother who worked three jobs and two younger siblings, Kim was tasked at an early age with filling the family cupboards at the end of the month when the money ran out. He would steal food and most of it was KD and Chef Boyardee, the stuff he saw in advertisements. He would also hang out at the York Woods Library -- an oasis during his teen years that gave birth to his love of literature.
"I really missed having family dinners," recalls Kim. "In the first four years of my life in Korea, I lived with my grandparents in their farm outside of Seoul while my parents worked in the city. My grandmother was a true matriarch -- she had seven daughters and everything centred on food."
Kim says his grandmother, who died in 2002, was the one who helped foster his interest in food and community.
"Kimchee-making is an act of love and of community," he noted. "The women would gather at the end of a harvest and make it together. They would vent, gossip -- you know, hang out. My grandmother was like the matriarch of the village, all the women were her daughters."
Eventually, Kim got the family recipe from her, when he was in his 20s.
Building community through food and literature
"That's what I'm doing, in some ways: I'm trying to re-create the experience of family dinners," he said in reference to Windup Bird Cafe, a corner meeting place on College Street near Bathurst, just a stone's throw from the city's famous Kensington Market. "It's an age-less, perennial ritual -- I want people to come to my restaurant and feel comfy, to feel at home, just like they're having their family dinners."
Diners enjoy Windup Bird's first literEATure night on Jan. 12. Photo: Justin Lauzon
Kim -- whose fictional writings include A Dream Called Laundry and Ballad of a Karaoke Cowboy in addition to being a winner of the Gloria Vanderbilt Short Story Prize for "When John Lennon Died" -- opened Windup Bird in late 2013 in order to combine his two loves: food and literature.
Regular monthly events include: the Best Canadian Poetry Reading series, the Shine & Dine series for Hungry Post-Sec Student Writers, Birds of a Feather, which gets people to perform their stories based on a theme, and Cook/Book in which writers prepare their favourite dishes with Kim (participants have included Katherine Govier, George Elliot Clarke and in December, Susan Swan who created an old-fashioned Christmas dinner based on the one mentioned in her book The Western Light).
"For me, food and writing are acts of community," explained Kim. "The act of writing is sacramental, like cooking. They are both intended for public consumption and if you bring the ingredient of love to writing and food, those acts become quite beautiful."
For 2015, Kim has launched yet another series, literEATure in which a set of courses is inspired by a notable book -- flipping between a Canadian novel one month and then an international novel the next. For the first incarnation of the series, Kim chose the restaurant's namesake, The Windup Bird Chronicle by Japan's Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, After Dark, Kafka on the Shore).
Photo: Justin Lauzon
And, how does one create a menu based on a novel? There are certain references to food in the book, Kim pointed out.
"In the opening of the book, the protagonist is making spaghetti and gets a phone call. Murakami brings the reader right into the character using this device where the character is doing something regular but in the story, someone performs phone sex and then there's a missing cat, etc… Food is an entry point to engage quickly in the world of his stories," said Kim.
Some of items on the Jan. 12 menu (concocted with the aid of his chef and partner Yumiko Kobayashi) included spaghetti, Hsinking Chinese soup (a reference to the capital of Manchuria, which figures heavily in the book) and Malta's Moussaka (the psychic Malta Kano in the book). The meal was finished off with Cinnamon Nutmeg Banana Cheesecake (i.e. the characters of Nutmeg and her deaf son, Cinnamon).
The 16 diners were also entertained by the presence of Ted Goossen, a York University professor and one of Murakami's main English translators.
Ted Goossen, one of Haruki Murakami's main English translators, joined the diners for literEATure. Photo: Justin Lauzon
"It was a great night," said Kim. "Ted and I parried and discussed Murakami and virtually all the diners had read the book so they also chimed in."
Next on the menu
The cafe is a culmination of a dream for Kim, in which he envisioned a "cozy space for the community to experience literature."
The next Cook/Book will feature Vancouver's Madeleine Thien (Simple Recipes, Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter). And on Feb. 9 the cafe will host its next Birds of a Feather storytelling series which will focus on the topic of love.
Next up for literEATure? Montreal writer Rawi Hage's Cockroach (Hage's De Niro's Game captured the €100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008).
"There will be insects on the menu -- I just don't know what yet but creating this menu will be challenging," admitted Kim, who's working on two writing projects: his trilogy of "Holocaust plays" which touch upon Korean comfort women, the Nazis' extermination of Jews and the horrors of the Rwandan civil war, and his memoir, Woody Allen Ate My Kimchee.
There's always a circling back to the memory of his grandmother and kimchee -- where food and community are intimately intertwined.
"I used to go to these Korean-Canadian church camps in Canada as a kid and while everyone else was skiing or hiking, I was the nerd. I wanted to hang out with [the women making food]," reminisced Kim, who holds a monthly Kimchee Making Club.
"I loved standing at the back of the room watching the mothers and grandmothers on their haunches gathered around tubs making kimchee. I loved the joy and ceremony of it."
June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.
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