Reviewed Food: Ruxbin

By Brian Min

Ruxbin, 851 N Ashland Ave Chicago, 312-624-8509
Hours: Tues–Sun 5:30-10:00pm, Closed Mon

All it takes is a trip to Ruxbin‘s lone bathroom, where a revolving refurbished darkroom door leads into a restroom plastered with an eclectic hipster menagerie of concert posters, to convince you that you’ve come upon something unique.

“It should be a clusterfuck, but it makes sense,” explains Ruxbin’s chef and co-owner Edward Kim, referring to Davide Nanni’s (Salvage One) interior design. “It’s a cacophony of dissonant sounds, images, and different pieces that shouldn’t work, but it does. There’s something sophisticated about it.”

Should Nanni’s work stand as a testament to Ruxbin’s DIY-attitude, then it’s perfectly suited for the space. After all, it’s not often a restaurant in Chicago comes to fruition in the midst of a recession without a star chef or restaurant group at the helm. But since Ruxbin opened last July, the BYOB eatery has been a surprise and steady success, spearheading Noble Square’s recent revitalization along with Rob Levitt’s (Mado) new meat emporium, The Butcher & Larder, and Frontier, the latest gastro-tavern concept from Mark Domitrovich (Lottie’s Pub, The Pony Inn). There’s a refreshing Midwestern pragmatism to Ruxbin that proliferates from the philosophies of Chef Kim, who also represents the restaurant’s nostalgic namesake (kids called him Teddy Ruxpin back in elementary school).

Kim doesn’t come across as your prototypical chef; polite, soft-spoken, all too willing to share a fresh press of Julius Meinl coffee, and whose only common vice with fellow industry “riff-raff” appears to be a morning cigarette. In that context, Kim’s culinary ascent also seems unconventional despite the recent surge of career changers and fame seekers still basking in the afterglow of Top Chef. A product of Stevenson High School and a political science major from NYU, Kim had already made significant strides in the financial sector working with JP Morgan Chase before trading in his business suits for chef whites at the California School of Culinary Arts (now Le Cordon Bleu of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles) to pursue his long-standing passion for food. Following an externship at Thomas Keller‘s Per Se in New York City, Kim returned to L.A. to work at Elements Kitchen Catering, Mason G, and with close friend Jason Park at Maru before flying off to Seoul to assist with his uncle’s bakery and learn trade family secrets about traditional Korean cuisine. Yet, despite the extent of his culinary experience, Kim admits the transition was far from seamless.

“I was at JP Morgan Chase and making a lot more money,” Kim explains. “Going from that to working a 16 hour day, being cited for 12, paid for 8, and from those 8 hours only being paid minimum wage and sometimes nothing, that’s hard to deal with especially if you’re young. It’s a lot of sacrifice.”

Which is true of an industry so misconstrued by outsiders who romanticize chefs as bohemian artists. A misnomer, Kim points out, who draws stronger parallels to the traditional kitchen brigades in Ratatouille and the notion of chefs as craftsmen constantly working to perfect their trade.

Rather than continuing restaurant life behind the line, Kim took to a bolder task: opening his own place along with his sister Vicki (head of Ruxbin’s business operations and managing partner) and a former third partner. But nearly four years ago, Ruxbin wasn’t a restaurant at all with the original concept being a beverage-driven tea concept based in L.A., and as the economy began to deteriorate, so did plans for the tea concept as the group’s SBA loan was taken away, leaving them with the sad conclusion that they could no afford to open on the West Coast. The unfortunate turn eventually caused the third partner to leave and forced Edward and Vicki to reevaluate their original business plan in lieu of a more ambitious full-service restaurant.

“As we witnessed the economy unravel, we figured artisan beverages were more of a luxury. Maybe people would no longer go to Starbucks for a latte, but they would still have to eat.”

Thus, L.A. was scraped in favor of Chicago where a new partnership was formed with Jenny Kim (head of Ruxbin’s FOH operations and managing partner, but unrelated to Edward and Vicki) who was also looking to open a restaurant, and after a frantic search throughout the city, the three signed the papers for their current location not three days after seeing the space.

“It was an emotional decision for everyone,” Kim recalls. “The entire process was crazy and we were about to call it quits. All of our friends knew we were planning on opening a restaurant, but it was taking so long that we wouldn’t even want to see them because it was getting so embarrassing.”

Still, the process had only begun and became a well-chronicled series in the restaurant’s blog, which acted as a refreshingly honest account of the numerous issues the three faced during Ruxbin’s construction. Yet, the group remained positive with the support of their friends and family, a sentiment that would help strengthen their resolve (“Desperation is a strong driving factor!”) and commitment to hospitality.

“One of the things I constantly remind everyone is that, especially with the bad economy, how often do people go out to eat,” Kim asks. “Once a week? Once a month? If you do poorly or don’t put your best effort into it, you just ruined someone’s night. Everybody deserves that little escape once in awhile, especially when money is hard. If not, it’s just a drain on yourself.”

When Kim isn’t leading the kitchen staff (“No job is below me. If the floor needs to be cleaned, I’m going to get on my hands and knees and scrub it!”), he’s leading diners through seasonal menus based on comfort classics with a twist, such as his signature chicken & waffles: a pan-seared chicken breast, carnitas-style dark meat confit, and a cheddar-cumin waffle topped with an apple-red onion compote and a citrus gravy. It’s a dish reimagined from its soul food origins and a perfect reflection of Kim’s desire for variety and improving on flavors and textures through new ingredients and techniques without sacrificing the core American experience. And while a dessert like the berry shortcake remains a straight-forward interpretation, other dishes like the calamari bokkum and hanger steak served with a kimchee potato hash draw heavy influences from Kim’s Korean heritage. But don’t call Kim’s style of cooking fusion, a term as frustrating and disappointing for diners as it is a burden to chefs.

“Fusion leads to a forced merging of ingredients that may remind you of the original, but doesn’t necessarily taste good,” Kim says. “If horseradish is available and a dish tastes better as a result, I’m going to use horseradish rather than forcing myself to be Asian and include wasabi powder. Now I’m using a fresh ingredient and it’s going to result in a stronger dish.”

Diners have since reaped the benefits of Kim’s cuisine, so much so that Ruxbin’s chicken & waffles had to be removed from the menu because of its overwhelming popularity as the staff began to lament the daily existence of spare chicken parts in their family meals. Still, despite such successes, Kim isn’t one to rest on his laurels, attributing Ruxbin’s initial reception as “lucky,” especially after a two-page spread in the RedEye appeared nearly two weeks before their grand opening.

But even as restaurant rookies, there’s a quiet confidence amongst the Ruxbin crew, from the minor nuances in Nanni’s design to the deliberate selection of Rishi teas and the unique decision to not accept reservations in order to dispel diner exclusivity. Cooks meticulously plug away at prep, servers float through dining room set-up, and even the dishwasher takes command of the staff meal. Everyone operates in sync with a clear purpose.

“[The entire staff] is very tight here,” Kim says. “Our success is like a tripod where, if one element fails, the whole operation fails. We’re very fortunate to have achieved this kind of success so far, but our goal is to always improve. We believe in our vision, but understand we have a long way to go.”

Look for Ruxbin’s Spring menu to drop in mid-March. Special thanks to Bridget Close, Payton Johnson, Gianpaolo “DJ Savile” Dieli, Holly Murkerson, Jeannie Mrowicki, and Andre Osorio.

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