Like many of us, chef Jamie Yoo began questioning his entire career during the pandemic. Bellecour, Yoo’s primary employer for the past three years, became the restaurant scene’s latest COVID-19 casualty last July. He didn’t hang up his chef’s coat however, partly because pastry boss/close friend Diane Moua had pointed out a potential backup: a big ol’ booth in Minneapolis’ long-awaited Market at Malcolm Yards.
“I thought it would be a good step towards the next journey for me,” Yoo explains. “So I started brainstorming with [my business partner] and we decided to open Abang Yoli.”
Yoo’s menu was tested and tweaked at a couple pop-ups (Meteor, Nighthawks) before Malcolm Yards’ August opening. A passion project that’s lingered in the back of Yoo’s head for years, it’s built around childhood memories and the many ways food brought his family together when he was growing up in Seoul and Seattle.
Its breakthrough hit has been Korean fried chicken served with house-made pickles, kimchi slaw, and a spicy gochujang or sesame ginger garlic sauce. While the kimchi reflects the 500-pound batches of cabbage his family would ferment for the entire neighborhood twice a year, the battered beauties that land on platters and inside sublime milk bun sandwiches are a nod to the crispy treats his grandmother would make him for being such a helpful prep cook.
“Making kimchi required lots of patience,” Yoo says, “but it [captured] the absolute beauty of cooking.”
Abang Yoli is one of 10 vendors within Malcolm Yards’ sprawling food hall, which takes up more than half of the 32,500 square feet that owners Patricia and John Wall set aside for commercial businesses. (A grocery store and hundreds of apartments are also part of the couple’s long-term plan.) One of Yoo’s favorite items from a fellow vendor, the vegetable-centric Advellum, also brings him back to the good old days. Namely: the savory mung bean pancakes his grandmother would fry for his family. As for what people can expect from the space itself, there’s never a dull moment in Malcolm Yards; in fact, at press time about a month ago, Abang Yoli had been going through up to 1,500 pounds of chicken a week.
In the following interview, Yoo discusses everything from speed skating and his formative years in South Korea to the tireless culinary arts training and breakthrough job opportunity that brought him to Minnesota.
What’s one of your earliest food memories?
When I was young, our family didn’t go out to eat that much—maybe two or three times a month. My grandmother and mom made lots of nice authentic Korean dishes at home.
Making kimchi left a big impression on me. My grandmother was not making a 40-pound batch; she was preparing enough to last half the year and share with the entire neighborhood. She bought about 500 pounds of Napa cabbage and salted them in two different bathtubs. Other family members, including me, were prep cooks. I was in charge of peeling 70 pounds of garlic. The entire family gathered around when we made kimchi, and everyone worked together.
How does the food culture in South Korea compare to the U.S., and what are some of the dishes you really miss?
Seoul has such a dynamic food culture. There are fine-dining restaurants and so many different kinds of casual street food. I really miss the Korean street food called “sundae” [blood sausage]. It’s my favorite food of all time.
At what age did you get into cooking, and when did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
I wanted to be a short track [speed skater] when I was young. I loved to skate, but I couldn’t do it as a job because of my ankle. I moved to the United States when I was 14 and it was so hard to make friends and communicate with people. During lunchtime, I loved to stay in the library and read cookbooks because they were mostly pictures. I looked at one and realized I was falling in love with the culinary arts. I started researching how to become a chef and looking for a culinary school. And now here I am.
Who helped teach you how to cook when you were younger? Was it a certain member of your family, or did you simply learn on the job within the restaurant industry?
I was my grandmother’s commis [chef] all the time. I was right next to her when she made food and helped her with different things: small knife work, peeling, washing vegetables, washing dishes. After I helped her, she made me a treat: Korean fried chicken. Those were my best memories from when I was young.
Was moving to the U.S. as a teenager really hard for you since you had to leave friends behind at such a formative age?
It was the hardest time in my life; getting used to a new culture at age 14 was not an easy thing. I skipped lots of school because I was so scared to go. I had probably less than 40 meals in one year of school because I did not want to talk to people. Cookbooks and the library were my favorite things during school. However, I’m really happy where I am right now.
You must have really appreciated Seattle’s strong Asian food culture, especially markets like Uwajimaya. Is that where you took a deeper interest in Malaysian, Thai, and Japanese food, or did you learn more about those cuisines when you were still living in South Korea?
Seattle has lots of diverse Asian cultures. There were so many local Asian grocery stores. I loved to follow my grandmother when she needed to buy something. I saw so many fresh Southeastern and Eastern ingredients. I tasted all of them and started researching flavor profiles and how I should cook them. I wish Minnesota had more different kinds of Asian markets.
Can you tell us about the advanced culinary arts program you attended in Washington and how you ended up at the Culinary Institute of America?
I was in the culinary arts program during high school. It’s where I met chef Nikki Schieble from Café Campagne in Seattle. She taught me lots of basic skills, and helped me get into the Culinary institute of America in Hyde Park. She is still a bigtime mentor for me. I really miss her.
What restaurants did you work at before you moved to Minnesota? Did you ever consider staying in New York City and working there, or did it seem like it wasn’t worth it because the cost of living is so high and the restaurant scene is so competitive?
I always wanted to go to a big city and work at a Michelin-starred restaurant. After I finished my associate degree at the Culinary Institute of America, I started applying for jobs in big cities. I ended up staging at two different restaurants in San Francisco [Atelier Crenn and Gary Danko] and got a job offer from Gary Danko. It was a one-star Michelin restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf. The food was dynamic, and I thought it was a great experience for me. However, I decided to leave and move back home to Seattle after one year [because] the hours of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant were very challenging and the cost of living in San Francisco was really bad.
I applied to lots of restaurants in Seattle and found out that Michael Mina’s RN74 restaurant was hiring cooks. I got a job offer and worked there for four-and-a-half years. I got promoted to sous chef after two years and started learning kitchen management skills there. I also met one of my mentors: Nick Dugan, Belleour’s former chef de cuisine. He moved to Minnesota after I worked for him. After a couple years, he offered me a job at Bellecour. It was an incredible offer for me, so I decided to move to Minnesota.
How long ago was this?
In May 2016. … It was an honor to stage with such awesome chefs during the Bellecour time.
How long did you work there?
I worked at Bellecour three weeks before it opened until we closed [in July 2020].
Did you get to learn a lot from Gavin since he has so much experience within the restaurant industry?
I learned so many things from chef Gavin. He has lots of skills and always shares them with the entire team. I had a great opportunity to stage at the Melbourne restaurant Attica while I worked at Bellecour. I also learned lots of management skills and how to run the restaurant with teams.
What are some other key lessons you’ve learned from other chefs like Bryan Voltaggio, Gary Danko, Ben Shewry, and Michael Mina?
I always start my day with one word: discipline. It gives me motivation and energy.
Did you really enjoy cooking French and European-style food, or did it feel more like what you should do after attending the CIA?
I love French cooking and always wanted to learn more about French cuisine. After I got a job at Bellecour, I learned so many different styles. Charcuterie was one of my favorites.
Why did you ultimately decide to launch Abang Yoli at Malcolm Yards rather than open your own restaurant? Because it would allow you to focus on the food rather than the business side of things?
I think Malcolm Yards is a better way for young people to start their own businesses. It’s already a wonderful space; all we need to do is represent a great concept and great food. I think this will help advertise our name, and hopefully this can help us open a second location.
Can you talk about the concepts behind Abang Yoli’s menu—how it combines several different Asian cuisines, as well as healthy, “modern eating habits” like vegan and gluten-free options?
We wanted to offer guests something interesting and a healthier version of Southeastern and East Asian cuisine. Korean fried chicken is very popular in the States. However, lots of people want to try lighter and healthier food, so we created a menu that’s less greasy and more aromatic.
Given your fine-dining background, was it important for you to treat every plate the same way you would in a proper restaurant? That’s something I noticed right away—how beautifully everything looked. It feels less like a “food hall” or takeout spot and more like a place where you can mix and match restaurant-caliber dishes.
I always think food should look great before guests have their first bite; to me, it does not matter if it is a food hall, fast food, or casual dining. Our team always tries to present beautiful dishes with fresh garnishes to guests.
What are some of your favorite dishes on the menu right now and why?
Harissa-marinated roasted cauliflower is one of my favorite dishes. We make our own harissa paste with Asian spices [star anise, coriander, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves]. It has a nice, sweet flavor from the anise and tomatoes and nice heat from the Korean chili flakes. I spent lots of time making this marinate, and I’m so happy guests love our cauliflower. It’s a nice vegetarian option.
Was it important to you to find a mix between more traditional dishes like char siu and creative, fusion-style ones like your fries?
I thought it was nice to have authentic styles of food on the menu and some fusion-style food young guests would find exciting.
How long did it take you to develop all of your recipes? Are they mostly things you’ve been cooking at home for years, or did you have to tweak some of them over the past year as Malcom Yards got closer to opening?
My partner and I tested recipes for five to six months. I made fried chicken every single day for two months to make Abang’s fry flour mixture, and after two months we finally made a perfect crisp batter.
While food halls have been popular for a while now, Malcolm Yards is pretty unique in how it’s laid out, orders are placed, etc. What were your first impressions of the space and how it’s been so far?
I’m lucky working with all these talented chefs every single day. And all the concepts [in Malcolm Yards] are super unique, with lots of flavors going on in every single dish.
Do you plan on adding or subtracting any items from the menu this fall? How about collaborating with other vendors?
Before we started Abang Yoli, we were thinking about doing hot noodles with broth. We couldn’t keep up with the crazy amount of volume every day, but I may want to add hot noodle dishes on the menu during fall and winter, and a couple different sauces, including house-made fermented hot sauce for the chicken.
Have you had a chance to try any other vendors at Malcolm Yards yet? If so, what’s one of your favorites?
The mung bean pancake from Advellum is my favorite. It reminds me of my grandmother; she made lots of mung bean pancakes for me and my brother.
Finally, what’s a typical day like for you since Malcolm Yards is so busy and open for lunch and dinner service?
It’s been crazy—I have to prep and work all day. I’m so happy I have a great team. They really help keep me going. The volume of mis en places are crazy. We are going through about 1,300 to 1,500 pounds of chickens a week. I didn’t know so many Minnesotans love Korean fried chicken and different Southeastern cuisine. We will keep pushing ourselves to create more great food and service for the guests.