The Expat: Mun Kim

CV: Mun Kim
Born: Seoul, South Korea
Age: 44
Profession: Private chef at Casa Mun, a closed-door restaurant specializing in Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine
Education: International economics at Rutgers University
Currently re-reading: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Last film seen: Korean movie While Waving the National Flags
Gadget: My Sakai Takayuki Yanagi knife

Tell me about your first visit to Argentina.
It was when Cristina (Fernández de Kirchner) had just been voted in and I was here on vacation for 10 days. I was in Buenos Aires for five days and I then spent two nights each in Ushuaia and El Calafate.
A friend of mine and I thought about going to Europe, but the exchange rate didn’t work in favour of dollars, so we thought “why not Argentina?” We came here on a whim.

What do you remember?
In Buenos Aires, I remember a lot of dog poo, as anyone will say, but I think it’s getting better as I see a lot less now. But I liked the energy, especially coming from Los Angeles.
People were really nice to me and I loved the energy the city had back then. I still do.

Why did you visit the deep south?
We didn’t plan anything — we had booked the trip three weeks before, so just wanted to see what the country had to offer. We’d done a lot of walking by the second day, and we didn’t have much time, but wondered what else there was in the country. So we went to a travel agency, and they offered us a package. I’d never even heard of these places, but they showed us some pictures, and I said “let’s go!”

What did you know about Argentina before arriving?
I’d heard people say Buenos Aires was beautiful, and they have good wine, good parrillas, football and Evita. All I knew is what was Hollywood-produced, and it isn’t very true! So I didn’t know much.

Why did you decide to move here?
Since my first visit, I’ve been coming here every year as I love the energy so much, and I love the European feeling, and that I can walk anywhere — at certain times and in certain places! — and I guess I didn’t know about the crime rate then. So I had romantic feelings about the city, and the country too.
I was a banker for 19 years and I hated my job, just like any other banker — and luckily I got laid off.
I didn’t know what to do, so I travelled in Mongolia. It had always called me, and being Korean means we originated from Mongolia. I guess I was looking for something, in the sense of what I wanted to for the rest of my life.
It hit me, three weeks into the trip, at three in the morning in the middle of the Gobi desert. I was looking at millions of stars, and it hit me that I hold a dinner party every Sunday.
I used to cook all day for my friends, and they would come over, and so I decided to become a chef. I had lived in America for about 20 years and I wanted to live around the world as it’s so big, and there’s so much to visit but every time I came to Buenos Aires I liked it more. And I was looking for something different and I couldn’t find it, I became a sushi chef, and thought “why not?”
I didn’t speak the language but I thought there must be other people like me looking for something different. I just wanted enough to pay the bills, learn about the people and culture and live outside of America. So I chose Buenos Aires.

That seems like it was an easy decision.
It was. Some wise guy told me that doors will open when it’s meant to be. And for me, moving here feels like it was meant to happen to my life. The way I moved was non-eventful, in a sense. I wanted to live in a cultured place and Buenos Aires had everything I was looking for.

What was the most difficult thing to adjust to?
Besides my business, it was getting used to the way business is done, such as renting an apartment. I had no idea about tourist apartments and lower prices for people with DNI. I first stayed with a friend for three months and knew I had to move out. I sent 30 emails to real estates and didn’t get a single reply. I was told Argentines don’t “do” emails and you have to either call or go to their office. I didn’t know that! But I’m adaptable and learning.

Are there any similarities between cultures in Korea and Argentina?
First, Korean culture is very family-oriented and so is Argentina’s one. Plus it’s hard to break into a group of old friends, and we are all very touchy-touchy! My mom always says it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black or Asian, the first thing we all do is go to the bathroom. She’s a wise woman! But I think it’s true. We may do things differently but we are all one race. It’s just different people with a different experience, which is why I am excited about living here. Life’s too short to stay in one city.

Do you mix with the Korean community here?
I know a few people, but what I do at my closed-door restaurant Casa Mun is different from what the Korean community is used to. That said, I have very good relationships with the major Asian import companies in the country — both Korean and Chinese — and these friends have meant a steady supply of salmon, sauces and other ingredients.
Also, many Koreans here are Evangelical Christians, which I am not! But I do seek them out every now and then to speak Korean!

Where do you live?
In Alto Palermo, and before I was in Palermo Viejo where I originally had Casa Mun. The main reason I moved from a house to an apartment building was that I realized that, more than 2,000 people passed through my home in a year. Although nothing hasn’t happened to me, I hear about the crime rate going up, and having Casa Mun at my house stopped being an option for me as I didn’t want to expose my clients to that kind of risk.
Alto Palermo has lots of apartments with doormen. When I lived on Cabrera, you could go outside at three in the afternoon and there wouldn’t be anyone!

What do you do in your spare time?
I have two dogs and I like to spend my time with them, going to parks. I’ve been busy building my business in the past 18 months, so now I have a bit more time I’d like to travel.
Time is something you make, so I am doing that so I can visit Mendoza, Salta and Córdoba and learn the cuisines from other parts of Argentina.
If I had a month off I’d visit Mendoza as Casa Mun has wine from there and I need to go and see them! I’ve been to Napa Valley in California and I love wine country, and the feeling that relaxes you.

How is fund-raising for Hogar San Pablo children’s home going?
I always think about giving back to society. So when a friend told me about San Pablo’s we held a dinner last September and raised about US$1,000. It was mid-winter so we bought some electric heaters for them. I’m also thinking about inviting a few kids to come and work with me and mentor them a bit.

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
I eat my dinner at 9’o clock and serve it at 9.30! But to be honest I see Argentine characteristics across all races. Take being late — there’s a Korean time, a Filipino time…

Name a lost-in-translation moment.
One happened in the first month, and I was taking Spanish classes from a lady. There were four lines in a story, which started with the word bárbaro (great). I kept reading it but I couldn’t understand what it meant. She then asked me the context and I replied: “Well, Barbara had said…”
Then in the fourth month, we had a cleaning lady and one day she said no vemos, skipping the letter “s”. I turned to my room-mate and said “she’s not coming next week.” Of course, she came the following week!

What’s your Spanish like?
I can get by, and I understand about 80 percent of a newspaper. But I speak Spanish with an American, not a Korean, accent!

What do you miss from the US?
The variety of food and spice. I don’t miss much from Korea, though, as I’m more of an American than a Korean now.

For Mun´s view on the salmon shortage, click here.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on March 25, 2012
Photo by Mariano Fuchila

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