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This Man Is Making Kimchi Taste Like Bourbon

Kimchi and bourbon are both strong personalities—so strong, perhaps, that they should stay far apart. But Joe Banet of Funked and Fermented Kimchi Lab believes the exact opposite, and he's mixing barrel char into one powerfully pungent jar.
Photos courtesy of Funked and Fermented Kimchi Lab.

Remember that episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza puts forth his "Worlds Collide" theory? Basically he asserts that nothing good can come of his girlfriend, Susan, hanging out with Elaine.

And this is how I felt when I initially heard about the Louisville-based Funked and Fermented Kimchi Lab's bourbon-charred kimchi. In Kentucky we put bourbon in just about everything, but mixing it with kimchi—the fermented Korean side dish traditionally made with napa cabbage, radish, scallions, or cucumber as the main ingredient—seemed to confirm Costanza's position on mixing things that seemingly should stay far apart. In this case, however, I was very, very wrong.

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The Funked and Fermented Kimchi Lab started after owner Joe Banet was turned onto the stuff while working for chef Edward Lee of Top Chef and 610 Magnolia fame.

"I first encountered kimchi in culinary school and was not immediately convinced—I was actually rather intimidated. This was 2002-ish, so the kimchi craze as we know it today was nowhere in sight," Banet told me. "Many years later, I worked for Ed Lee at 610 Magnolia. There was a night when we were testing recipes for what became his book, Smoke & Pickles. We prepared collard greens with country ham and kimchi and it was a revelation to me. The year was 2011."

Upon leaving 610 Magnolia, Banet landed at Rye on Market—a current Louisville staple—which was a very new restaurant at the time, less than a month old. "It was a matter of time before I advanced to sous chef, then chef de cuisine, and finally head chef. It was then that I really got into making my own kimchi and experimenting with kimchi in just about every dish—the most popular being the Korean-roasted kimchi brussels sprouts."

After leaving Rye in August of 2014, Banet decided that starting his own kimchi company—the first in Louisville—was the path for him. Local reception to his "kimchi of the month" club has been encouraging.

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"I started a Kickstarter in November of last year to gauge the public's demand," Banet said. "The campaign reached its goal in just 13 days. Since, I have added new members from Louisville and afar. My kimchi has reached customers in New York, Minnesota, Southern Florida, California, and even Las Vegas."

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Past flavors of the month haven't been tame by any means. There was the black eggplant kimchi made with black garlic, black bean paste, black sesame paste, black sesame seed, black lime, and a generous helping of squid ink. (The flavor inspired the hashtag #embracethedarkness from local chefs using the stuff.) Other months have seen cucumber and pink lady apple kimchi, and even ramp and pineapple kimchi.

Local chefs love Banet's product. For example, Kevin Ashworth, the executive chef at Ed Lee's other restaurant Milkwood, is planning on using it in at an event this weekend.

"This week, I've decided to do a mashup at our dim sum Sundays, and he was the first person I called up," Ashworth said. "His creativity and different approach with food makes him unique; plus, I just want to hang out with the guy. I have tried many of the Funked and Fermented products—the watermelon kimchi is amazing, especially with oysters. We will definitely be featuring some kimchi at dim sum, too."

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The upcoming September flavor—bourbon-charred corn and yellow wax bean kimchi—is taking Banet's creativity to a new level.

"September is my birth month, so naturally it is my favorite time of the year—and it also happens to be Bourbon Heritage Month, since Congress declared it so in 2007," Banet said. "I've wanted to make a kimchi that has the essence of Kentucky's spirit since around the time I started my Kickstarter campaign but wasn't exactly sure how to pull it off."

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After visiting Willett Distillery recently, Banet decided that infusing their bourbon barrel char via a cheesecloth sachet would do just the trick. The base of the kimchi will be corn and yellow wax beans (think succotash) in a corn husk stock that echos the style of white kimchi. White kimchi typically involves white vegetables—cabbage, daikon, turnips—in a kombu stock flavored with lots of ginger, garlic, and onion. According to Banet, this style rarely contains a large amount of chiles, if any.

"I believe this may be my most creative creation to date," Banet said. "I am really excited about it and I hope all my members will be as well."

Creative? Yes. But is it good?

As I mentioned, I was initially skeptical. As I popped open the sample Banet gave me, George Costanza's voice echoed through my brain—worlds colliding, Jerry!—and a smack of the typical pungent kimchi smell filled my kitchen. Trepidatiously, I spooned out a little stock first. It was light, savory, and just a tad smoky. Then came the full-on bite, chock-full of wax beans, corn, yellow onion, red jalapeño and, of course, the bourbon-barrel char.

It was phenomenal; forget worlds colliding, the kimchi was out of this world. (Full disclosure: I ate it for breakfast with coffee while writing this article.)

What's next for Banet since conquering the kimchi that captured Kentucky's spirit? Currently he's working out of his friend's kitchen at Feast BBQ in downtown Louisville, so he'd like that to change.

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"It's cumbersome because this is limited to early mornings, nights, or weekends. My goal is to have my own, independent production space in the near future, but for the meantime I have plenty of room and time to keep things going. This may all come to fruition much sooner if my luck pans out," Banet said.

He continued: "So in a perfect world I'd have a small facility, possibly with a retail storefront, where I can not only produce for the kimchi of the month club but also manufacture my goods for local stores and restaurants."

From there, Benet plans to work his way into chain giants like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, being boosted along the way by internet sales—in his words, "thus building a kimchi empire."