Kulper, 41, executive chef at Buckhead sushi restaurant Umi, was born in Korea and adopted when he was 2 years old by a couple who ran an Iowa dairy farm. He grew up eating tomatoes and strawberries from the family garden and farm-raised beef and milk.
As a cook, he has worked at steakhouse chains (where, he said, speed and quantity were valued over creativity and mastery of technique) and French bistros (where he had access to truffles and foie gras). He has been employed by Nobu Matsuhisa in Miami Beach and staged under Thomas Keller in California.
But he likes to keep it simple at the Johns Creek home he shares with his Korean-born wife, Mina; their 13-year-old daughter, Alexandra; their dog, Harry; and their pet python, Zeus.
At Umi, he creates dishes such as smoked duck tataki with shinko pear and aged balsamic; and butter-poached Maine lobster tail and diver scallop with uni and truffle sauce. But his home cooking brings to mind Ina Garten’s mantra, “Store-bought is fine.”
Or in his case: H Mart.
Demonstrating a quick bibimbap, he put Korean short-grain in the rice cooker, popped open a jar of H Mart bulgogi marinade and, when it was time to assemble the warm rice bowl, snapped open plastic containers of grocery-store banchan (Korean side dishes).
Still, he’s a chef, and at times exacting about details. He finished the rib-eye with a precise four grinds of Tellicherry pepper; turned the flame down as low as possible for the sunny-side-up egg; and arranged his bibimbap components with the eye of a sushi master.
Kulper spent his childhood in the Midwest, but life and love have brought him full circle, to the tastes of Asia.
What is your favorite cuisine to cook at home?
Whatever we feel like making. We can do Italian one day. We’ll do French one day. But, most of the time, our staple is Korean.
What is your go-to dish for a quick dinner?
We’ll grill steak, grill some vegetables, and then have some sesame leaves, some lettuce and Korean chile paste and some rice (to make wraps).
When time is not a factor, what dish do you like to prepare at home?
We like to do hot pots. So, when we actually have the time as a family to really sit down and take, like, an hour and a half and really have dinner, that’s what we’ll make.
What is your signature dish to impress dinner guests?
The last time I had guests over, we actually did pizzas.
Do you have a pizza oven?
We just crank that oven up to high — put it on broiler function and really get that pizza stone hot.
What do you cook for yourself at the end of the day?
I’m usually home by 1 or 1:30 a.m. If I’m craving something when I get home, it might be a simple egg sandwich. ... I don’t want to put too much effort into it.
What’s your favorite midnight snack?
Whatever’s left in the fridge.
What is your favorite cookbook?
I have a pretty large collection. That’s kind of how I learned to cook, because I never went to culinary school. The book that kicked this whole thing off would have been “The French Laundry Cookbook” (by Thomas Keller). I think I’ve read that thing cover to cover like three or four times.
What are your three favorite kitchen tools or gadgets?
Rice cooker, pepper grinder and a good chef’s knife. It’s kind of boring, but we don’t really have any weird kitchen gadgets.
What is your best kitchen hack?
When we are making chicken soup or something like that ... we take crushed ice, put it on top of that stock, and then use a spoon to remove all that fat.
What ingredients do you always keep in your fridge?
We always have ssamjang (Korean dipping sauce). There’s usually some kind of kimchi or pickle in there. ... The past couple of years, we’re growing herbs outside. ... We have the sesame leaves and shiso leaves outside on the deck, that we kind of harvest as we need.
What do you think is the most underrated food, and why?
I probably could not cook without garlic, ginger, chiles and citrus. I don’t think home cooks use those enough, or in the right quantities, especially the citrus. I think a lot of the time they forget about the acidity, and that’s just as important as salt and pepper.
What is your worst home cooking disaster?
A long time ago, a plastic Easter egg got hidden in the oven. We turned on the oven and came back to the smell of burning plastic.
What are your best words of advice for home cooks?
To just really keep it simple. Instead of trying to get overly fancy, go back to a recipe from, say, your grandmother. ... It’s been tried; it’s true. Work on that and build from there, as opposed to watching “Master Chef.”
What music do you listen to when you cook?
The last time I was cooking, I think I had Aerosmith on, maybe some Journey. ... Steven Tyler in the background while you are cooking — there’s nothing wrong with that!
Chef Todd’s Easy Bibimbap
Todd Dae Kulper, executive chef of Umi, showed us how to make “a very traditional-tasting Korean bibimbap with very little effort.” His trick for the multi-component rice bowl is to buy marinade and banchan from the grocery store. For this demo, he chose traditional kimchi, seasoned bean sprouts, seasoned dried radish and radish kimchi from H Mart, plus a simple spinach banchan he made himself. To complete the one-dish meal, you need only cooked white rice and fried eggs.
½ pound thinly sliced rib-eye
3 ounces store-bought bulgogi marinade (or use homemade)
1½ tablespoons sesame oil
1 bunch spinach, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon soy sauce
1½ teaspoons white sesame seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon olive oil, plus more for cooking eggs
freshly ground black pepper
5 cups cooked white rice
assorted banchan, such as kimchi, seasoned bean sprouts and radish kimchi
3 5-gram packets roasted seaweed snack (optional)
Place rib-eye and marinade in a medium bowl and allow to marinate for 20 minutes to 1 hour.
Heat the sesame oil in a medium or large skillet over medium heat until the oil glistens. Toss in the spinach and saute until it is just wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce. Place the cooked spinach in a serving bowl, sprinkle with sesame seeds (if using), and set aside until ready to assemble the bibimbap.
Wipe out the skillet. Return to the stovetop and heat over medium-high until the pan is hot, about 2 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon olive oil, and heat for another 2 minutes, until the oil glistens. Add the beef (including the marinade) and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. The beef should break up and be slightly stringy. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, toss and set aside.
Wipe out the skillet and pour in just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat the skillet over medium-high until the oil glistens. Crack the eggs into the pan. Turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting, and cook the eggs sunny-side up (until the whites are firm but the yolk is still runny), about 4 minutes. (You may need to cook the eggs in batches.) Sprinkle with salt.
Divide the warm rice among six serving bowls (about ¾ cup per bowl). Divide the beef evenly over the rice in neat scoops. Add banchan of choice, making sure to keep each one in a tidy pile. Top each dish with a fried egg, and, if using, crumble seaweed snack over the dish or arrange as a separate component. Just before eating, break the egg yolk with chopsticks or other another utensil, and gently toss the ingredients, to combine.
Per serving, not including banchan and seaweed snack: 394 calories (percent of calories from fat, 40), 18 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams total sugars, 2 grams fiber, 17 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 212 milligrams cholesterol, 575 milligrams sodium.
For nutritional calculations, the salt included is defined as 1/16 teaspoon.
Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter
Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.