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Kimchi is to Korea what ketchup is to America, what pesto is to Italy, what salsa is to Mexico. It’s a country’s traditional fare, a popular accompaniment. So, it stands to reason that Yi Soon Kim would make plenty of kimchi.
Every two weeks at her restaurant in Brattleboro she dons an apron, reaches for the butcher knife and goes to work on the Napa cabbage and the big Asian radishes that, in season, she grows in her garden.
She flavors the cabbage and radish with salt, rinses, then adds garlic, ginger, scallions and hot pepper, and lets things ferment.
That’s 180 gallons of kimchi a year that Yi Soon makes and serves at her tables and over the counter in jars at her Shin La Restaurant & Sushi Bar.
“Refrigerate this,” she cheerfully advises a customer on a recent afternoon. “It will be good for a week.”
Twelve hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year, Yi Soon, 61, carries on like this, cranking out the kimchi and, with help, three dozen other Korean specialties.
Her dishes are hot, cold, vegetarian, non-vegetarian, spicy, non-spicy, sometimes organic, always flavorful, and often adjusted to suit a particular palate. Just ask. She is most accommodating.
The restaurant and its chef-owner have a loyal following in this food-savvy town near the Massachusetts border.
“I like the food, and I love Yi Soon,” says Lydia Thomson, creative director of River Gallery School of Art, located just across from Shin La on Main Street.
“I have had everything on the menu a couple of times,” says Harry Saxman, an artist from Guilford. “I am a big fan.”
That Brattleboro has a Korean restaurant is not particularly unusual. The town has various ethnic restaurants, including Indian, Mexican, Thai and, of course, Chinese. That it has the Shin La is special given some of the challenges Yi Soon and her family has faced over the years.
The place is a testament, to her smarts, determination and a winsome personality. “When I stop by she always (somehow) manages to stop by the table to say ‘hello,’” says Saxman.
The grueling lifestyle of the restaurant business wears down many a chef, but even by that standard, Yi Soon’s persistence is as strong as her kimchi.
Born in 1951, she grew up in post-war Chunju, a small town in southern South Korea. A curious youngster, she learned the ways of the kitchen at the side of an older sister and her mother, who loved to cook for family and friends.
In 1977, with the South Korean economy ailing, Yi Soon and her young husband, Taemo Kim, emigrated to the U.S., landing in Baltimore, Md., where they opened a small American-style sandwich and fast food shop in what turned out to be an unexpectedly tough neighborhood.
For three years the couple struggled, enduring petty theft, vandalism, burglaries, and, finally, a shooting. Taemo stepped outside one night to close up and was approached by a gunman, who fired with a handgun.
Yi Soon was cradling her husband when rescue personnel arrived. Taemo survived, but they figured Baltimore was too dangerous. At the urging of friends, the two moved to Brattleboro to open another sandwich shop.
One day Yi Soon offered a “bool-ko-ki” sub, with beef marinated in a garlic-soy-sesame sauce, and it was hit. “Some of us in Brattleboro were desperate for anything ethnic, back then, and we kept asking for more, and they provided it, and people loved it,” recalls Saxman.
By 1985, demand was such that the family opened the larger Shin La Restaurant on Main Street with a full Korean menu to complement American standbys. In 2000 they added the sushi bar.
It was a family-run operation in a family-friendly restaurant, with Taemo and Yi Soon doing the prep work and cooking and cleaning up, and Taemo’s mother minding the three kids who had arrived over a few years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s
“My mother-in-law watched over the children in the restaurant while we worked, and she would often take them to the park for a while during the day, and then would take them home to bed at night,” explains Yi Soon.
Yi Soon’s older boy, by age 8, had learned to take orders, which many customers found charming.
Then, 12 years ago, health problems struck. Taemo was diagnosed with a severe cancer that required several years of treatment and has now left him unable to work in the restaurant. Five years later, Yi Soon’s mother-in-law also developed a cancer and was nursed at the family’s home until her death.
“All three children were just so nice to her, waiting to help as they could, checking in on her, with my oldest son (then 14) carrying her to the bathroom and to bed,” says Yi Soon. She’s as proud of the love they demonstrated as she is of their recent academic accomplishments: two in college, one having graduated.
Yi Soon worried about her husband’s health, about schooling for her children, about the restaurant. With her husband so ill, it was up to her to keep things going.
“I got scared and felt very responsible for the household,” says Yi Soon. “I was the only one working and feeding everyone, and I was too scared to ever leave work, to go anywhere.”
Twelve years, no vacation. Her schedule: Up at 7, and begin paperwork at home at 7:30. Prepare a lunch, maybe sweet potatoes or chicken, for her husband and “make sure he takes his vitamins.” Around 9, head to the Price Chopper supermarket to get ingredients for restaurant.
Arrive at 10 at Shin La; start preparing and cooking the chicken soup, for which she has become famous. Chop vegetables, accept deliveries, make sauces.
At 11, start taking luncheon orders. Continue cooking, taking orders until 9 (9:30 on weekends), then scrub stove and do other cleanup tasks. Home at 11 p.m.
“This is my baby,” she says of her work. “I enjoy what I do. I work hard. And I am happy with the repeat customers. They are friends and ‘family’.”
Among friends and “family” are Thomson’s two grown children, now young adults who live out of state, but who when they return home, stop at Shin La, their culinary touchstone, where as kids they dined and enjoyed ice cream.
Thomson, herself, highly recommends Yi Soon’s chicken soup. “She makes the best chicken rice soup, absolutely the best,” Thomson says. “If you are sick, you buy a quart of it and take it home.”
“This is a pharmacy!” declares Yi Soon, with a laugh. Her soup recipe, from her mother, includes garlic, soy, onion and sesame oil, among its ingredients. “It’s a rich but mild broth, not spicy, and it’s especially good for colds.”
“Yes, but where’s the heat to free the sinuses?” she’s asked.
For that, you will want a side of kimchi, answers Yi Soon.
Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais freelance writer and editor.