Food & Wine

Maum’s Path to a Michelin Star

By Anh-Minh Le

Chefs Michael and Meichih Kim of Michelin-starred Maum in Palo Alto

For chefs Michael and Meichih Kim, an early clue that a Michelin star might be in their future was an Instagram of one of their dishes, posted by the folks behind the guide. There was also a tweet indicating that they had visited Maum, the high-end Korean restaurant in downtown Palo Alto where the husband and wife head the kitchen. Then there was this: A couple of weeks before an event in Huntington Beach last month, during which the inaugural Michelin Guide California was revealed, the Kims received an email invitation to the festivities.

Still, they weren’t entirely sure that 11 months after opening to the public they would be awarded a coveted star. “Just to be on their radar is good,” says Michael, who previously worked at Namu Gaji and SPQR in San Francisco, as well as Craft in Los Angeles and Redd in Napa Valley. When it was announced that Maum had indeed garnered a star, he and Meichih texted their parents first, then their staff — who are like their second family.

On a bustling section of University Avenue, Maum’s minimal and elegant façade hints at the sublime experience that awaits inside. Behind a wooden door, inlaid with the restaurant’s name in brass, is a dining room appointed with a Douglas fir communal table flanked by 16 black leather chairs. Salvaged wood shelves — made from the same fell tree as the table — are set against walls with a Venetian plaster finish, providing a spot for beverages and canapés before the meal gets underway.

Along with owners Brian and Grace Koo, the Kims launched Maum as a private dining establishment in 2017. A year later, it opened its doors to the public with a 7 p.m. seating three nights a week. In May, the restaurant bumped up to four nights, Wednesday through Saturday; it continues to offer private dining service on Tuesday (essentially a buyout).

Maum’s cuisine draws from Micheal Kim’s Korean heritage.

The restaurant is rooted in Michael’s Korean heritage; the name means “from the heart” in Korean. “My father always reiterated: ‘You should do Korean food,’” recalls Michael, who grew up in Southern California eating only Korean food at home. “I didn’t see it as haute cuisine, like Italian or French.” But Michael eventually came around. “My comfort, my soul food, is Korean food,” he says.

To procure hard-to-find Korean ingredients, he and Meichih work with farmer Tarun “Runi” Marya, who grows produce for the couple on two neighboring plots in Los Altos Hills — among them, perilla, Korean radish, napa cabbage, peppers and melons. The kimchi components are derived from Marya’s bounty, as are the ssam lettuces. It’s not just staples of Korean cooking that shine at Maum, though. “There are some ingredients that they don’t use in Korea,” says Michael. “But we live in California, where things like tomatoes and asparagus are so great. Why wouldn’t we use them?”

Meichih notes that “it’s important that we stay true to the Korean flavors, but present them in a different way.” Take soondae, Korean blood sausage. Their version features sausage made with porks houlder, sweet rice, blood and aromatics, that is steamed and sliced, then served with puffed rice and salted shrimp. (Traces of Meichih’s Taiwanese heritage can be found on the menu, too; for instance, in a grapefruit dish that uses high mountain oolong tea in the mousse.)

While the pair spend their days at Maum, in the evenings Meichih is usually at home in Redwood City with their 4-year-old son. Michael hasn’t missed a single dinner service. On days when it’s closed, what do they like to whip up? “We don’t really cook on our days off,” he says. His wife then adds, eliciting laughter from both: “We don’t want to clean.”

ODDS & ENDS

Star quality: The day after the Michelin Guide California came out, the Maum team celebrated with a Champagne toast and pizza party — then prepared for service that night.

Shop locally: Michael is a regular at the Sunday farmers’ market on Palo Alto’s California Avenue, where he supplements the produce that is specially grown for Maum.

Off-duty dining: On days when Maum is closed, Meichih and Michael frequent Berkeley’s Great China restaurant and often go out for pho in San Jose.

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