Matt Lee & Jeff Kim 


The day I met Jeff and Matt I had been trying (and failing) at getting a job. I ran out of an interview for a bartending position at this Italian restaurant in Little Italy – a massive, poor quality print of the leaning tower of pisa by the entrance, old leather booths that stick to the back of your legs as you try to leave, paper flags crumpled in the windows – sandwiched between a souvenir shop and a shuttered pizza shop. I was having “disappointment” eggs at B&H Deli after giving up on getting a bartending gig. To be completely honest (including to Jeff and Matt – who I have never told this to) I had never been a bartender before, but I thought if I could get a chance at it, I could do a good job. As luck would have it, Jeff’s sister, Mina and I went to school together, and as I soaked up the last remaining yolk with my challah bread, I saw a post that read: “My brother is opening a new restaurant in LES [Lower East Side], looking for Bartenders, Servers, Cooks!” I immediately responded and by an even slimmer chance of luck Nudibranch was a block and a half away from the deli I was moping around at. When I walked in and saw the restaurant, with boxes covering the floor, plastic covering the untouched chairs and a half set up bar, I hoped that they were willing to give me a chance – and they did. They were opening exactly a month after our first meeting, so I spent those 30 days with a good friend, Andre Kaplan, a real New York bartender, training every Tuesday night. Going drink for drink until my notes blurred, and I couldn’t remember the order of simple syrup, gin, and lime or was it lemon?

So my first question is always what do you create? How would you define what you guys create?

Matthew Lee

It’s a balance of what was cultivated this last hour and a half of service, it’s [about] providing a space where similar or different minded people are exposed to those outside of who they’re accustomed to interacting with. Understanding that there are a lot more similarities than differences. I think that it’s a cultivation aspect, providing – I don’t want to say safe space there necessarily – but an open space, where minds are able to think freely and not be restricted.

Jeff Kim

It’s twofold, Matt and I have this conversation about food and cooking as a craft and an art. I think it’s why this works. How we do that, our medium is food. Food and drink. As a restaurant, you go to other places where the sense is, “Alright, I’m gonna go here because this dish is fire ... I’m going to this bar because this drink is fire ... I’m gonna go to this place because food and drink is whatever, but people here are fucking great.” What we’re trying to do, what we’ve been thinking for the past year has been, “Why can’t you be this trifecta of all three? Why can’t you have food that stimulates your mind and satiates you?” That’s what we create. We’re a restaurant, so food is a priority, but we have a certain view, we are Korean American. Matt was born in Korea, grew up in Maryland. I’m from Long Island. As much as I have an affinity to any Korean dish – I also fucking love bagels and lox or going to Chinatown at 4 a.m. That’s New York. Matt loves crabs, and that’s from fucking Maryland.

Matt: Crabs every summer, but we put our own twist at the end. We ate it normally as people from Maryland would do – but in the end we would cook some Korean noodles to finish it off. And then [with the] leftover crabs, make doenjang-jjigae out of that shit.

Jeff: We each have our own lenses, and the food we’re doing here ... we’re really lucky to be in the East fucking Village. Let’s actually take a step back, we’re lucky to be in New York City. We’re lucky to be in this neighborhood and be able to freely create and come up with dishes and food and experiences that might be out there, but also, people are willing to accept what’s out there. We looked around and before here we looked at spots in the West Village. We found a great spot, but we had to ask ourselves, is the neighborhood going to accept the shit that we’re gonna do? Within New York you have the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Midtown, all these micro-neighborhoods. It just made sense, the East Village is going to take what we’re gonna give. Brooklyn would have been tight too, but the fact that we’re in Manhattan, the L train is here. It just happened to be this ecosystem with a history of food, culture and drink that made us feel we could acclimate ourselves really well. And if we didn’t, that’s fine, we’re not gonna die, but I think if we did this in the West Village we wouldn’t have made it. 

Matt: I think from the outside looking in there is an element of intimidation. Not necessarily a diamond in the rough because I wouldn’t describe it as that.

When you were growing up, who was it that brought food into your world?

Matt: I would say it started with my mom. She was the one always cooking. Then it grew by going and hanging out with friends. In my core group of friends growing up, K-12, I was the only Asian kid. All my best friends were white, and they introduced me to everything outside of my world. I will remember this to the day I die. I was six years old and my best friend asked me to go trick or treating with him. I went over to his house for dinner. I’m used to a Korean spread where there’s a lot of Banchans; a main entree, soup and some rice. I went to his house and it was was fucking Spaghettios and milk. At least my mom gave me some preface so I was respectful, but absolutely dumbfounded. That’s where I learned not everyone eats how you eat. All my friends, they’re my boys to this day, they introduced me to so much more outside of what I grew up with. I was very fortunate, they would ask me to come with them during summer vacation, going to beach houses and eating crabs. Honestly, that was the biggest nurturing experience.

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Jeff: My mom was the food. Mom, grandma. Korean culture is matriarchal, they were the one to make the food, it was never a pretentious thing, it was always we’re going to eat as a family for dinner every single night and just talk. That was really fucking influential. Looking back, I didn’t realize how many people didn’t do that. It was a super important part, our parents made it a point to eat dinner, it doesn’t matter what it is, we’re gonna sit down and we’re gonna talk about our days. “What happened today? How was school? How was work?” Having that conversation, it doesn’t matter if it was only 20 minutes or 30 minutes, this is what we’re doing. I didn’t realize that was such a big deal until I realized that’s not a norm. Also both my parents can’t eat the same thing over and over again. So Korean food was always the basis, but then there’s always things that were constantly fucking changing. There was Italian food one day, Spanish food one day, Mexican food another day. That was maybe the global entry, but the conversation was real. What hits home though is diners.

Matt: I fuckin’ love diners.

Jeff: I grew up going to church, and after church you go to a diner. And you wanna bring it back all the New York diners are owned by fucking greek guys [laughing]. For me, I grew up in diners, I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in diners. As much as it was Korean home food, it was also eating corn beef hash.

What is it about the diner that is so good?

Matt: You can get whatever you want. You can be wherever. Time doesn’t matter, location doesn’t matter, you may pay a little more but you’re gonna get what you want.

Jeff: The way I describe diners is, wherever you go when you travel, you want what the people there eat, what do the Koreans eat? What do the Greeks eat? When you come to New York, what do New Yorkers eat? New Yorkers go to diners, the same way you go to a taverna or a trattoria or whatever. New York diners are a New York trattoria. You can’t get that anywhere. The same way you go to Greece, they’re gonna bring out the lamb souvlaki and the house wine, there is the one guy in a corner who has been going there for fucking 50 years, smoking a cig. You go to a New York City diner, you’re gonna get that fucking culture but it’s American. It’s so viscerally American. Someone who wants to have American food, bring them to a diner, you got pancakes, waffles, fucking eggs benny, corned beef hash. Anytime of day. You can hate it, love it, that’s what this is.

What is your comfort food?

Matt: The comfort food, if we’re gonna do this, it’s what we ask everyone when they first start working here, we ask, what’s your last meal? In my family, for this moment in time, we each liked to proclaim we were the king of this dish. Like, “Yo, I love this dish most.” For me, it’s doenjang-jjigae, which is fermented soybean in the Korean style and rice. I could eat that all fucking day. At least within my family and my brothers [they say], “Oh, who’s the king of this dish? Matt? Because Matt loves this the most.” I would say that’s my favorite dish in the world. If my last meal was a bowl of rice – white rice – I don’t like that fucking multigrain shit. I don’t want that mix shit. I just want white rice and a bowl of fucking doenjang-jjigae, I’m good. That’s my last meal. I could be happy.

Jeff: That’s beautiful. We’re on the same page, doenjang-jjigae, I grew up on that shit. If it’s my last meal, give me Korean barbecue, give me some seared pork, give me rice, and lettuce wraps.

It’s all about the fuckin’ sides.

Matt: I don’t need that shit

Jeff: No, I need that shit because doenjang-jjigae then becomes a certain side to all of it. That to me is comfort food, I love meat, I love fire ... but at the same time last meal might have to be corned beef hash, two eggs over easy, hash browns crispy and a black coffee.