Story by: Ian Henderson, Photos by: Fergus Scott
Influence ZenKimchi blogger, Seoul tour guide
Featured in Groove Korea August 2009, April 2014, October 2014
Google most anything food related about Korea, and chances are that Joe McPherson’s grinning visage will accompany one of the top results. McPherson is a foodie gone pro — the supervillain running ZenKimchi.com, which has become a multifaceted hub for all things culinary and Korean. ZenKimchi originally started out as a blog to document McPherson’s attempts to discover Korean food, both dining out and cooking at home.
McPherson moved to Korea in 2004, and says, “Back then there was nothing concerning Korean food on the net in English. Even Korean blogs were virtually nonexistent. Remember, at the time (blogs) were still kind of a novelty in the States.”
Then in 2007 fate stepped in when The New York Times contacted him about the rise in popularity of Korean fried chicken stateside. The uniqueness of what he was doing with his blog ended up hijacking the focus of the article, and traffic to the site exploded soon after.
In 2011, the Seoul government offered free business development courses to those who made it through a “Shark Tank”-like selection process. His streak of good luck continued, and he not only was accepted but also qualified for government-provided office space to get these hypothetical start-ups off the ground.
In 2012, McPherson did a few test runs of a variety of food-themed tours around Seoul, as well as a Haunted Tour of the older areas of the city. The success of these prompted him to offer tours on a continual basis. He was commissioned to help do research on promoting Korean food overseas, and bit by bit ZenKimchi slowly became the go-to source for foreign media outlets wanting the scoop on Korean food. The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Lonely Planet, the Travel Channel and many others have sought him out as a gastronomical liaison — he even gave a TEDx talk. “I’ve been really trying to keep all the writing engaging and avoid sterile reporting on the subject,” he says.
Though he was the dining editor for 10 magazine for several years, these days his focus is the international relationship with Korean food. “Yeah, there’s other people doing great coverage of restaurants here,” he explains, “like Gemma (Wardle, Page 95) with A Fat Girl’s Food Guide, she does great work. But I’m looking outward recently.”
Korean food has been getting more recognition as of late, lots of it positive and some of it ridiculous (see: Bibimbap Backpackers). McPherson says the first seeds of awareness were inarguably planted in 2008 by Roy Choi’s legendary Kogi Taco truck in LA and David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in New York. “Both of them were in the right place at the right time by offering quality food at cheap prices during and after the economic crash.”
His popularity continues to avalanche, with October seeing five foreign food shows visiting for production. McPherson worked with Anthony Bourdain’s program as a fixer and consultant for an episode set to air in spring 2015. Although he can’t give any details due to contractual obligations, he can tell us that Bourdain really loved his trip this time around, as opposed to a more lackluster experience in 2007.
When asked how he thinks he’s affected the scene, he plays a bit coy: “I think I’ve been more behind the scenes in having an influence. Some organizations here are always trying to promote stuff that no one is really interested in. I’ve been trying to help let overseas media know what the heart of Korean cuisine is.”
More info www.zenkimchi.com