Meet the Chef/Owner: Kimchi and Bap

Published on June 09, 2023

Chef/owner of Kimchi and Bap smiling at camera with three dishes on the counter top.

Just in time for summer, Kimchi and Bap is bringing fresh, traditional Korean flavor to the Lenexa Public Market.

To the delight of her fans, Chef Lisa Hamblen will be the first Korean restaurant to put down roots at the Public Market, which strives to feature a diverse variety of cuisines.

Kimchi and Bap focuses on three favorite Korean entrees, each of which comes with choice of beef bulgogi, spicy chicken bulgogi or crispy tofu:

  • Bibimbap – rice served with generous helpings of traditional vegetables: zucchini, carrots, bracken, cucumbers, Korean radish, bellflower root, bean sprouts spinach and mushrooms. Topped with an egg and mixed with spicy sauce (gochujang).
  • Japchae – sweet potato noodles mixed with spinach, orange and red peppers, mushrooms, onions, carrots and green onions served with rice.
  • Rice bowl, served with a side of kimchi.

Each dish brings a vibrant variety of textures, flavors and colors. Lisa hopes that with that first bite, each diner enjoys a new appreciation for Korean cuisine and, most rewardingly for her, a little nostalgia.

“I want people to feel like at they’re at home, or have a memory of being with their family or friends,” Lisa said. “Maybe they grew up with a friend who was Korean and would come over for dinner, and remember the kimchi jjigae that night. And then they have my kimchi jjigae and are like “Oh my gosh, this reminds me of going to my friend’s house for dinners.” For me, I try to bring that traditional flavor and the home feeling of being with family and friends.”

Lisa is passionate about the way food can connect people to their past. She experiences that connection through her own cooking.

“I was adopted around two years old into a family where my mom is Korean and my dad is white,” Lisa said. “I always thought I was half white, half Korean until I found out I was adopted.”

“Growing up, I watched my mom make Korean food and spent time watching her prep and cook in the kitchen. When my parents divorced, I went to live with my dad in a small Michigan town where Asian food options were very limited.”

But middle-schooler Lisa was resourceful. She made do with the ingredients she could ask dad to pick up at the grocery store – minute rice, ramen, soy sauce. Topping noodles with an egg. Adding cabbage to a dish.

“In high school, one of my favorite things was to make ramen,” she said. “I would cut the cabbage and stir fry it all together. I called it coodles – like cabbage and noodles. I would cook it for my friends, and they loved it.”

Her Asian food options expanded dramatically in college. Then after moving to rural Missouri, she found herself driving to Kansas City to buy the traditional Asian ingredients that connected her to homecooked meals.

“The one thing I always liked and came back to was the food. Some of my favorite memories growing up was my mom cooking, and me in the kitchen looking, smelling, then eating the delicious food. And now, I get to share this part of my Korean identity with others. It has been so meaningful to me because I’ve wrestled with it for a long time."

Lisa was working as an academic advisor when the COVID-19 pandemic began and Korean cuisine became a low-contact way to reconnect with friends.

“It wasn’t until the pandemic that I started cooking a lot more and I was able to cook my lunches at home. When things were getting better, I made some Korean bibimbap for some friends. And my partner Drew went out and delivered them. I really enjoyed making this meal for my friends and Drew encouraged me to look into pop-ups. I looked into some things but thought this was just a pipe dream.”

“I thought my life would be in higher education forever. It wasn’t until one day where I was like, “You know what? I just need a change, and I am going to try this popup. I’m going to see how things go.”

She’d already eaten from the perfect spot.

“The Public Market was my first go-to. I was like, “That’s my place.”

Kimchi and Bap hosted its first pop-up in the Market’s demonstration kitchen in early 2022. The Kitchen is a popular spot for chefs to test their burgeoning food concepts with an open, convenient layout to prep ingredients and chat with customers. And, just downstairs, there’s a welcoming group of chef/owners who all relate to the pressures and unknowns of starting a restaurant.

Unknowns like: How many people are really going to come eat my food in a snowstorm?

“The first pop-up, we picked a Thursday/Friday two-day combo, and then that Thursday, there was actually a snowstorm,” Lisa recalled. “I was thinking, okay, I’ll get like five people, but that’s okay, right? But a lot of people showed up during that lunch and I wasn't really ready for that. It was wild, because people were waiting like 30 minutes to an hour, and I felt horrible. But Kate [Smith], from Butterfields [Bakery & Market], came up and helped me with lunch. And she also gave me suggestions. She was so helpful. With the recommendations from lunch, dinner went way more smoothly. I think volume-wise, I just wasn’t ready for that, especially with the weather.”

“When getting into Kimchi and Bap, I had researched, had conversations with many people, and had all my ducks in a row before starting,” Lisa said. “But nothing really prepares you until you are in it.”

Less than a year after Lisa’s snowstorm debut, Market staff began talking to her about moving into a stall downstairs. Kimchi and Bap was growing much faster than she anticipated.

“Putting thought into it and realizing my goals and my mission and what I want to share with the community felt really good,” Lisa said. “I wanted to continue that on a bigger scale. So it was just kind of the next step.”

“Being at the Lenexa Public Market, I feel very comfortable, and it just feels like home. I haven’t been anywhere else, but I feel like this transition will be really good.”

As Kimchi and Bap enters this exciting new phase, Lisa said she’s looking forward to introducing more people to two favorite staples from her childhood meals.

“Bibmbap was something that we would have at home no matter what,” Lisa said. “We would always have the side dishes in the refrigerator. I would just take those side dishes and put them on top of rice, and get gochujang – which is the spicy, red pepper paste – and mix it up and that was dinner. I knew I wanted to serve bibimbap because it was a favorite growing up.”

“Japchae was more special, and typically made for anniversaries, birthdays or other special occasions. Growing up, that was another one of my favorite dishes.”

Over time, she plans to weave other interesting Korean recipes into the menu.

“Bibimbap and Japchae are the two main dishes that I will continue to make,” Lisa said. “But there are some other favorites and I will introduce them as snacks. Such as: mandu, which are dumplings and Gimbap, which is like a Japanese sushi roll and then kimchi fried rice.

“I love Korean stews and soups. I’ve made kimchi jjigae, which is like a kimchi stew, and people liked it. I plan on making other dishes depending on the season to give more variety.”

But the best part for Lisa: stepping away from the kitchen and learning what customers love about her food. Sometimes it’s authentic flavor. Sometimes it’s a great story.

“Talking with everyone coming through is my favorite part. Sometimes when I have a little break, I’m able to visit with folks and I’ve gotten to know a lot of cool people. For me, it’s about connection and building relationships.”

“The reception has been positive. I love hearing stories from people who have lived in Korea or visited. And when they say that my food reminds them of their stay or a particular memory, I feel so honored.”

“People have been supportive and kind, and I have really enjoyed meeting everyone!”