BLOOMINGTON, Illinois — You might not expect an Illinois farm boy to be an expert in Korean cuisine, but Ken Myszka, a farmer and chef, certainly knows his gyeran jjim from his kimchi jjigae.
A year ago, on April 20, he started sharing food from his wife Nanam’s native land when he and his team opened Harmony Bar-B-Que in Bloomington, Illinois.
Myszka’s appreciation of the flavors of Korea began long before her marriage to Nanam and frequently traveled to Korea to spend time with her family. Now Nanam’s parents live here too.
He began his culinary journey right after graduating from Tri-Valley High School in Downs, a village east of Bloomington, by studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
He developed a taste for Korean barbecue, visiting every Korean barbecue and steak house he could find while working as a chef in Colorado, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. He honed his skills at Caesar’s Palace and the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas before deciding to return home to work on the farm and become a restaurateur in central Illinois.
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The restaurant’s name, “Harmony,” is the English spelling of the word “grandma,” Myszka said. It also symbolizes the harmony between earth and food and the harmony of flavors.
Korean flavors translate well into the Midwestern diet, Myszka said. Soy is a popular ingredient in many sauces. Ginseng and other products that grow wild in Illinois are also staple foods.
“It’s healthy food,” he says.
Utensils at restaurant tables include a pair of scissors. While Japanese chefs are known for their knives, Korean cooks are known for their scissors which are used to cut meat, he said.
Back in the kitchen, the fridge and coolers are overflowing with fresh lettuce and other vegetables grown on the nearby farm in rural McLean County.
“We grow all the lettuce that we use here for 45 weeks of the year and we will eventually be able to supply it all year round,” Myszka said.
The 75-acre farm in the rural Downs near LeRoy also supplies radishes, turnips, spinach, cucumbers and squash in season.
The hotel group’s 140 employees are connected to the farm, including the restaurant servers, who also have tasks on the farm. Myszka, owner and chef of the Epiphany Hospitality Group in Bloomington, also divides her time between the farm and the restaurant.
For Myszka, a “CheFarmer,” dinner is a “platform for change.”
He sees the Epiphany team as “an anchor for a network of local food producers that educates the community about locally sourced ingredients, sparks interest in Midwestern culinary traditions, and provides a positive role model for a responsible stewardship of the land”.
Harmony Bar-B-Que is one of four restaurants managed by the hotel group.