Keeyoung Kim opened Sura Eats in 2018 and was the first to introduce a more modern approach to Korean food in Kansas City. Without a full kitchen, traditional dishes like Bibimbap and fish cakes have been scaled down to a more approachable and simplistic format that has captured the hearts of guests.
We had the opportunity to chat with Keeyoung about his story and his passion for immersing himself in his community.
Tell me about your childhood—how did food play a role?
I was born in Korea, and we immigrated to the states when I was about a year old. We stayed in New York for a bit, then moved to Rockville, Maryland. Church was a huge part of my upbringing. In some churches they do donuts and coffee; in Korean church, we do Korean food. There would be soups and stews with rice and banchan after the service. It was the greatest thing.
I love Korean culture, but when you bring that away from a predominately Korean community into your elementary school in a lunch box, it’s not so accepted.
At school, I didn’t want a turkey sandwich or PB&J. I wanted Korean food, and then you bring it to elementary school and you just get destroyed by people saying, “what is that smell?” When you open your box, the smell of seaweed and pickled daikon seeps into the whole cafeteria. I remember, it was maybe third grade, I had Kimbap for lunch, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. They were like, “what is that smell? You eat seaweed? That’s the stuff that we see washed on the shore.” So, there’s a tug of war. I love Korean food, but I can’t have it in public.
Was there a kind of a transformational period for you where you went from being an embarrassed kid in a lunchroom to a proud Korean American?
Oh, absolutely. There’re different stages of it, and a lot of it has to do with the community that you’re in. In middle school, I lived in a predominately African American community, and when I went to high school, we moved so that I could go to a better school district. There were a lot of Asians there. In middle school I went by the name of Daniel, but when I was surrounded by a lot of Asians, I decided not to go by Daniel anymore, so I just stuck with Keeyoung. In high school, we tried to dress like K-Pop stars, and we would hang out, just a horde of Koreans gathering together. And then you start to develop this Korean pride like, “man, alright, there’s people that look like me, that eat like me, and talk like me,” and it was like you found family outside of your own.
The next level of appreciation came in college, when you’re forced into an atmosphere of incredibly intellectual, capable individuals who are super diverse, and you’re all studying the same thing, but then there’s this, “man, I feel different because there’s a lot of international students too. But I’m Korean American.” I had to dig deeper into who I am and what I’m about.
Then moving to Kansas City was probably the biggest switch. I have maybe two Korean friends in Kansas City, and the rest are white. I’m not going to say that I’m different or separate myself just for the sake of it. I have to dig deeper. So, I said, okay. So, where are you from? Seoul. Okay, what’s the history of Seoul?
People were asking me, and I realized I had nothing to tell them. Being in the food industry here, food is a part of Korean history, and I am just delving deeper and deeper.
Your restaurant, Sura Eats, found its home in a food hall in Kansas City called Parlor. Is this a stepping stone for you, or do you like being part of a community of restauranteurs?
I love it. There’s no other place where you can step in to one venue and have seven different cultural experiences. But for me, the dream has always been to have my own brick and mortar. We currently have limited capacity because of space. If I did bibimbap in our own brick and mortar, I would do it in the stone bowl, sizzling with a crunchy rice at the bottom.
Outside of the restaurant, it seems like you’re really involved in the community. What do you think are some of the most impactful things that people can do to get involved in their communities?
One of the things that I experienced growing up were soup kitchens. Going to soup kitchens, you’re serving the homeless, and you’re in for maybe an hour or two, then you’re out. I’m realizing in anything that I do, relationships are the biggest things. I’m not knocking on soup kitchens at all. It’s totally necessary to provide amazing service, but at the end of the day, giving people a chance, being a good neighbor, being a good friend, building relationships, getting to know people’s stories–that’s probably the biggest journey that I’ve gone on here aside from discovering my Korean roots. Just being a good neighbor and hearing peoples’ stories.
What do you want your lasting impact to be on Kansas City?
You know, the ultimate dream, is opening a small business in inner city areas and neighborhoods and providing jobs. And at the end of the day it’s not, “oh man he provided me a job, he helped me financially,” but at the end of it, through that, I’ll be known as a good neighbor, and that’s what I’m hoping that I’m doing.
As for the neighborhood that I live in, I just want to be a good neighbor in those small interactions.
Yes, there’s certain opportunities to give back, definitely straying away from the savior mentality. I just want to do what I can with the resources that I’ve been given, and that’s just a means to be a good neighbor.
Images by Alyssa Broadus (@littlefixations) & Chris Dolt (@cdoltbike)
Address: 1707 Locust St, Kansas City, MO 64108