If you’ve been eating in Chicago for more than five minutes, you’ve likely eaten at one or more locations of UrbanBelly. If you’re lucky (and old enough), you visited the original, but even if you didn’t, you’ve probably tasted chef Bill Kim’s food, whether at his two spots at Time Out Market (Urbanbelly and Chef Bill Kim’s Ramen Bar), Table at Crate & Barrel in Oakbrook Center, the now-closed BellyQ, or one of the UrbanBelly locations scattered around the country. I connected with Kim during a jaunt to South Korea (where he is exploring international opportunities for his food) to talk about his career, his outlook on food, and how he went from a single tiny spot in a vacant taqueria to a culinary empire over the past 15 years.

Since he was 18 years old, Kim had visions of working for himself and owning his own restaurant but was conscious of checking all of the appropriate boxes in his culinary career. “The reason why I chose to do fine dining was that I didn’t want anybody to question my career path. If I did this at 18 and had success, people would question it.” He certainly checked the right boxes; his first job out of culinary school was in Atlanta for the legendary Jean Banchet. But after a year, he grew so homesick that he returned to Chicago, and asked his culinary mentors where he should look for a job. “They pointed to this place in Lincoln Park and said, ‘This guy will change your life.’ ”

Of course, “this guy” was Charlie Trotter, and after a year of working there (and only two years out of culinary school), Kim found himself running Trotter’s kitchen. This was the heyday of Trotter-mania, when he was opening his restaurant in Las Vegas and publishing his first cookbook, and Kim was right in the middle of it. “I think I was 25, and I knew nothing about leading people, or what it is to be a sous chef; I was never a sous chef, I went right from line cook up,” remembers Kim. “It was so difficult, and I tried to do it by pure, physical labor, being there for hours and hours and hours and making tons of mistakes.”

Trotter took Kim around the country and the world as part of his book tour, and Kim ate and learned. But Kim still didn’t feel like he had the skills he needed to open his own place. “When you work in fine dining, you feel like you’re in a bubble — don’t worry about the financials, just run the restaurant,” explains Kim. He did a short stint at Lettuce Entertain You to learn some business skills, and worked at restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, before returning to Trotter’s again as the chef de cuisine. Even though Trotter’s was seen by many as the place to be for a cook, it wasn’t Kim’s dream. “It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to do accessible food, Asian food,” says Kim. “I kept looking for investors for noodles, rice and dumplings, and people didn’t want to do it.”

Finally (and thankfully), family stepped in. Kim’s brother was able to help with the financing for a new restaurant, and another relative owned a strip mall with a vacant location. “The space was a closed taqueria. They wanted someone to rent it; it was in shambles. And I knew exactly what we wanted to do,” Kim says. UrbanBelly, one of the first examples of a chef-driven noodle spot with high quality ingredients and innovative flavors, was born. It opened in 2008, and “Our very first customer was Monica Eng, our third customer was Steve Dolinsky, and all hell broke loose.”

UrbanBelly was a true family affair. Kim’s wife, Yvonne, is a fine dining expert herself, and was the first woman to be a captain at Restaurant Daniel, so she took over the front of the house. Kim’s mother-in-law waited tables, his brother did the books, and Kim manned the kitchen. “Sometimes we would see the same people come in two or three times a week, and I would fire the food before the ticket came in because I already knew what they would order,” laughs Kim.

After the attention that UrbanBelly got, it didn’t take long to expand. In 2009, Belly Shack opened, which added a Latin twist to Kim’s food (it closed in 2016). In 2010, Kim started bottling and selling a line of sauces. In 2012, in collaboration with Cornerstone Restaurant Group, BellyQ opened in the West Loop on Randolph Street, with an emphasis on Korean barbecue. In 2014, Kim authored his cookbook, Korean BBQ: Master Your Grill in Seven Sauces. There are now UrbanBelly locations at Purdue University and in Brooklyn, and it’s still growing. For superfans, some old favorites from the original UrbanBelly, Belly Shack, and BellyQ menus will be showing up on the menu this year.

Throughout it all, Kim has kept much of the same crew with him. His original dishwasher at UrbanBelly is now the chef, and these days, he focuses as much on mentorship as on cooking. “We don’t have kids, so everyone who has worked with us, I want them to grow, in life and business,” says Kim. The UrbanBelly concept continues to grow throughout the country, in food halls and on college campuses. Kim sees these partnerships as the biggest opportunity for chefs, especially those chefs with strong brands. “We as restaurateurs have to realize that our intellectual capital isn’t used enough,” insists Kim. International expansion is, perhaps, on the horizon.

But behind it all, Kim (who is shockingly humble, given his success) credits the members of his team; his family, his cooks, and his staff. “Everything I have done wasn’t calculated; it was a lot of luck, a lot of hard work, and a lot of great people who helped us. Everyone thinks the restaurant business is about food; but without the people, you won’t get anywhere.”