Jinah Kim’s obsession with helping fellow immigrants began at an early age. She grew up in Latham, transplanted from her native Korea at the age of three. “I watched the struggle my parents went through,” she says. “As I grew up, I learned what was happening in North Korea, with people there fleeing or being forced to migrate, and the more I heard the more I realized I needed to learn more—and the more I wanted to dedicate myself to helping people.”
She has turned her sense of social responsibility to a project that only seems to make more and more sense as you examine it: a restaurant that also serves to help area immigrants.
Sunhee’s is a casually appointed space that serves an array of popular Korean items. Order at the counter, where employees are eager to help you make your choice, and the food tray is delivered to your table.
Among the rice bowl items are beef-based bulgogi ($13) and the popular bibimbap ($10), made with fiddleheads, spinach, turnips, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. A Korean New Year’s soup ($12) features dumplings and egg strips, and a spicy soft tofu stew ($11) also sports garlic and green squash. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options abound.
The place was almost full early in the evening when I stopped by, and takeout orders seemed almost to outnumber the to-stay requests. Troy is obviously happy with this place, and the feeling is mutual.
“I was especially interested in Troy, which I first visited when I was in high school, about ten years ago. People here seemed to be open-minded and receptive, and I wanted to be in a city–not out in a suburban strip mall.”
She chose a location at 95 Ferry Street that was home to a fancy Italian restaurant many years ago but lately has been a succession of pubs–and has sat vacant for last couple of years.
“We signed the lease in February and had a soft launch at the end of April, and officially opened May 15. We’ve had a great positive reaction–people here seem to adore us.”
That enthusiasm was born at home, she explains. “Since day one, my parents have been unbelievably supportive of me. ‘Follow your dreams,’ they said. ‘You don’t have to make a lot of money.’ Which doesn’t sound at all like what you might expect from Asian parents.” Her mother’s contribution also extends to the kitchen. “Cooking is where she feels most comfortable–it’s something the family is good at–so she runs the restaurant kitchen alongside her lifelong friend Sun Hwa.” Thus, the eatery’s moniker is drawn from their names.
Kim pursued her sense of community involvement through high school–she graduated from Shaker High–and on into Boston College. “I studied International Relations there, and after I graduated I traveled extensively. Eventually, I was living in New York City, where I volunteered to teach beginning English. After about six months that turned into a full-time paid position, and I was also advising people on professional development and doing other career counseling.” This helped affirm what she wanted to do, but not where she wanted to do it.
“I came back to the Albany area looking for opportunities to do that kind of thing here. I knew that I belonged in some kind of social entrepreneurship.” She didn’t have a restaurant in mind at first. “I was thinking along the lines of a café or a farm, which evolved into my concept of a gathering place that would start out as a restaurant, then evolve into including a marketplace and a bar. A space where people feel comfortable, and a place that can be a learning environment. What you see here is only the beginning phase of my plan. Another big factor was sustainability. I wanted to create a business that would support the community in as many ways as possible.”
To that end, the restaurant draws ingredients from local distributors and farmers when it can, and there’s also a family farm in the picture. “My father owns a jewelry shop across from the Times Union Center, but he and my mother have also owned a farm in Cambridge since 2012. So they’re relatively new farmers, but they’ve already been able to provide items for the kitchen here.”
The restaurant’s mission is nicely articulated on its handsome website at Sunhees.com: “Preserve Korean food tradition and revitalize authentic methods of production that invest into what we eat. Promote healthy living and growth of the local, ‘real food’ movement, connecting directly with farmers and food sources when possible.”
Of her dozen employees, almost all were hired through a local resettlement office, and a pleasant mix of languages adds to the restaurant’s background sounds.
As upbeat as Kim typically sounds, she acknowledges the black clouds on the horizon. “My whole passion is working with immigrants and refugees, so having Donald Trump in office concerns me greatly. But we’re going to work through this optimistically.”
It’s the challenge for all of us, making the example Sunhee’s sets all the more commendable.
Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, 95-97 Ferry St., Troy, 272-3413