By Elena Kadvany
Maum's Michelin-starred chefs 'part ways' with owners, adding uncertainty to future of Palo Alto Korean restaurantUploaded: Aug 17, 2020
Two months after pivoting to a retail operation and a year after winning their first Michelin star, the co-chefs of Maum in Palo Alto, Meichih and Michael Kim, decided to "part ways" with the Korean fine-dining restaurant.
The couple announced their departure in identical Instagram posts over the weekend.
"Maum was a labor of love, 7 years in the making. Maum was the creation of patience, dedication, perseverance, and passion. And most importantly, Maum was the people: our generous partners, dedicated team, local purveyors, supportive friends and family, and of course, our wonderful guests and patrons," they wrote. "We are proud of the elevated Korean cuisine we brought to Silicon Valley."
Michael and Meichih Kim, now the former Maum co-chefs, photographed in 2018 at the Los Altos Hills farm that grew produce for the Korean restaurant. Photo by Veronica Weber.
Meichih said she didn't have any further comment beyond the social media announcement. They're "closing the books on this chapter and thinking of what’s next," she wrote in an email.
The restaurant's weekly newsletter, sent out on Sunday night, said that "as we continue to learn more about operating during this pandemic, we have been forced to go in a different direction to try and achieve sustainability under these unpredictable circumstances. With this change, we will be parting ways with Chefs Michael & Meichih Kim."
Charles Chen, a consultant with Maum, said in an interview that the decision was a financial one as the long-term future of the University Avenue business remains uncertain.
"Those are questions that internally we're still trying to answer," he said. "Obviously from a financial perspective, things generally aren't great right now ... whether or not it's going to make sense as a sustainable business -- that’s what we’re trying to establish."
This marks another major, pandemic-forced change for Maum, which is owned by venture capitalist Brian Koo and his wife Grace. The restaurant fully shut down at the start of shelter in place in March, briefly reopened for takeout in May and then shifted into selling Korean cooking essentials, meal kits, specialty food items and produce from its private farm in Los Altos Hills.
A takeout meal from Maum in May, including Korean fried chicken, a seaweed biscuit and herb salad. Photo by Elena Kadvany.
Maum was born as a high-end private dining space before opening to the public in 2018 several days a week. Less than a year later, the Kims won their first Michelin star.
Chen said didn't consider offering outdoor dining because they felt there was no way to replicate the Maum experience of an intricate Korean tasting menu served at a 16-seat communal table that encouraged interaction with other diners and the chefs.
The transition from fine-dining restaurant into retail, which many local restaurant owners have made to survive the pandemic, is challenging both operationally and financially, he said. Restaurateurs, most for the first time, are learning on the fly how to package and produce items and how much volume is needed to be sustainable.
"These kinds of attempts by any operator are to find a way to break even and to find a way to keep going, to keep jobs in place instead of saying, 'Let's just close it up,'" Chen said. "The amount of volume you actually need to sell is a daunting figure."
Maum will sell the rest of some housemade Korean items that had already been prepared, such as kimchi and ssamjang, Chen said, as well as imported goods from Korea and Japan.
But moving forward, the space will focus on selling baked goods and confections, operating as an "incubator" for local bakers who might need kitchen space or a place to sell their creations.
This includes Chen himself. Maum was one of the first pickup locations (and the only one on the Peninsula) for his now wildly popular Japanese-inspired Basque cheesecakes, which will continue to be sold there, as well as handmade soba noodles and tofu from Soba Ichi in Oakland.
This week, Maum added naturally leavened bagels from Midnite Bagel, a pop-up started in San Francisco by Nick Beitche, the former head bread baker at Tartine Bakery. Beitche makes the bagels using a sourdough starter and freshly milled flours. Maum will have three flavors — plain, cinnamon raisin and a special collaboration, buckwheat and black sesame — available in packs of three, six and a dozen.
Chen is also in talks with Peninsula baker John Shelsta of Love for Butter and San Francisco pastry chef Angela Pinkerton, who launched a roving pie pop-up during the shutdown, for future collaborations.
Maum's retail offerings are available for preorder starting on Mondays at noon on Tock for pickup at designated times.
On Instagram, the Kims wrote that they're not sure what they'll do next professionally. They ended their posts with a call to action: support local restaurants.
"As the restaurant and hospitality industry continues to suffer, we encourage those that can to support your local favorite restaurants — they are the lifeblood of our communities and foster meaningful memories," they wrote.