People are slamming Shake Shack for its controversial new Korean fried chicken sandwich, but some chefs say the chain's use of a Korean ingredient is a good thing

Rachel Askinasi
·7 min read
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Shake Shack launched a Korean-style Fried Chick'n sandwich. Courtesy of Shake Shack
  • Shake Shack is facing backlash for its new Korean-style Fried Chick'n sandwich.

  • Some chefs and restaurant owners told Insider they're happy the chain is popularizing gochujang.

  • But they said the sandwich itself just didn't taste as good as they thought it could have.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Shake Shack started 2021 with a controversial new product offering: a Korean-style Fried Chick'n sandwich, which debuted on January 5. The chain announced that the sandwich would be part of a limited line of other new menu items with Korean-inspired flavors - mostly including the umami-rich chili paste, gochujang - available through April 5.

In recent weeks, the capsule collection of food has come under criticism from social-media users, many of whom say Shake Shack's new sandwich is an example of cultural appropriation.

Twitter user Alina (@dasgupz on Twitter), called the menu addition "a ploy to win the best fried chicken sandwich" amidst the chicken sandwich wars happening among fast-food chains.

"So they're mooching off Koreans to monetize ... which is ... cultural appropriation," Alina continued.

Read more: Leaked documents show how McDonald's plans to win the 2021 chicken-sandwich wars. Here's everything we know about the looming fast-food battle.

While some are angry that Shake Shack is using Korean flavors at all, others, like Brooklyn-based writer, Giaae Kwon, think the sandwich was "just so lazy" in terms of execution.

Kwon later told Eater New York that she thought this new stateside menu item looked like "the most basic way to go about doing a Korean fried chicken."

When asked about the backlash, Shake Shack's culinary director Mark Rosati told Insider, "As a global business with more than 300 Shacks across the world, we're always inspired by local flavors and cuisines in markets where we operate [...] We called our sandwich Korean-style because it was inspired by traditional Korean fried chicken, but we recognize it's not the same."

Rosati said the recipe is a close variation of the sandwich served at Shake Shack locations in South Korea.

"Listening to our guests and the community is essential and we welcome all feedback that can help us better represent the food we serve, including its cultural origins," he continued. "And we encourage our guests to explore the many amazing restaurants that feature incredible, inspiring food from Korean chefs across the globe."

Korean-American chefs told us they think Shake Shack's use of Korean flavors is a good thing

Chef Hooni Kim of both Danji and Hanjan in New York City told Insider via email, "As a Korean chef, I believe that incorporating Korean ingredients or dishes into America's mainstream is generally a positive thing."

He called it a "necessary step" for helping Americans familiarize themselves with flavors from all over the world.

"There's a certain level of snobbery going on sometimes," Kim said. "It's ok for a high-profile chef at a fine dining restaurant to incorporate gochujang into their tasting menu but not for a fast-food chain to use it? I don't think so."

"Making moral judgments on this kind of culinary spread has a chilling effect on the growth and development of new up-and-coming cuisines," he added.

Kim did point out that he believes execution is important as well as exposure.

"The issue is, however, whether it is executed properly and tastes good," he said. "And this is where Korean or local expertise comes in and becomes important."

Jae Lee, chef and owner of Nowon in New York City, reviewed the sandwich himself on Instagram live. He gave Insider permission to share his post and comments on the sandwich.

The Korean-American chef said he, too, thinks Shake Shack featuring Korean flavors is a positive thing.

"I can speak for myself as a chef, and as a restaurant owner, and as a Korean-American immigrant," Lee said. "I'm not offended by this. I think it's fine - I actually thank them."

"I thank Shake Shack for introducing gochujang to a broader audience. I think what we can learn from this is there's an opportunity now for Korean restaurant owners, or Korean chefs in general, that want to use the word gochujang. [...] I think this is a good entryway for the Korean ingredient."

Bobby Yoon, owner of the Korean restaurant Yoon Haeundae Galbi in New York City, told Eater it's the naming of the sandwich that caused concern for him. He said the name should reflect the specific Korean ingredient rather than using "Korean-style" as a catch-all, since Korean cuisine encompasses far more than just one flavor.

"I'm not saying that anybody is doing a wrong thing," Yoon told Eater. "But I think that if they wanted to put it as the name [of the sandwich], I think that they should have put it as 'gochujang' or whatever they think that the Korean style is."

The chefs we spoke to each stressed the importance of flavor execution - and some thought the sandwich missed the mark

Kim told Insider he thinks getting the flavors right is paramount to introducing less-mainstream cuisines to the American fast-food market. Doing so, he says, will prevent customers from "writing off Korean food or Korean fried chicken due to a mistaken interpretation of the dish."

But Kim, who tried the sandwich on his own, says that the fast-food chain failed in its flavor execution. In Kim's opinion, "The Shake Shack Korean chicken sandwich's biggest downfall was that it just didn't taste very good [...] it simply wasn't as good as your local Korean chicken joint."

Other chefs, like Lee, agreed.

"The bun is mad soggy," Lee said in his video. "To all my friends that said they loved the idea but the execution wasn't great, I agree."

"When you take gochujang and you make a glaze out of it or sauce out of it, it should be balanced because gochujang can be salty and a little too umami in the back," he said. Lee says the gochujang needs to be diluted and balanced out with flavors like honey, garlic, and soy sauce.

"This right here," he said holding up the sandwich, "just takes like mostly gochujang." While Lee said he doesn't think the sandwich is misleading, he also doesn't think it's delicious. "To me, I like salty food," he said. "This tastes like too much umami - too salty in the back [of the palate]."

As for the kimchi slaw, which the restaurant partnered with Choi's Kimchi of Oregon to make, Lee wasn't a fan. "Kimchi slaw," he said, "I don't really get what's kimchi about it."

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Shake Shack's Korean-style fried chicken sandwich. Rachel Askinasi/Insider

Insider sent a sandwich to chef and owner of NYC's Golden Diner, Sam Yoo, to get his feedback on it as well. Yoo didn't have an issue with the flavors, but he thought the texture was all wrong.

"I thought the sandwich had good flavor," Yoo wrote in an email to Insider. "The kimchi slaw and gochujang sauce were reminiscent of Korean food I grew up eating."

"Where the sandwich failed was the texture of the fried chicken," he added. "I've had really great KFC [Korean fried chicken] that stayed crunchy overnight covered inside of a refrigerator. This chicken, unfortunately, got soggy from a 15-minute delivery time."

Yoo told Insider about the criteria he uses to judge what he calls "ideal Korean fried chicken." He said the chicken "should have a light and crunchy shell that has almost a glass-like texture for crunch" and a coating that's "not as thick of a crust as your classic Southern fried chicken."

As for the flavor, he said "the sauce should be glazy with a nice balance of sweet (sugar or honey), savory (soy), and spice (gochujang)."

"Honestly, I'm not a fan of this sandwich," Lee said in his video. "Not because Shake Shack is using a Korean ingredient like gochujang - I love that, I respect that, I thank them for that."

"But at the end of the day, the food has to taste good. And honestly, if Korean people in Korea thought that this was great, I kind of question their palate a little bit," he added.

Read the original article on Insider