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This surprising ingredient is the secret to the best creamed spinach

This funky take on a steakhouse staple is the brainchild of two "Top Chef" alumni.
Kimchi kicks this steakhouse-style creamed spinach up a few flavor notches.
Kimchi kicks this steakhouse-style creamed spinach up a few flavor notches.TODAY Illustration / Knife & Spoon
/ Source: TODAY

If you take me to a steakhouse for dinner and there's not creamed spinach on the menu, there's a chance I'll leave … or, at the very least, pout a little.

I'd argue that the creamy vegetable side dish is the perfect steakhouse accoutrement, so when I saw that Knife and Spoon, the restaurant headed up by "Top Chef" alums John Tesar and Gerald Sombright, had kimchi creamed spinach on the menu, I had to try it.

Chef Gerald Sombright pictured on Season 14 of "Top Chef."Paul Cheney / Bravo

The dish's creaminess perfectly complemented the pickled spiciness of the cabbage kimchi, and the melty interior contrasted beautifully with the crunch of the fermented vegetables and the golden-brown crust on top. I promptly downed an entire pan full and immediately made plans to eat more later in my stay at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, where Knife and Spoon is located.

Chef John Tesar pictured on Season 14 of "Top Chef."Paul Cheney / Bravo

The next time I had the delicious side in front of me, I chatted with Tesar and Sombright and learned that they have a secret ingredient: kimchi made by Koni Kim, Knife and Spoon's manager, using whatever's currently in season.

"It's better now than it was when the restaurant first opened because Koni makes the kimchi," Sombright, who appeared on "Top Chef" alongside Tesar, told TODAY Food. "Because she’s from Korea, she's going to the Asian grocery store and buying the spices for it and she doesn't like chili paste so she buys dry chilis and we make our own paste with fresh Fresno peppers and stuff."

Kim said when she originally heard there would be a kimchi creamed spinach side on the menu, she was skeptical.

Koni Kim says as someone who grew up in a Korean household, she was unsure about the idea of kimchi creamed spinach. Once she tried it, however, she was convinced.Koni Kim

"Growing up in a Korean household I was like, 'Ah, kimchi and spinach with that cream? It sounds odd to me,'" Kim said. But now, she's a believer.

"When I had the dish, it was really good and then I told them we should make the kimchi in-house," she said.

Kim has no set recipe for her kimchi, which she has also taught a cook at Knife and Spoon to make. Instead, she relies on her memories of making kimchi with her family growing up and focuses on putting leftover vegetables within the restaurant to good use.

"We’ll throw in traditional cabbage here and there," said Kim, "but kimchi is really about the fermentation and pickling process, it doesn't matter what the vegetable is that we use."

To make the kimchi, Kim starts by soaking vegetables in a 1-to-10 ratio of salt and water for "a day or so." After rinsing and draining her veggies, Kim makes a roux-like mixture from sweet rice flour and water, which acts as a thickening agent and helps the kimchi ferment. Next, Kim adds dashi, Korean red pepper flakes and a ground up mixture of onions, Asian pears, apples, garlic, ginger and whole red peppers. After adding a dash of Korean anchovy sauce and green plum extract, she lets the mixture sit in an airtight container for at least 48 hours until it has fermented.

"We store it in a cool place, and it will last forever," said Kim, adding that she makes new batches quite frequently as Knife and Spoon diners often ask for sides of her kimchi by itself in addition to the creamed spinach version.

For Tesar and Sombright, who met on Season 14 of "Top Chef," after Tesar ended up facing off against Sombright in a sudden-death Quickfire challenge for making kimchi shrimp and grits that the judges didn't appreciate, the dish takes them back to the beginning of their friendship.

"We met over a kimchi dish," said Tesar. "And then, for personal and friendship reasons, Gerald and I came to this partnership so to include him, I let him come up with the sides."

Kimchi Creamed Spinach

Kimchi Creamed Spinach

Gerald Sombright

"The notion was to come up with creamed spinach like every steakhouse has, but to do it in a fun, interesting way," Sombright explained. "The kimchi is always evolving. It has ramps in it in the spring and we've done radish, rutabaga and butternut squash versions. Even though it's always on the menu, it's always a little bit different."

Tesar said the side dish is a perfect expression of the style of Knife and Spoon.

"Here, it's either totally authentic or it's traditional but not obvious," he explained. "The idea is to elevate something and to be different."