If drinking soju is a religion, then Cosmo Kwon is a self-identified evangelist. The clear, easy-drinking Korean spirit packs a wallop – much like the rest of the menu at Bawi Korean BBQ, which Kwon opened with his father, David, in 2018. Kwon is the managing partner and director of operations for Gawi Bawi Bo food group in Springfield, where he oversees day-to-day operations for both Bawi and Hinode Japanese Steakhouse.
The all-you-can-eat restaurant is the first Korean barbecue in Springfield where guests can cook their own meals on table-top grills.
For Kwon, the hospitality industry is more than a career – it’s a family tradition. In the early 1990s, four-year-old Kwon left South Korea with his family, immigrating to California. The Kwons moved to Missouri about a decade later, bringing with them a passion for amplifying Korean culture in the Midwest.
Kwon’s father purchased Hinode in 2005, but from the very beginning, the Kwons had grander plans. “Moving to Springfield and seeing the quality of Asian restaurants – restaurants that were so Americanized because there wasn’t a market for them to be authentic – was odd,” Kwon says. “At that point, my father and I started talking and decided to open a Korean restaurant.” Fast forward to 2018, when Bawi quickly became a Springfield staple. Today, guests still flock to savor banchan – Korean side dishes – while cooking their own meat on old-school Korean table grills.
“We wanted to showcase Korean culture, which is a lot of work – there’s so much that goes into it,” Kwon says. That’s where soju comes in. It’s the only spirit available on Bawi’s menu, a bold choice that Kwon stands by. “We don’t want our guests to order their everyday drink,” Kwon says. “We want to force you to try something new. We want to expand the understanding of Korean culture.”
For Kwon, Bawi’s menu is just one way to show how seriously he takes his unique platform. “We are still very conscious of making sure to showcase the best of Korean food, because we understand that Korean food is something different for a lot of people,” Kwon says. “The way I see it, we only have one shot. If someone doesn’t enjoy their meal or their experience with us, we won’t get a second chance. On a grander level, we represent everything that Korea has to offer, and we have a very limited window to showcase that.”
What’s your perfect day of eating in Springfield? Because I work in the restaurant, I actually really like eating at home. When we go out, I like to try different ethnic dishes for every meal. My wife says I can’t turn off my restaurant switch – a lot of times, I eat for work, not for enjoyment. That means I’m usually picking a restaurant to learn something from the experience. A few things I do love are a really good burger – I grew up in California, so I’m an In-N-Out loyalist – and Mexican food from El Puente [across the street from Bawi]. We also love Taj Mahal. If we’re not hitting the buffet, we’ll eat the classics like butter chicken or chicken tikka masala.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? People have definitely been more open to accepting other ethnic foods. People say that “fusion” is kind of a dirty word these days, but in reality our entire culinary scene is one big fusion. Nothing is really native to just one place. Still, it’s very cool to see people excited about different ethnic foods, different breeds of dining options.
Each year, we honor the seasoned pros who continue to push the envelope in the local food-and-drink scene, from restaurateurs to artisans to hospitality pros.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Springfield? I like to see more emphasis on authenticity in the cuisines we already have. For example, I’d love to see really authentic Chinese food or Japanese food. I will say that, when we moved to Missouri from California in 2005, it was a total culture shock. California is very culturally diverse, so I grew up around a lot of different ethnicities – but mostly around other Korean people. Springfield is 99 percent Caucasian, so it was completely different.
What’s your favorite comfort food? My wife cooks a lot of Korean food at home. In the mornings, I have white rice with a Korean-style miso soup called dengjang chigae. It has very intense flavors, and I’ll eat that with a serving of pork belly. My mother also makes a braised short rib dish that is amazing. It’s a sweet and savory type of braised short rib, that is super tender and super juicy.
What is your first food memory? We emigrated from Korea when I was four, and one of the first things I remember was going to a Korean barbecue near where we used to live in California. We lived with my grandparents, and my grandfather always wanted to go, so we had all of our family gatherings at this Korean barbecue. The funny thing is that, about 18 years later, we ended up buying that Korean barbecue, which we ran until we moved to Missouri and took over Hinode.
What are your future plans? We’re going into another year with Bawi, and we’re definitely looking to expand into different cities. We’re also interested in expanding. We’re not interested in franchising, necessarily – it’s more important for us to focus on putting our best foot forward. In the end, it’s about spreading the Korean culture.
Bawi Korean BBQ, 4121 S. National Ave., Springfield, Missouri, bawikbbq.com