By Yun Suh-young
A tinge of sadness and admiration hit this reporter’s heart when hearing about the hardship and effort owner chef Kwon Woo-joong of Korean fine dining restaurant Kwon Sook Soo went through to reach where he is now.
Kwon’s restaurant snatched two stars from the reputed Michelin Guide, Nov. 7, the highest number received by a chef-owned Korean restaurant, since the opening of Kwon Sook Soo in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, in July last year.
His story is reminiscent of lyrics from Disney’s animation “The Princess and the Frog” where protagonist Tiana, a young aspiring chef, works as a waitress until she saves enough money to start her own restaurant and finally does open it with money saved up from hard work.
“There’s been trials and tribulations, you know I’ve had my share. But I’ve climbed the mountain and I’ve crossed the river and I’m almost there,” she sings.
The story isn’t exactly the same, but Kwon withstood years of the same coming from the disregard for Korean cuisine and certain preconceived notions about how Korean food should be. It took 10 years for his efforts to finally pay off and his cuisine to be recognised by global standards. He wasn’t “almost there,” but he was finally there.
“The day my restaurant received the stars, my wife and I cried. All of our kitchen staff cried. It was an emotional day for all of us,” Kwon said during an interview with The Korea Times, Monday, recalling the day he was called to receive the honourable plaque.
“I’ve cooked Korean cuisine for 12 years and the social environment at that time was completely different. The standard of Korean cuisine was low. People cared for quantity over quality and requested more food, cheaper food and strong, stimulating flavours. You can’t imagine the hardships Korean chefs went through at that time. It was so painful. I cannot count how many days I cried.”
It was only a few years ago that the market slowly started to expand and it suddenly grew at exponential speed. Now foodies are everywhere, looking for better, higher quality cuisine no matter how much it costs.
“Korean cuisine has developed explosively over the past five years, with modern and contemporary cuisines at the fore. It grew both qualitatively and market-wise. It’s overwhelming,” said Kwon.
“With the Michelin stars, I feel good that I was able show that you can be well-evaluated just with the software. In the end, restaurants are evaluated by food. So now I can confidently tell aspiring chefs not to be too stressed about having a fancy interior,” he said, smiling.
“The award is not an end but only an interim check on where I am. It felt good to be evaluated objectively by people I didn’t know, and had nothing to do with the local network because I don’t really have a local network.”
He attributed the stars entirely to hard work, acknowledging his staff.
“We make everything from scratch. So we have more work than other restaurants. Even with making kimchi, we don’t use ingredients off the shelf. We make our own red pepper, fermented fish paste, red pepper paste, soybean paste, vinegar and so on. To get the best-quality ingredients, we have to personally go out to find them because you can’t get them through distributors,” said Kwon.
“If Western food chefs put 100 per cent effort, and if other Korean restaurants do 120 per cent, I can say we put in 160 to 170 per cent. I think this amount of effort of my staff finally saw the light.”
As an owner chef, Kwon takes care of everything from A to Z, from accounting to cooking.
“We don’t throw away leftover ingredients because I’m always in the kitchen and tightly control the use, so my cooks surely get a lot of stress. But we try to use the ingredients efficiently. I became meticulous with accounting from my previous experience at brand-owned restaurants. Since I have built a network where I can buy high-quality ingredients at lower prices, I can reduce costs,” he said.
Kwon explained he chose to cook Korean food, when there was a range of other options, because no one did it at the time.
“I thought I could do better than what was out in the market. I didn’t grow up eating Western cuisine so I thought it was impossible to do something I was unfamiliar with. I knew I had to cook Korean to be a top chef here,” said Kwon.
“My grandfather was an owner chef but he died before I was born. But my mother inherited his taste and I learned cooking from her. Our family was quite unique because we made everything at home. When we make kimchi, we make 20 types of kimchi. I thought other families did the same, but realised later it wasn’t the case.”
Kwon Sook Soo’s cuisine is closer to traditional Korean, but Kwon adds modern touches here and there. He describes his restaurant as one that “develops the Korean tradition.”
“We use all sorts of rare seasonal ingredients from across the country. I’d like it to be characterised as a restaurant that serves unique dishes from rare ingredients hard to find elsewhere. Korean food has its own patterns, using repetitive ingredients. I wanted to break out of that routine,” he said.
“I created a menu to please both the older and younger generations. The older generation and foreigners appreciate the natural taste of ingredients whereas the young prefer intuitively appealing tastes. I hope these two palates will intersect one day.”
Most of his customers are in their 50s or 60s but reservations from younger people increased after the Michelin announcement.
“About 60 per cent of our usual customers are in their 50s to 60s and about 30 per cent are in their 30s and 40s. There were no 20s. But now young people are becoming interested. As for foreigners, we had about 20 to 30 per cent before the Michelin award, but now it’s reduced because they couldn’t make reservations by phone. I’m planning to build an online reservation system for foreigners,” said Kwon.
He said Korean cuisine needs to develop its own character and improve service and presentation.
“Korean cuisine developed only one-sidedly — the taste side. In terms of global standards, we need to have a strong philosophy and character. We also lack interiors, service and good tableware. Especially the lack of service staff is a huge problem in this industry,” he said.
“It’s hard to find hall staff, especially for owner chefs. The stress is huge for service personnel but the wage system is extremely unreasonable. No one wants to work as service staff. We need to establish a tip system or include the service price in the dish price but it’s really hard.”
To improve the overall service and level of cuisine, he invests regularly in educating his employees and giving them opportunities to experience overseas dining.
“I leave 2.5 per cent of the sales to welfare and another 2.5 per cent for research and development. I send my staff on Michelin tours across the world. I know the standards because I’ve experienced them before, but many of my staff members don’t have that experience,” said Kwon. “So even if it’s costly, I send them to eat at top-notch restaurants and learn from that experience. It really helped them level up their standards and understand what I’m saying.”
Kwon plans to open a Korean bistro early next year in the vicinity of his current restaurant to introduce more casual Korean late-night dining.
“Kwon Sook Soo may be burdensome to visit often due to its high prices. I want to offer affordable and fun cuisine introducing food from all eight provinces of Korea. It’s going to be more mass-friendly,” he said.
As for future aspirations, he said he didn’t care much about gaining more stars. Rather, he’d like to invest in fostering young chefs.
“I think it’d be difficult to add an extra star. I’d just like to retain the two stars and our quality. I hope to be an incubator for many young chefs wishing to open their own restaurants. I don’t think establishing cooking schools is helpful. Rather, itthe experience that counts. I want to help give them that experience.”