Army service is mandatory in Korea for males, and for many the experience is life-changing. It certainly was for Jungsik Yim.
The young Yim had matriculated from university, majoring in industrial engineering when the time came for him to serve his country.
“In the army, there's guys who do office work, or kitchen work, and the kitchen guy went on vacation, so the officer asked me to do it for two weeks,” he says. “That was my first time holding a knife, or doing seasoning ... but the officer said that I made food better than the [regular] kitchen guy, so he told me, ‘You do it [from now on]'. That was my first time cooking.
“I realised – I can cook. That was the first thing that I could do better than other guys can.” After his two years of service was up, he quit university and started working in small bars or restaurants, three-man operations in which he'd simultaneously work the back and front of house.
Yim's father ran a company supplying Samsung with phone parts, and “like any Asian father”, dreamed that his son would one day succeed him. To dissuade him from a life in the kitchen, Yim's father sent him to America to learn English.
“I was so happy”, Yim enthuses. “Because I could stay away from my parents for the first time. I was cooking all the time, and I decided to become a chef.” When he returned to Korea, to his surprise, his father sanctioned his career choice. What he didn't approve of was his son's choice of employers.
“My father was saying, ‘Why are you working in a cheap restaurant?' He thought that if someone works in a hotel, that looks good. That's what old people think.” His disapproval turned out to be a blessing in disguise – he asked his son to enrol in cooking school abroad, rather than train on the job, which led Yim to the Culinary School of America. To pacify the old man, upon his graduation he joined the family business for a year. “I hated that one year,” he says.
So he returned to America, working for free in kitchens to pick up the craft. He did the same in Spain, which marked a turning point in his culinary development. “New York is like Hong Kong, you can get everything there. In Spain, they use very limited ingredients, but they have so many Michelin three-starred restaurants there. They use just what they have. They also have New Spanish cuisine, or New French. I started thinking about Korean food in a new way.”
“New Korean” doesn't seem like a revelation in theory, until you consider how many Korean restaurants abroad (and indeed, even on home turf) are simply variations on a tune – that tune being the satisfying sizzle of Korean barbecue. “People like it. It's cooking meat – who's going to hate that?” rationalises the chef.
He tested his concept by opening his first haute restaurant in Seoul, Jung Sik Dang, in 2008. Among the dishes on his opening menu of New Korean recipes was a twist on a seaweed soup called miyeok, served in Korea on children's birthdays. His version was reimagined as a paella – “that's never happened in Korea, but people liked it”.
While the cuisine was well received, business didn't boom. Yim decided to take on New York, opening Jungsik in Tribeca in 2011. “In Korea, there are too many restaurants. Less demand, more supply,” he explains. “I thought, if I do this kind of thing in New York City, there must be many more people who have money to do the whole foodie thing. So I decided to go to New York just a year after opening. I just said, let's do it. That was a stupid thing.”
He learned a hard lesson on Harrison Street, in the space the restaurant still occupies: if you build it, they will come ... for a few months. But “after three months, six months, they don't come any more. I thought we would close after one year. In the summer, I remember, we would have one table there – 50 seats, and one table taken. I was almost crying.”
His Hallelujah moment came when the New York restaurant was granted a Michelin star – a sure-fire business saver, as anyone in the restaurant industry knows.
Or not. “I thought, if I get a star, the restaurant's going to be packed. But that didn't happen. That was a big surprise for me. There are so many one-star restaurants in the city, like 45 or 50.” A year later, Jungsik earned a second star, and that's when the diners started taking notice.
Surprisingly, the stars had a greater effect on his Seoul establishment, where businessmen vied to take clients to the restaurant helmed by the only two-Michelinstarred Korean chef in the world. That same year, the Seoul restaurant broke into the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, the first Korean restaurant ever to do so, and this year, under a reconfigured voting system, it cracked the top 10.
“Right now, my dream is to make my business last for the next 10 years without those stars,” says the chef. To that end, besides heading to New York more often to keep an eye on things, which he's neglected slightly since getting married just over a year ago, he's got a quickturnover restaurant in mind for his hometown. “Fine dining is a hard business. I'm going to open a fast, casual thing. Koreans love broths. I might open a rice and broth restaurant. In Seoul, people don't expect things like service. They just need good food, that's it.”
It's a project that would at the very least keep his new numberone customer happy. “My wife, she loves to drink,” he says, laughing. “She has eight restaurants in Seoul, and four wine bars, so she always drinks. So when I go back home after work, midnight, she's drinking. She'll say, ‘Give me some food for drinking.'” As always, he delivers.