Seattle’s ‘New’ Korean Dining Pioneer – Chef Heong Soon Park
Author’s Note – Tray Kitchen closed in April 2016. Both of Heong Soon Park’s other restaurants – Chan and Bacco remain open.
The ‘New’ Asian Cuisine in Seattle
Seattle is a diverse town from a culinary perspective and you can get just about anything here if you look hard enough. Whether it’s food from East Africa that you crave, a hot bowl of the ubiquitous pho from your favorite Vietnamese place, or the sickly sweet teriyaki joint you patronized in college – they are all here.
And while there are dozens of generic Americanized Chinese restaurants serving non-authentic food, and too many garden variety sushi places to name – there are few options for genuine Korean food within the city limits. If you want good Korean, you must generally head north to Shoreline, Edmonds and so on.
However, if you are downtown, you are saved – because you probably already know that Chef Heong-Soon Park (aka simply as ‘Park’) has given us Chan in the Pike Place Market area. The bold, yet refined flavors of his cooking there are unapologetic in their Korean authenticity. There are no equivalents of machine-made California rolls or ketchup-based General Tso’s Chicken at his restaurants. Just good, unadulterated Korean cuisine.
The Cure for a Bored Palate
After talking to a few Chef friends about their favorite restaurants around town I was consistently hearing about Chef Heong Soon Park and Chan in the conversation. I was intrigued by the prospect of meeting him and learning more about Korean food which I know little about outside of the standards like bibimbap, Korean BBQ and the like. I also knew of the long-standing Korean tradition of fermentation in things like kimchi – but little more about the process and flavor profiles.
In the spirit of learning something new, I decided to bring Park a sampling of my home-cured charcuterie as a conversation starter. I felt it would give us some common ground and I always enjoy getting feedback from experts in the culinary field. It proved to be a great idea as Park loves charcuterie and the art of curing. And on we went to talk about Park’s life, culinary experience and motivation to be a better Chef every day…
Why did you get involved in food?
I went to B-school before I became involved in the food industry. My parents owned restaurants and I thought it was such a hard job that I would never own one. I went to school in Alaska and met my then girlfriend/now wife and I moved here with a backpack and her.
At first I worked for auto detail business, got married, and we found some small café with my wife who could run it – as that’s what she did in Korea. We fell in love with Pike Place Market and found the space that is Bacco. After a bit, I realized it was bigger than I thought it was. I realized that I needed to learn and get more involved in the business. My biggest challenge was running kitchen and I needed to have control. So, I went to culinary school. I was at Bacco from 6:30am-4pm and then I’d go to school from 5pm-11pm for 2 years at The Art Institute in Seattle.
That sounds like a pretty hectic schedule. What kept you going?
As I learned more I felt more interested and I started changing things. When we started, Bacco was generic ‘Sysco food’ for tourists. As I got into it I realized that what we were doing was wrong. We changed all the produce to organic, bought eggs locally and made the food simple and clean. I started researching, going to events, staging, etc. The biggest help was getting around and understanding the palate for the general public. At that point, I was ready to move to second restaurant.
What did your parents do?
My dad was working for Korean airlines as a station manager in Anchorage. We lived all over. I was in Switzerland for 3 years, Malaysia for 4 years. My mom took care of the family. When they retired, they wanted to move to the US – and now they own a Japanese restaurant!
How did you come up with the concept for Chan?
We almost signed lease for the Bricco space but there was no kitchen there. And as a cooked more, I wanted a nicer kitchen. I needed a restaurant with a hood. I became very depressed looking at other restaurant spaces as they weren’t what I wanted. So my wife suggested I open a restaurant downstairs from Bacco. It was low risk – we spent 150K there to do a remodel and we changed the whole place. I had trained for Italian, French – which I think was really stupid. Every Italian restaurant uses their ‘grandmother’s recipe’ and my grandmother isn’t Italian! So I started at a disadvantage.
I was looking around at the competition and saw the Pink Door, Il Bistro and others – our place was called Bacco Wine Bar. I realized no one would come here for Italian food. So we shut down for 6 months. I talked to my wife, looked at my background and decided to open a Korean place.
How was the reception for Korean food done your way?
Well, I ate around at a lot of ‘American-Korean’ restaurants to see what they were doing. They all served the same stuff – bibimbap, kalbi, kimchi, etc. When I opened Chan I spent a lot of money on a sign so I couldn’t quit or go back. I went heads down and just cooked. What did I eat when I was young? That’s what I put on the menu. Little by little we grew.
Then a Seattle Times critic came in and gave us 3 stars – business grew big. We went through ups and downs and then we were selected as one of Best of 2013 in the Seattle Times. It was huge for us and I spent a lot of time doing large-scale events with 300-400 people eating our food. It was great for recognition and business and a great investment of time.
So how did you decide to make the jump from the cramped quarters of Bacco/Chan to Tray?
It is hard to spend time there with the low ceilings, tiny kitchen and things like waiting for Bacco to finish prep before starting on Chan’s food. I looked at this place in Queen Anne and it was so dirty. I just didn’t want to deal with it. Again, I talked to my wife and realized I wanted another space – and she told me I’d regret not doing it right. I said it would cost 100K, she told me to spend more and do it right.
I found this space (for Tray Kitchen) and there was nothing here. I worked with the agent, met the landlord and fell in love with the space and started the design. And here we are!
There’s a book by Danny Meyer called ‘Setting the Table’ and he describes owning a restaurant as “almost like having a baby”. Before it comes, you are excited. Then it gets here and you don’t sleep. Then after 3-4 years when it’s growing up and working out nicely – you want another one.
What do you love most about the restaurant business?
I always tell my cooks – the most rewarding thing about this work is not the paycheck – it’s the people’s expressions and them thanking you for great food. The ideas that are coming out of your head and through your hands being translated into good food. I ask my cooks to use their creativity in the Tray Kitchen menu as I want them to own it.
When you are working in a traditional restaurant it’s difficult because there’s little room for creativity if you are a cook. I thought that by giving the cooks the opportunity to influence a customer’s happiness and the ability to be creative – that would be a big reward.
I always ask when I interview what someone’s final goal is. If they aren’t into food, and don’t want to get any better, then it’s not for them. There’s no such thing as a short cut in life.
What do you like least about it?
Yelp. It’s common across the restaurant world right? Aside from that, it’s the long hours and not being able to spend enough time with family. When I went to b-school I wanted to be a Project Manager. I get bored easily but in a restaurant every day is different.
What’s your opinion about the role of social media in the restaurant business these days?
I think it’s a double edged sword. Use it right and it will be very effective. Use it wrong and you are screwed.
90% of chefs say they don’t pay attention to Yelp –but they do. I look at it every day. If it’s a weird comment I don’t pay attention. If there’s a valid reason for the feedback – I look at it and go to solve the problem. How many people will say they don’t like the food if you asked them directly? Nobody. It’s an outlet for people who aren’t comfortable with giving direct feedback.
People don’t come here just because they are hungry. They come here for the experience. If they don’t enjoy their meal, I want to fix the problem. You want to satisfy people and if we fail – I want the chance to satisfy them if and when they come back.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurant?
Customer satisfaction. And harmony with employees. I get to say this because I tell everyone that I’m very blessed that I have Bacco – it’s a consistent moneymaker and very busy. It helps me do what I want to do. I’m in a different position than many cooks who are struggling financially. Still, I have to make a salary for myself.
If business does well, I want to be able to reward my employees and that helps with the harmony aspect of my employees. It’s tough for cooks who don’t make a ton of money – I can’t be the only one that benefits from the success of the business. They need to go on vacation too. I’d rather have them focus on cooking than financial problems.
What do you think of the new $15/hour minimum wage laws in Seattle?
My starting cooks make $16/hour already. I pay a lot compared to others in the business. It also sets my expectation levels. I’d rather have one good $16/hr employee than two average $10/hr employees.
I’d rather make them straight up honest and run the business clean. I also want to be friendly and respectful towards the people I work with.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
Simple, fresh and local. No MSG – simple Asian philosophy. Food is very honest. I don’t know if I mentioned this but I always knew how important seasonal ingredients were. As I cook more and eat out more it started to click in my heart. Using what’s in season is where it’s at.
When I went to NY – Jean Georges, Daniel – everyone had corn on the menu. In SF, everyone had tomatoes on the menu. But they were all being prepared in different ways. It really clicked with me – that’s where a Chef’s skills shine. We all work with the same ingredients and get creative.
How is your cooking style and technique changing as you gain more experience?
I’m now steering my cooking into a milder style – Korean cooking is generally heavy. You can’t expect people to come back the next day for those heavy dishes. Maybe because I was trained in French and Italian food – it’s not overly strong. That’s why I’m a big fan of Jason Stoneburner’s food – I can go back the next day.
I tell my chefs if they are tasting a soup – if it’s good on the first bite it’s too strong. The diner will be eating a whole bowl and it cannot be too rich to finish.
Chan is how I used to be – bold and strong. Now with Tray Kitchen, I want to be more finessed and cook farm-to-table, local food. Take carrots, add a touch of honey and bring the sweetness up front. 90% of cooks will want to add curry, fennel – they want to mask the sweetness and balance it out. Not let the carrots shine. That’s not my style.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
I would say an easier distribution system for them. Make deliveries in plastic containers so we can reuse them. They deliver in boxes now and they can’t take it back by law.
Also, a little more education on their food. Once I started getting produce from my farm I saw the difference. What you thought was coming from Whole Foods was fresh is really many days old. The stuff from the farm is so fresh. I think having the farmers understand how to prepare food and share those preparation suggestions with their customers is great and it helps them become more involved with their respective communities.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Run while you can! I think what you enjoy as a customer is not what a restaurant is all about. When I interview cooks, I always tell them that 50% of our work is cleaning and prepping. If someone comes in and tells me that they really enjoy cleaning and prepping then maybe I hire them as a cook. We can always teach cooking but not the core habits of cleaning and setting up their mise en place.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I wouldn’t have owned a restaurant so soon. I would have traveled a lot and worked more for someone else, then started a business. I learned so many things in a very hard way. One day at Bacco I was so mad that I fired everyone and just worked by myself for weeks. It was a very hard lesson.
I would spend more time travelling and eating out. 99% of restaurants that fail are those where the owner thinks their food is awesome – but nobody else does. It’s all about them and it’s in their eyes only. In an open kitchen like Tray, people’s faces tell the truth. If you see a customer’s expression when they first take a bite you can see that they like what they’ve had.
Tell me about someone or something that influenced who you are today as a chef
Not directly, but Thomas Keller by reading his book as well as Grant Achatz. When Achatz went to interview at the French Laundry the host said ‘go in the back and you’ll find him’. He went to kitchen and saw this older guy sweeping the floor. The guy put the broom away and said ‘Hi, I’m Thomas Keller.”
We do the dirtiest work in the restaurant. Nobody wants to clean puke in the bathroom – I do it. I’ve replaced water heaters, changed toilets – so many things not related to food. By doing that, I feel that I’m much more engaged. We do a lot of behind the scenes stuff.
Also, Chef Stuart Brioza from State Bird Provisions is an influential person for me. He’s very creative and well-grounded. Each day, he unlocks the door with 20-30 people waiting to come inside and he welcomes them in. His Chef de Cuisine comes out, introduces himself, engages people – he’s the man. I felt like he was my friend already when he first came by my table. Then he took me next door to his open space that he was looking to expand into and I could see his passion just by him describing what he wanted to do in an empty space.
What is your favorite ingredient?
It changes all the time. I like vegetables. Right now, it’s probably squash and pumpkin. Juicing pumpkin was very cool. We had a pumpkin that wasn’t sweet enough and we didn’t know what to do with it. So we cooked mussels with it and developed different methods to compliment it.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
Definitely more Asian is coming. Korean is becoming more popular – but I don’t want to follow the bolder flavor profiles. The connection between cooks and customers is a trend I want to explore. I’m disappointed here in Seattle that people in the kitchen generally don’t talk to you – even in an open kitchen. I want to change that.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
For me – charcuterie. I think it’s pure beauty on a plate. Just like how Americans can get obsessed with sushi; in Korea – we don’t have any food like charcuterie it’s fascinating to me.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
Jason Stoneburner is my favorite. I like Renee Erickson’s food as well. I like that she’s playing a lot with room temperature foods. They are similar but different – Renee’s food is cleaner and Jason’s is very thoughtful.
What is your last meal?
Steamed rice with seaweed – because that’s what I grew up on. My mom used to give me this when there was nothing to cook. It’s what I had for dinner last night as well. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs – I would just have water with it and that’s all.
Keeping it Simple at Chan and Bacco
It’s a recurring theme in food and life. Simple is good. Complex flavors can be evoked from simple ingredients. But as Park said – if you are serving carrots, why not let the carrot shine vs. making it taste like something else? Let them taste like carrots. The simple approach works in food as it’s honest, straightforward and tasty when done right. This is why I see Chefs like Park succeed time after time – let the ingredients be the focus of the meal. Not some bastardization of them concocted by the Chef. Besides, how can you not give props to a Chef who promotes the theme of eating locally when he’s sourcing many ingredients from his own farm in Woodinville?
This is the same philosophy that ‘winemakers’ have in Piemonte (though they shun that label). They are self-described as farmers – and their job is to make sure the vines are well cared for and the fruit grows well. They are caretakers of the process to bring you wines like Barolo and Barbaresco. And their job is to not screw anything up by over-engineering the process. The same can be said for Park – simple works, it’s good, and it lets the ingredients shine. Try out Chan or Bacco and see for yourself.
If you enjoyed this interview with Chef Heong-Soon Park then check out my other Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs on The Hungry Dog Blog! Next up – Dana Tough and Brian McCracken of the Old Sage and Tavern Law.