It’s been quite a year so far. Anyone who’s been following me on social media or on Restaurant Buzz Seoul likely has heard the drama behind what’s been going on. I don’t really want to go into it because, well, it’s bad form, and it’s going to take a while for the wounds to heal. Here’s the quick rundown. I partnered with an acquaintance at the beginning of the year to open a pub featuring my style of southern/soul food cooking, particularly Alabama-style barbecue. The stories in building that place and all the MacGyver solutions in making it work would have made quite a tale. We opened at the beginning of March. By early April, my business partner wasn’t interested in signing papers confirming our partnership and claimed I was only his employee. Because, you know, I had earlier quit a job making decent money for only 20 hours of work per week to do something that paid half as much while working 80 hours per week, just to be an employee.
That’s all I’m going to say about it. I walked out.
After a day of shock in mulling over what I had just been through, along with threats on Kakao Talk from my ex-“partner,” I carefully worded a statement on my Facebook wall that I had left the pub. I didn’t go into detail. The vacuum left open a space for a lot of speculation, fueled by my ex-“partner” trashing me on the pub’s Facebook page, which I didn’t look at. The great part about it was all the messages of support, especially from other restaurateurs. I had so many messages from restaurant owners saying, “Yeah, that happened to me too.”
This type of shady business and partnerships is still common in Korea. Some of the people I talked to said that even with signed partnership agreements, they still got cheated. To quote my ex-“partner” one week before the incident, “You gotta cheat to get ahead.”
My Baeksu Period
For the next few days, I had also been getting requests for meetings for new business opportunities. Some of them were from really big players. It looked like I would bounce back quickly and strongly. But I was still nursing my wounds and had taken a big hit in my self confidence and trust of people. One surprise message I got was from Chef Susumu Yonaguni. I have been a fan of his since I first went to O Kitchen 2 in Itaewon for a review I did for 10 Magazine maybe six or seven years ago. He’s become one of the most respected chefs in Seoul. I met with him that week, and he surprised me with his idea. He currently has four restaurants, two fine dining (O Kitchen 3 and O Kitchen 5) and two burger places (OK Burger in Yeouido and on the Cheonggyecheon Stream). He proposed having me take over the Cheonggyecheon OK Burger location on a fifty percent partnership.
Yeah, I was floored. WOW!
Still, I was reticent. I’ve become wary of offers that have sounded too good to be true. So I waited. I met with everyone I could to discuss their proposals with me. I met with others to get their takes on everything. In the end, I decided to go with Chef Susumu’s proposal. He has a great trustworthy reputation. He, too, had gotten burned by (I’m sorry to say this) Korean businessmen. And I felt I really needed a mentor. I’m a food blogger, not a chef. I grew up in the restaurant industry, and I worked as a cook through college, but until this year I had never headed a kitchen. The industry has also changed much since I last worked in it. I have a lot to learn. It’s not as simple as being a good home cook. It’s a whole different discipline.
I took a month off between projects. In the meantime, I did what I could to bring my team from the old pub to OK Burger. I was able to bring over my amazing managers. I don’t see how I could have pulled this off without them.
OK Burger in Yeouido is doing great. The one on the Cheonggyecheon does great lunch business but could use a pick-me-up at night. My first job was to put on a chefs coat and learn every station of the kitchen. This kitchen, BTW, is the cleanest and most well-equipped I’ve ever worked in. We have a high end smoker, so I can continue my barbecue. Lots of sinks. Sinks! That’s so valuable in a restaurant kitchen.
The first thing my team noticed was that ticket times at lunch went way too long during busy periods. Sometimes they were forty minutes. My manager John, along with some advice from Susumu, came up with a system that cut the longest ticket times to eight minutes. Since then, the longest ticket time we’ve had has been fifteen minutes, and that was just once.
The New Menu
Our other initial challenge was the menu. A few managers had come and gone, and each had left his stamp on the place, resulting in a bloated unfocused menu. After a couple of weeks, we were able to see which items were the most popular and which were dragging the place down. We did a major menu overhaul, keeping just the most popular items and getting rid of a lot of the extraneous stuff. From there, we gradually built it back up, one dish at a time. Each dish is not just a matter of throwing it on a menu. A whole system has to be built up around it in order to make sure it’s consistent and efficient.
The first one was the new chili burger. John makes an astounding chili. He was experimenting all Sunday, when we’re closed, in perfecting the burger. In the end, it was made with a large fried onion ring to hold in the chili and topped with fresh salsa to balance out the chili. It quickly became popular. Weirdly, it became popular on rainy days.
I had to learn how to use this smoker. Each smoker has a learning curve. There were a few things we had to track down and order before we could even start using it. The first couple of tests were fine but not to where we wanted it. We did a little hacking to make the smoke more intense. Each batch made incremental improvements. We started with chicken. The original menu had a chicken burger (chicken sandwiches are called “chicken burgers” in Korea). It was fine, and I noticed that they seasoned it with Jamaican jerk seasoning. Before I got into Korean food, I was obsessed with Jamaican cuisine. I had made jerk chicken a good bit over the years, but I had never smoked it, like it should be done. Pimento wood is totally unavailable in Korea, so I researched ways to mimic it. We found a way. We came up with a technique of brining chicken thighs, rubbing them heavily in my own spice mixture, and smoking them. We then breaded and fried them to order to make the new Spicy Jerk Chicken Burger (with pineapple salsa).
I also added the coleslaw from the old place on the menu. It’s actually based on one of my first recipes on this blog.
The Night Crowd
Now that we had lunch squared away, time to work on the night crowd. The first thing we did was remove some chairs and replace them with sofas. John created a cocktail menu, which is one of his major specialties. I needed to create an anju menu, food to eat with drinks. Koreans, we discovered, aren’t really into burgers at night. Especially when drinking with friends. Drinking food is communal. It should be shared. Burgers don’t lend themselves well to sharing. This area in Jongno, though, is full of chicken and beer restaurants. And they’re PACKED.
Hey, if it works, it works.
I started by trying to make my smoked fried chicken from the old place. We weren’t satisfied with the results. But really, the smoked fried chicken was a solution to how to make the skin nice and crispy and to make the chickens hot and fresh for service. We have more toys to play with in this kitchen, so we can just serve barbecued chicken straight up with no gimmicks. After almost a month of testing, we got the chickens to where we want them to be. They’re freakin’ intense.
We upgraded our kegorator to include more beers, which gave us the opportunity to have both Platinum and Hand and Malt beers on tap. Hand and Malt is considered by most in the know to be the best locally made beer in Korea.
Here’s the biggest challenge for me. Most of our customers are Korean speakers. Most of my staff are Korean speakers. My Korean is fine but not super conversational. When my team and I started, a lot of the staff used this as an opportunity to quit. So we were met head on with a human resources crisis. It took a while, and I learned how to use multiple ways to get Korean employees. We just recently got staff back to the level it should be.
We also speak Korean in the kitchen. When customers come in, someone from the floor tells us how many walked in, so we can prepare in advance (part of our new system). When a ticket comes in, the expediter announces the items before putting the tickets up at the stations. The chef on the grill announces which ticket numbers he is starting, where everyone else replies, “Ne!” (the Korean equivalent of “Yes Chef!”). And some of the food items are easier to say in Korean. French fries are “gamja.” Onion rings are “yangpa.” A rush order is “chobok.” Our white board which lists the items we need to order is all written in Korean. The Korean staff have to get used to some English as well. Our kitchen manager doesn’t speak a lick of English–not even “hello.” One of our cooks, a student from Canada, hardly speaks any Korean. So yeah, lots of challenges there. Communication is the biggest problem here that we’re still tackling. It supposedly was an issue before we started, but now it’s become even more emphasized. I’m working on learning more words and phrases each day. Susumu and his wife Jamie are pushing me to get over my crippling shyness and go talk to tables in Korean. At least one of our Korean servers has started studying English in order to talk with us better. We generally have a great team if we can just iron out communication trip ups.
What I’ve Learned
I’ve learned a lot of things this year. I really, really know that I don’t belong in the kitchen full time. I knew that decades ago, which was why I got out of the business the first time. I did miss that first beer after a shift. But since I started working in the business again, I’ve greatly cut down on my drinking to almost nothing. I’ve also reduced my eating. I’ve lost around ten kilograms. Even though I’m getting better, I’m too old and clumsy and scatterbrained for that type of environment. I’m better at creating dishes than executing them. That said, I do enjoy the lunch rush more than I did when I worked restaurants in the ’90s. I think it’s because our stations are so well prepared that punching out orders is like playing Dining Dash. In fact, I recently downloaded the Gordon Ramsay Dash, and it’s JUST LIKE working the lunch rush.
I’ve been greatly humbled. At the same time, I don’t let criticisms from bloggers and even my own group Restaurant Buzz get me down. I don’t let praise go to my head as well. I’m my own worst critic. The stuff people criticize me for I already criticize myself for to a greater degree. And I feel a good bit of Imposter Syndrome here. Susumu has a lot of confidence in me. I’m still struggling to do that for myself. I can’t feel fit calling myself a chef in public or in private. I run a restaurant. That’s all I say. And I don’t even do that as much, compared to John.
To read more about how this turned out, click here.