Changemakers is a content series produced by Cole Haan and Forbes. It provides a platform for industry leaders who are disrupting business and society by combining their professions with their passions. For more information, visit ColeHaan.com and follow @thesciencefair.netColeHaan.
By Elisa Ung
Junghyun Park dreamed of being the head chef of a prestigious New York City restaurant, and thought he knew the path to get there. He left his native Seoul to chop and stir his way through white-tablecloth restaurants in Europe and Australia, toiling long hours alongside line cooks with the same ambitions.
Park soon began to feel outmatched. His competitors had attended culinary school. They had grown up with Western-style dining and French cooking techniques. He was scrambling to learn everything from scratch.
But Park realized he had something these chefs did not: a deep passion for Korean food. He began channeling his talent into the flavors and textures of his childhood, which he felt deserved to be celebrated on a broader scale.
Confident Despite Risks
Today, Park, is the one being celebrated — for the two groundbreaking modern Korean restaurants he runs with his wife, Ellia.
“If you have a strong belief in what you are doing and what makes you unique, it’s worth taking the risk.”
Eater’s Ryan Sutton called Atomix, Park’s 14-seat, $175-a-person fine-dining flagship, “the next evolution of fine dining” and “one of the city’s most exciting new bastions of haute gastronomie in years.”
New York Times critic Pete Wells was just as effusive: “Tasting menus can be arid and sterile when a chef doesn’t have much to say. The format comes to life when a restaurant is overflowing with ideas, like Atomix.”
Park faced many challenges on his way to success with Atomix and its more casual sister restaurant, Atoboy: skeptical investors, sky-high city rents, customers with no knowledge of Korean flavors and textures.
None stopped him from pursuing his vision.
“If you have a strong belief in what you are doing and what makes you unique, it’s worth taking the risk,” Park said. “It has stress, but I’m very confident about New York dining. People are always looking for something new.”
His True Calling
Park, who’s now 34, began his New York career at Jungsik, the pioneering Michelin-starred Korean restaurant. But his real culinary education began as a young child in Seoul who assembled his own dinner from the assorted banchan — Korean snacks — that his parents had made before going to work.
As a teenager, Park cooked for his family, read comic books about chefs’ lives and became interested in culinary school. His parents were hesitant because of the long hours and hard work and suggested he pursue college instead.
After Park studied food science at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, he again considered culinary school, but instead took advantage of an opportunity to study restaurant management as an exchange student in Finland. He subsequently found a lively and informal education by cooking in restaurants such as The Ledbury in London.
After deciding that Korean food was his true calling, Park returned to Seoul in 2010 to work at the original Jungsik, a cutting-edge restaurant that was combining Korean fare with a Western fine-dining style and global techniques. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the head chef, and in 2011 moved to New York to open a branch in Tribeca.
New York’s diverse and multicultural restaurants provided another informal education for Park, who spent his free time eating at big names: Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin, Momofuku and Blanca among them
He found something inspirational at each one, and began envisioning his dream restaurant: counter seating, an intricate, fixed-price tasting menu, no tablecloths and an emphasis not just on food but on all aspects of the experience, from lighting to music. Above all, he dreamt of illuminating the connections between his native culture and the food he would serve.
Invention At Many Price Points
But investors shied away from a high-priced, risky venture. So Park decided to start with something lower-risk, but just as innovative. He left Jungsik in 2015 and, with Ellia, opened a barebones dining room known as Atoboy a year later.
Atoboy’s three-course menu centers around elevated versions of banchan, the snacks that often made up Park’s childhood meals and are usually given out for free in Korean restaurants. The moderate pricing — it is now $46 for three plates — brought in waves of adventurous food-lovers.
And the attention it brought the Parks allowed them to raise the funds for their dream restaurant.
Atomix opened last year in a townhouse renovated by Korean architects. Its staff wears uniforms made by Korean designers. Customers sit at a black, U-shaped counter and use Korean-made chopsticks. Each course is accompanied by menu cards that list ingredients and explain the Korean customs behind each dish.
The food begins in tradition and ends in invention. For instance, Park’s version of gamja jeon, a humble potato pancake, is dressed up with fermented yuzu paste, ricotta cheese and herbs such as mint and mizuna.
Park explains on the corresponding menu card that he is hoping to elevate Korean cuisine the same way he is elevating that dish: Both are “rustic and humble, but certainly capable of being elegant and chic.”
He is happy to have found an audience of fascinated customers, most of whom, he said, are not Korean.
“They really appreciate what we are doing here,” Park said, gratefully. “They want to learn Korean culture. They’re very open-minded.”
Elisa Ung is a writer and editor based in Northern New Jersey. She was previously the restaurant critic and dining columnist at The (Bergen) Record and northjersey.com, and a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.