Meet Park Kyung-Jae, the Chef of Seoul’s 2-Michelin-Starred ‘Kojima’

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Chef Park Kyung-jae is a man of few words. He says he prefers to let his food speak for itself. His reticence, however, does not stem from aloofness. Rather, the 30-year veteran’s reserved charisma exudes warmth and care.

Park says he wants sushi to be the sole focus at Kojima. Piece by piece, he places the meticulously prepared sushi in front of his customers directly on the counter, custom-constructed from the 500-year-old hinoki (Cypress tree native to Japan) wood he personally selected and brought over from Japan. Although hinoki bars are common across sushi restaurants, it is rare to find establishments that use the wooden surface as a direct serving vessel.

Park was born in a small seaside village in Wooi-do Island, Jeollanamdo Province, famed for its picture-perfect beaches and undulating sand dunes. Back in the days, the village of Seongchon was home to some 36 families that shared the surname ‘Park.’ The village still stands, but most of its former residents have since left and have settled in larger cities.

Park’s father was a fisherman by trade. He owned a large fishing vessel and business was brisk. When Park was in 4th grade, the family moved to Mokpo, a bustling port city on the southwest coast of the Korean Peninsula. “I used to love visiting the local markets with my mother. It abounded with fresh seafood and produce,” he fondly recalls.

Family meals from his childhood memory were humble but plentiful. “In the summertime, we ate new potatoes for lunch and in the winter, sweet potatoes.” There was always fish. His mother, a Yeosu native, was an accomplished home cook. “She would make this soybean stew with potatoes and onions she grew in her vegetable garden. It was so simple but so good. It’s something I crave to this day.”

Of the abundance of fish he ate while growing up, he says red-spotted grouper was his favorite. Also known as Hong Kong grouper, red-spotted grouper is a highly prized food fish caught on the southern coast of Korea. “Back then, there was no fancy way to process seafood except to dry them or to salt them. There was always jeotgal (salted and fermented seafood), made with fish like spinyhead croaker and gizzard shad.”

Park moved to Seoul in February of 1989, the same month he graduated from high school. Although he was in search of a job, becoming a chef was not on his agenda. At the time, his childhood best friend was working in a Japanese restaurant in Seoul, which was helmed by a chef who also happened to be an acquaintance from back home. Watching his friend work, Park changed his mind. ‘Why not?’ he thought. “I knew a lot about seafood. I decided to give it a try,” he says. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, one that would shape his future.

Growing up, cooking was not something Park was not interested in, per se. But his coastal upbringing, his extensive knowledge of seafood, and his appreciation for food made with quality ingredients and a good dose of love naturally led him to consider a career in cooking when the time came along.

Sushi master Masumi Morita at The Shilla Seoul’s ‘Ariake’ once described Park as “A man more Japanese than a Japanese.” Morita-san may have been referring to his protégé’s passion for the craft, his relentless focus and dedication to mastering the art of sushi over a career spanning three decades. He may have been referring to Park’s unshakable integrity.

I recently sat down with Chef Park to talk about the results of Michelin Guide Seoul 2018, which earned Kojima the distinction of 2 Michelin stars – one up from last year. Kojima continues to hold the title as the only Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Seoul.

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Congratulations on being awarded 2 stars in the latest Michelin Guide Seoul. What was going through your mind as the results were announced?

Above all, I felt a great debt of gratitude to the proprietor of Kojima. He considers Kojima a cultural enterprise of sorts, and he has been unwaveringly supportive since day one – even if the restaurant doesn’t always make money.

As chef of the only Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Seoul, I also felt a deep sense of responsibility as well. I feel the sushi scene in Seoul has a lot to offer, but it didn’t get the recognition I’d hoped for this year. I mostly feel like I had better do a really good job or else! [Laughs].

What is your primary focus as a chef?

I think most chefs would agree that preserving the integrity of a product comes first and foremost. Whether it is fish, shellfish, or vegetables, each ingredient has its own unique character and taste. As a chef, I obsess with finding the best of the best ingredients I can get my hands on. I’ve been making sushi for 30 years, but I am still learning every day and will continue to learn as long as I am a chef.

Because sushi is a genre that relies so heavily on the purity of the ingredient itself, quality cannot be sacrificed, because that is what distinguishes good sushi from sublime sushi.

Using quality ingredients is a given, but it is up to the chef to know when a given ingredient has reached its prime and to serve it to the customers at its peak. For instance, when it comes to white fish or cuttlefish, which have delicate flavors, the product itself often makes or breaks a piece of sushi. On the other hand, fatty fish like gizzard shad and mackerel, with their assertive flavors, not only have to be fresh, but they also need to be handled properly by a seasoned chef. The process in which they are cleaned, cut, cured in salt and vinegar, and matured, are crucial.

How do you source your ingredients?

I go to Garak Fish Market every day. I get up in the morning between 5:30 A.M. and 6:00 A.M. and going shopping is the first thing on my agenda. I also get ingredients directly from the producers.

How do you feel when you come across a really awesome product at the market?

My first thought is, ‘I can’t wait to make something delicious with it to serve to my customers.’ For me, that’s the whole point of my daily visits to the market.

Is there any ingredient that you particularly enjoy using?

I don’t have a particular favorite. I like white fish. One can find a good selection of white fish here including Korean flatfish, fine-spotted flounder, and sea bream. I also enjoy using cuttlefish, bigfin reef squid, and sword tip squid. Korea also offers some fine shellfish which I enjoy using as well.

Do you have your own set of criteria when it comes to selecting fish?

There is a weight I prefer for each ingredient. For example, I tend to go for tuna that weighs around 150 kg, sea bream around 1.5 kg to 2 kg, and Japanese amberjack (yellowtail) give or take 10 kg. Red clams that weigh anywhere between 135 g to 150 g tend to have the prettiest color and make the best-looking sushi.

Is this common knowledge for sushi chefs or your own preference based on personal experience?

I guess some of it can be considered common knowledge, but every chef has his or her personal style and preference when it comes to size. Some prefer larger fish while others go for smaller fish. There are no rules.

What’s in season right now?

Japanese amberjack and shellfish are in their prime. Look out for geoduck clams as well as red clams (a.k.a. blood clams); they are glorious this time of year. The same goes for Japanese horse mackerel, Japanese halfbeak, mackerel and Pacific saury.

Every customer has his or her preference when it comes to food and taste. The same goes for chefs. Besides the food itself, what do you think draws customers to a restaurant?

I believe that when it comes to sushi, chef-customer chemistry is a crucial part of the dining experience. Both customer and chef are human, so as with any relationship, there are those that get along better than others. The restaurant ambiance is also important; how a chef works behind the counter and how he interacts with his customers set the tone. For instance, some chefs are animated and energetic. Others, less.

 How would you describe the ambiance of Kojima?

Kojima is a quiet dining space that encourages customers to focus on the food.

Why is sushi special to you?

I love the unadorned simplicity of it. It’s a dish that lets the ingredient speak for itself. But that is precisely what makes sushi challenging as well. Fish doesn’t come from a factory. Every single fish I have ever worked with is different – the size, the texture, the taste. To most people, it may look like I am doing the same exact thing day in and day out. But what I do each day can never be the same.

I have always been a really shy person, so this is something that doesn’t come to me naturally, but I have come to love working in front of my customers – engaging with them and connecting with them.

30 years. How do you discipline yourself to keep going after all these years?

There are times when I am not entirely happy with the sushi I serve my customers. I always push myself to be consistent, but on those rare days, the sushi that I am holding in my hand feels as if it lacks substance. Maybe I wasn’t feeling 100 percent that day–there are different reasons, I suppose—but I feel a deep sense of shame that is hard to shake. I can honestly say that is the most agonizing feeling one can experience as a chef – the thought that I have let my customers down.

It’s been 30 years, but I have never once thought, ‘I have done enough.’ Every day feels like a new day. There is always a certain level of tension, nervousness, and stress, which is a good thing.

What has been your most memorable sushi experience?

In 2004, The Shilla Seoul’s ‘Ariake’ signed a partnership with ‘Kiyota Sushi’ in Ginza, Tokyo, and I was given an opportunity to train there for three months. The restaurant uses only the top quality products, so the sushi itself was some of the best I had ever had. But there was something more. Kimura-san’s sushi philosophy, as well as Kiyota Sushi’s work culture and ambiance, showed me the path I wanted to take as a sushi chef. My time at Kiyota Sushi was an invaluable learning experience and helped shape who I am as a sushi chef.

What do you mean by “the path”?

“The path” implies many things, including the questions every chef should be asking himself/herself. Why do I want to be a chef? How serious am I about learning the skills? Do I want to open my own restaurant someday? Is my ultimate goal to make money or to achieve something else? These kinds of questions. I have never once thought, ‘I want to make a lot of money someday.’ All I’d ever wanted to do was to make sushi the proper way. There comes a time in the life of every chef when he or she must decide which path they are going to take. I chose mine.

Are you happy with where you are right now?

I can’t be 100% satisfied. Being a sushi chef in Korea comes with many challenges, not least when it comes to sourcing ingredients. There are times when I’ve thought, ‘What if I’d become a sushi chef in Japan?’ Let’s say a Japanese sushi chef and a Korean sushi chef are competing in a 100-meter sprint. Imagine what would happen if a Japanese chef got a 70-meter head start. That is how things stand at the moment.

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo has everything a sushi chef needs. All you have to do is go to the market in the morning and buy whatever it is you need. Although Korea is surrounded by the ocean on three sides, there aren’t that many ingredients chefs can use for sushi. Sushi chefs in Japan are blessed in that way. As a chef, I am definitely envious. Korean chefs work extremely hard, but there are certain things they cannot overcome with work ethic alone.

Do you think things will get better as time goes by?

I think so, but it won’t be easy. The government and the society also have to do their parts. Having the freedom to access quality ingredients at their convenience shouldn’t be a challenge for chefs. As long as those challenges continue to exist, Korea’s culinary scene can only grow so much. The industry cannot be expected to grow solely on the efforts of hard working chefs. Producers, distributors, chefs, and customers each have a role to fulfill. There has to be a symbiosis which can only result when the level of interest is there.

I want foreign chefs to feel compelled to come to Korea to cook. I want them to marvel at the abundance of ingredients Korea has to offer. That is the only way to grow – by competing with each other and growing together along the way.

Is there any advice you would like to give to the younger chefs out there?

My philosophy is simple. If you do not enjoy cooking, you might as well stop right now. Unless you are willing to invest most of your time to honing the craft, you won’t last long.

Thanks to the countless TV shows that glorify chefs, working in the kitchen has become a coveted profession in recent years. But what you see on TV is different from how it is in the real world. I’ve seen young aspiring chefs chase after celebrity and stardom only to be disillusioned by reality. So, my advice is you’d better love what you do.

Also, never forget why you started cooking in the first place. Be grateful to the customers that walk in through the doors to eat your food. Without genuine care for the guests, a restaurant—no matter how successful it is—can only last so long.

How about things to avoid as a chef?

Greed. Impatience. There is no shortcut to success in this industry. It takes time. I think food should be made and served by the most honest people in the world. A chef is someone who uses quality ingredients to make healthful food in a clean environment. Serving guests subpar food made with subpar ingredients because you lack the skills or the conscience to know better is a form of dishonesty as well.

Then, is there any advice you got from a mentor that you still carry to this day?

When I was working at ‘Ariake,’ I had a chance to meet Mr. Tetsuya Saotome, chef and owner of one-Michelin-starred tempura restaurant ‘Mikawa Zezankyo’ in Tokyo. Together with Chef Jiro Ono, chef and owner of the three-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, Saotome-san cooks in the edomae tradition, using seafood and vegetables that were available in Tokyo a century and a half ago. Today, it’s difficult to find traditional edomae cuisine in the true sense of the word, because different products are sourced from different locations around Japan – Hokkaido sea urchin and Oma Tuna are examples. What Saotome-san said to me at the time struck a chord with me. He said, “If you use really good quality ingredients and pour your heart and soul into making something delicious with it, then that embodies the spirit of ‘edomae.’”

Many sushi chefs refer to your sushi as “a master’s sushi.” Have you ever considered yourself a sushi master?

No. I feel uncomfortable when I hear things like that.

What kind of training does one have to go through in order to become a master?

I guess if you push yourself to do your very best every day, someday that hard work will accumulate to something great and people will start respecting you as a master of your craft.

What do you enjoy eating on your days off?

I have two young daughters. They like meat, so we usually cater to what they want when we dine out. I am Korean and I make sushi, but I enjoy Western cuisine. I like classic French and Italian. I frequent restaurants like ‘Aupres’ and ‘L’Espoir du Hibou.’ I also love pizzas and burgers and eat them quite often.

There is a strict no photo policy at Kojima. What are your reasons for that?

You can discover a lot about a restaurant by looking at a picture. I find the idea of going to a restaurant and being served the same exact dishes I’ve seen in other people’s photos boring. Also, many chefs get inspiration from looking at photos of other chefs’ creations. Being inspired is good, but recreating what already exists has been known to happen, and if that becomes common practice, every restaurant will be serving essentially some version of the original dish. That is also boring to me. I don’t want to reveal everything that I do. There has to be an element of surprise when it comes to dining. That is why I respectfully ask my customers to refrain from taking photos.