Kyungsook SHIN is a chef and owner of Recipe, a restaurant in Hyoja-dong, a quiet, traditional district in central Seoul. In a small, Korean traditional house, Kyungsook serves a delicious and innovative menu ranging from Korean radish soup to halibut cooked with potato and lemon.
How did you become a chef and opened a restaurant?
I guess it was in the family – my father and grandfather were what you would now call connoisseurs when it came to food; such epicures they were. And my mother cooked well enough to satisfy their palate. So when I gave up my original job as a fashion designer, I naturally turned to baking classes – but only as a hobby!
Then the 2002 football World Cup happened. My husband, who is an urban designer, and I would come out to city centre to watch the games on street and then walk around this part of the town – which is also where I used to live as a kid. As these small alleyways brought back those memories, it seemed like a natural thing to get a place here; so we went and bought this little traditional house! At the time, I didn’t even know what to do with it.
As I’d been learning to cook, we started this eatery in baby steps with easy, simple food – but made with freshest ingredients and all the love I had to give. Of course, away from busy roads and surrounded by all these houses, it took us a while to get the business going. I still remember those days when I used to watch passers-by and they would watch me watching them. Some of our neighbours would pop by on their way home from work and worriedly ask if I’d had any guests that day!
Then the book, Hyojadong Recipe, came.
I had my son rather late in my life and had to take a maternity break. At first I thought of renting the restaurant while I was away, but then realized that I’d become too attached to this place to let someone else run it.
So before the restaurant and I went on this vacation, I invited regular patrons to a number of free cooking classes. I taught them the recipe for some of the most popular dishes we served. The idea was that, with the recipe, they could make the same dishes that they’d enjoyed so much even while I was away.
Somehow a publisher found out about this and gave me a call. I didn’t think of much of it, to be honest – just a collection of stories and recipes from this little restaurant. But the book sold rather well and I’m ever so pleasantly proved wrong! [Hyojadong Recipe hit the bestseller ranking upon its publication and continues to sell steadily 8 years after its original publication.]
You’ve got an interesting mix of ‘western’ food, some of it made with Korean ingredients, all served in this very modern setting but in a traditional Korean house.
Well, I think this house is actually very modern. From window frames to decorations, we deliberately tried to reflect what we felt around the place – that curiously contemporary feel which this old traditional house inspires.
And the same goes with my food. The recipe and cooking style may be modern and belong to Western cuisine traditions, but the taste I try to create is that of home food which I was fed on when I was a kid– that warm comfort of my childhood favourites, served in a simple and elegant setting for my guests. That may explain why my chief taster for new menus remains my son.\
That’s probably what made me want to come back to this place after my first visit.
I know that I’m no great chef. I was never professionally trained as one. In the end, though, I think it’s more about fresh ingredients which deliver such great flavours – and that sense of seasoning which is just in you. I got mine from my mother and grandmother.
I still remember how they used to braise croaker with sweet pumpkin – that delicate flavor, that sweet smell! Now I might use different techniques and arroser the fish instead, but it’s the same taste that I try to recreate in my kitchen.
Sounds delicious. I hear that you have rather special relationships with your guests?
It’s just that I try and do my best to serve my guests what they can enjoy the most.
We once had a guest from Switzerland who had so many dietary restrictions that virtually all he could take was some vegetable and cheese. That reservation made me think and think for days – until eventually I decided to serve him some broccoli and cheese. It was such a simply recipe but one of my son’s favourite snacks so I know I couldn’t get it worng.
Well, at the end of his dinner, the guest called for me and gave me a hug in tears! To this day I still don’t know his name or what the food meant to him. I can only guess and hope that, perhaps, the dish made him think of his childhood filled with love.
We’ll have to take our guests here as well. Have you any special plans for Hyojadong Recipe now?
We’re actually thinking of trying out small cooking classes. It would be fun to see how guests from other countries take to our recipes and food. I’ve also taken a much greater interest in healthy and well-balanced food – the sort of food that I’d be happy to serve to my child. It’s something I want to do more and better of, and encourage others to do as well! Ideas are welcome!
Finally – what was your breakfast today?
Haha – little pancakes made with prawn mince and sweet pumkin, kimchi, simple soybean paste soup and rice. At home, it’s a simple meal!
CONNECT with DARAMJI – Ask your dedicated DARAMJI curator to make a reservation at Recipe for you or arrange a cooking class for your and your friends.