A Changing Palate
Don’t ask us why, but it took American audiences quite a long time to start exploring the wonderful world of Korean cuisine, despite the fact that there have been wonderful Korean restaurants in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles for decades.
Even today, in some parts of the country, Korean food is still considered to be exotic and inherently foreign.
Thankfully, this antiquated stigma is on its way out, and people all around the U.S. are starting to enjoy both traditional and modern Korean dishes.
New York’s Jungsik falls on the modern side of the Korean cuisine spectrum, offering unique, updated versions of classic Korean food in a cozy environment, where the emphasis is on the food and the people you’re sharing it with.
Below, we’ll take a quick look at some of the ins and outs of Jungsik New York with the help of Chef Suyoung Park. The restaurant is a microcosm of a larger movement, and it might help explain why Korean cuisine has seen such large-scale success here in the U.S. in recent years.
A Bit of Background
Jungsik started out in South Korea, right in Seoul, where there is still a location today.
The restaurant was founded by Owner/Proprietor/Chef Jungsik Yim who also headed up the expansion into the United States.
The restaurant currently holds two Michelin Stars, solidifying its place as one of the world’s leading culinary ventures.
Jungsik New York, in particular, has gained a great deal of traction since opening. The restaurant has received highly positive reviews from critics and regular diners alike, helping it stand out in one of the most crowded culinary scenes in the world.
Suyoung Park wears many hats at Jungsik New York, as she explained to us during a recent conversation.
“I have multiple roles as a chef at Jungsik. My job is not only to come up with dishes and make sure they are executed perfectly and consistently, but I am also in charge of making sure that all of my cooks are on the same page.”
Park also handles plenty of administrative duties that see her spending lots of time at the restaurant, long before guests start arriving.
Having worked at both the Korean and New York locations of Jungsik, Park served as the perfect guide to the aspects of the restaurant that outsiders don’t usually get to see.
She was also kind enough to give her take on the state of Korean-American food within New York’s world-famous culinary scene.
Jungsik: New York v. Seoul
Before we talk any more about Jungsik’s day-to-day operations and how the location has been able to find such success, it’s important to explain that despite the restaurant being the second to bear the Jungsik name, the NY iteration is far from a copy.
As Americans, we’re used to chain restaurants using a franchise model to expand into brand new markets. Each instance of a particular chain looks nearly identical to all the others.
In many parts of the U.S., this approach proved to be successful for decades, but as diners start to become more discerning, the chain approach is starting to fade.
Jungsik, like many international restaurants, prides itself on offering something unique at each location.
“While there are some similarities between our Seoul location and New York location, they are completely different restaurants. Seoul is a chic city, but fine dining has not really caught on there. Our clientele here in New York tends to be very different. Here, our diners are much savvier, so we have to cater to a more mature palate.”
It’s not just Jungsik placing such an emphasis on distinguishing each location. David Chang, the restaurateur behind the Momofuku group, has built a brand reputation around letting the Head Chef of each location decide their own culinary direction and create their own specific dishes.
This offers diners a way to revisit a brand in different parts of the country, or the world, without getting an identical experience each time. Individual chefs and kitchen teams have the chance to find their own voice, rather than copy + pasting a successful playbook.
A Combo of Cultural Technique
The internet has a difficult time nailing down a precise classification for Jungsik. Certain sites and reviewers simply call it a Korean restaurant, unintentionally lumping it in with any number of Korean BBQ restaurants and traditional establishments.
Other sites refer to Jungsik as high-end Korean, modern Korean, and even Korean comfort food.
This is pretty clear evidence that Jungsik dishes have the ability to avoid being pigeon-holed. Why? Well, the easiest explanation is that Jungsik’s offerings are something new, drawing on very different influences and cooking techniques.
We’ll let Park elaborate:
“Chef Yim likes to take a traditional Korean dish, flavor, or way of thinking and apply Western cooking techniques, like classic French cuisine or Spanish techniques as Chef Yim trained in the Basque region of Spain. Chef enjoys making Korean food more playful and whimsical.”
Maybe this is part of what New York diners have found so exciting about modern Korean restaurants like Jungsik, Atoboy, ATOMIX, and Cote.
There’s a special kind of back-and-forth happening at all of these establishments and others like them, communication between the old and the new.
Older dishes are not necessarily being tossed aside. Instead, each of them is serving as a foundation for alterations and subtle changes that help create something novel.
Over the course of her international culinary career, Park has come in contact with many young chefs and cooks who tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak: they idealize innovation at the expense of traditional methods, traditional recipes, and traditional cooking techniques.
As she explained, not every meal can or should be transformed into something entirely new. Not everything needs an update.
But having a bedrock of knowledge about the old ways can help the most talented chefs make the distinction between what can be modernized and what can’t.
“It’s not always possible to present classical or traditional dishes in a new way. Chefs are always trying to do this, and while we can innovate things, at the end of the day, it’s all a cycle. If you don’t understand the classics, then you can never innovate them.”
For readers who are directly involved in any of the arts, this idea will seem at least somewhat familiar. During artists’ formative years, there is a strong temptation to wholly ignore the building blocks of craft in favor of trying to do something that has never been done before.
After all, some of the greatest painters, musicians, writers, and yes, even chefs, seem to have had their own artistic direction from day one, fully-formed and in total opposition to mainstream methods.
But this just isn’t true. Even top-tier artists almost always start out with the basics, doing as they’re told, setting out from square one.
Only after years and years of practice and experimentation can a student, and especially a chef, discover their own approach to those centuries-old methods.
The Korean Wave
Now we return to the larger subject: America’s seemingly newfound love for Korean food in its many different iterations.
Is this shift in taste yet another effect of globalization brought about by online culture-sharing? Has New York, to some extent, always had an appreciation for diverse foods and international influence?
Depending on which New Yorker you speak with, you’re going to get very different answers to those questions.
Some would say that New York didn’t do enough to pave the way for international artisans to offer their work to the public.
But Park, now a New Yorker herself, is less concerned with how New York used to feel about international cuisine than with how New York feels about it right now:
“I think that the New York dining scene has definitely welcomed Korean cuisine with open arms. There are many new restaurants elevating Korean cuisine. I’m still surprised that you can find kimchi in American restaurants and supermarkets!”
The change has already come, and that’s the most important part. Although, we admit that it’s hard not to wonder about the future of Korean-American food as a whole and whether the trend of expansion into other parts of the U.S. will continue.
To a certain extent, that expansion is already well underway. Midsize cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Portland are getting in on the action with well-respected Korean establishments of their own.
But maybe the real mark of Americans’ acceptance and love for Korean food will be the moment when small U.S. towns can support and sustain innovative fine dining establishments of their own.
Are we there yet? At least in our opinion, not quite. But the future is coming up fast, and as culinary knowledge continues to spread, American diners will continue to want interesting and eye-opening food that brings with it an expansion of personal taste.