Modern Banchan in New York City
Finding a place for a date in New York City is hard. You want to make sure that you and your date have a good time, enjoy a great meal, while also paying a fair price. I often feel that New York is a place where you have to go big or go home. You have to spend quite a bit if you want to impress your date. However, there is a restaurant in New York City that not only solves all of these problems, but also provides a unique, delicious, and special experience in the Nomad area.
When I ate at Atoboy for the first time, I was shocked to see that you can get 3 courses for just $36. What surprised me further was that every dish was beautifully crafted, like it was straight from a Michelin star restaurant. Each bite was an explosion of flavor filled with a familiar Korean taste but also mixed with hints of French and Italian cuisine. The brisket there was just a sea of fat and umami. Slowly cooked and rendered in liquified foie gras it just oozed in beefy goodness and was the perfect pairing with a bowl of jasmine rice. The uni gyeran jjim (Korean steamed egg) was a complex combination of the sweet Maine sea urchin and the bitter heart of palm.
It became immediate that the food at Atoboy is a respectful nod to the past. There are many Korean American chefs trying to do something new, but they are more or less breaking from tradition. Atoboy is reinventing tradition and playing with our familiarity of Korean cuisine.
I wanted to know more about Atoboy and how it's changing the New York Dining scene with its price point and unique take on Korean food, so we asked the chef proprietor Junghyun Park and how he and his wife, Ellia Park, created their wonderchild.
A video about Atoboy.
by George Ko
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: Where did your love of cooking start?
Junghyun Park: I started cooking when I was young. My parents were always working so when I finished school I had to cook at home for myself and my brother. My older brother was a little lazy, so the only way we could both eat was if I cooked. While cooking, I loved working with good ingredients and I loved the feeling when people feel good after eating my food. Seeing people happy after eating is a very important and emotional part of life. This was the reason why I fell in love with cooking.
GR: Do you remember the first thing you made?
JP: Definitely instant ramen.
GR: Shin ramen?
JP: Yeah! Shin ramen. My brother and I also loved naengmyeon (cold noodles); we would make it in the house during the summer time because it was so hot. After school, we needed something to cool us down, so my brother and I would cook naengmyeon together.
GR: So you mostly cooked at home and experimented in your home kitchen.
JP: Yeah. So even before my professional career as a cook, which was after I finished undergrad, I would ask my mom for cooking lessons at home. I asked my mom after middle school if I could go to cooking school and it was there I learned the basics of cooking at 16 years old.
GR: Speaking of college, from my understanding it’s common in Korean culture that everyone aspires to go to the SKY schools (acronym for Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University). How did your parents react to your decision to go to culinary school?
JP: Honestly, I think my parents wanted me to do that, to go to SKY. My father graduated in industrial design so he really wanted me to pursue that. However, I wasn’t really good at studying. I enjoyed playing basketball with my friends, dancing, and making food way more. My parents soon saw that maybe I shouldn’t follow the steps everyone does and maybe find my own path.
GR: I saw that you studied food science. That’s not a common major at least in the United States.
JP: The story behind that is first my parents wanted to give me some kind of freedom to do whatever I want. At the same time, they wanted me to go to a university that was famous for hotel management or restaurant management. So, I went to Kyung Hee University, which was one of the top schools for hotel/restaurant management. One of the majors, which was related to food, was food science. It was unique in that it uses science to help determine the process of making food in a more nutritious way, and not just in a restaurant setting, but also packaged foods.
GR: Was there a chef you admire?
JP: Yes. Thomas Keller (chef proprietor of Per Se, the French Laundry, and Bouchon). After I graduated I made it my goal to train under Thomas. His French Laundry cookbook was a huge inspiration for me. In Korea, it’s hard to find books like his and to draw inspiration from. I found it on Amazon and just flipping through it changed my life. After reading the cookbook, I remember telling myself, how can I work at the French Laundry? How do I get there? For me, I thought the best place was to go to the Culinary Institute of America to get there.
GR: Did you go?
JP: Nope! I ended up going to Finland. While an undergrad, I studied abroad in Finland as an exchange student. I figured that maybe I should go to Europe before heading to the United States. It was great. I go to meet people from a lot of different cultures and their food, especially people from South America, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. After that, I had a chance to go intern in London. I applied to a restaurant called Ledbury. At that time they just got a Michelin star, and it was a very new restaurant. I went there, asked for a job and even told them I was willing to not accept any pay. I was there for four months. While I was there, my opinion of going to school to learn about cooking changed as well. From my few months there, I learned so much, especially working with a great chef and team. I realized I could learn a lot more in this setting than if I paid thousands of dollars to go culinary school. I then decided that I needed to go to another restaurant to learn about other cuisines, so I decided to go to Australia.
GR: Which restaurant did you go to in Australia?
JP: There was a restaurant there called Three, One, Two. It was in Melbourne, Australia. The owner and head chef, Andrew McConnell, was also opening other restaurants called Cumulus and Cutler and Co. With that, I learned how to open restaurants and train the staff. It was a very fast learning process.
GR: So you were not just learning how to cook, but also how to be a restaurateur. That’s really rare.
JP: Yeah. It kind of happened naturally. When we’re at Three, One, Two, there was only 4 of us cooking. When Chef McConnell expanded his restaurants, he only trusted us to cook the food. That led to me training all the new guys coming in. He trusted my standards. I definitely grew faster than I ever did at any other restaurant. It was also super tough. We were working 13, 14 hours days so physically it was demanding.
GR: Was there a moment during your time in Australia that you remember was the toughest?
JP: I remember one time when we were opening Cumulus the sous chef had an accident and had to be rushed to the hospital. Chef McConnell called me and asked me to go into help out the restaurant and I worked 17 days non stop, working 14 hours a day. It was crazy. I did it back then, but I probably couldn’t do it now.
GR: What led you back to South Korea?
JP: I knew the chef Jungsik Kim even before he opened his flagship in Seoul. I heard he had opened a new restaurant that was focusing on new and modern Korean food. Before Jungsik, when people talk about new and upcoming Korean food, no one really cared. If you wanted to make your mark in Seoul as a young, professional chef in fine dining you needed to cook French food or something European, but not Korean food. When he opened, he showed that it can be done, that you can take Korean ingredients, techniques, and flavors into fine dining. His work inspired me and many young cooks. I felt like if I worked with him and his team I can learn how to cook my own food rather than just following someone’s steps or recipes. That’s the reason why I moved back to South Korea.
GR: Wow that’s amazing. There really was no one before him doing that.
JP: Right. I mean, before there would be people who would plate galbi jjim (braised beef short ribs) in a very pretty and modern way. But Jungsik was not about just making old dishes and presenting them in a new way. He was and is always about doing something new.
GR: How did you end up in the New York team of Jungsik?
JP: When I was interviewing for a position at Jungsik, Jungsik himself already told me he was going to open a location in New York City. He told me that was one of his dreams. That was actually one of the main reasons why I joined his team. I’ve never been to New York and I wanted to be in the country that inspired many great restaurants like the French Laundry or Alinea. I wanted to feel and understand how these great chefs created their food and also see how their restaurants were built. I remember always reminding Jungsik that if he needs another person on the New York team, I’d be more than happy to join. When the New York location was opened, Jungsik brought over his existing sous chefs and pastry chef. After they got their first Michelin star in one year, Jungsik asked me to go to New York to help the team.
GR: That’s crazy. A Michelin star in the first year it was open in New York?
JP: Yeah. A lot of people were surprised that he got a star in that short of a time. However, I knew about his work ethic and the style he works with his team that led him to the star. He was also doing something new with Korean food that even in New York no one was doing. I think he got the star for simply doing something new and adventurous.
GR: So you basically helped Jungsik get its second Michelin star right?
JP: Yeah. I mean it was a team effort. We had two strong sous chefs and an incredible pastry chef. Under Jungsik’s guidance we were able to succeed quickly.
GR: And you got your second star in the second year, right?
GR: So what led to the departure from Jungsik? What led you to open Atoboy?
JP: I’ve always dreamt of opening my own place. Before I thought I would open a restaurant in Seoul. After traveling to Europe and the United States my original goal was to bring what I had learned outside of South Korea to the Korean dining scene. I wanted to share with my fellow Koreans that there was this other world of food than they were used to. However, after I started working in New York I started to see the potential in New York to share the food of my culture to people here. There are a lot of second or third generation Koreans in the U.S. that are showcasing Korean food. However, there are few first generation Koreans like me that are here in New York doing something new. I think that combined with the fact that I didn’t grow up in America is actually my advantage as a cook. I can show people here different styles and regions of Korean cooking. I can also share with customers what Korean dining culture is. For those reasons I decided to open my first restaurant in New York.
GR: You and Ellia Park, your wife, are a restaurant couple team. How did you both come together to open Atoboy?
JP: I first met Ellia in college. We weren’t really close. We did just know each other as acquaintances. It wasn’t until I came back to Seoul from Australia that we met again through our mutual friends. We ended up having dinner together and we had a great time. From there, anytime there was a new restaurant would open Ellia and I would go and try the new food. Eventually, we fell in love, and got married. When we moved to New York, Ellia decided to also change industries and work in the food business. She decided to work in the front of house for Kajitsu, then Maialino, and Noreetuh, whose owner happened to be the manager at Jungsik. She learned a lot in a short amount of time on how to run a restaurant.
GR: I want to ask about the design of your restaurant. It has a very minimalist and beautiful aesthetic. Did you hire a designer or have a specific design vision?
JP: I have a partner named Lee. He is part of the restaurant group that includes Her Name is Han, Take 31, Izakaya Mew, and Mew Men. He’s a successful restauranteur. When people ask us who designed Atoboy, I would say Lee and I designed it together. Everyday we would discuss about details from the table to ceiling lights. Slowly the restaurant started coming together and became the look that now lives in Atoboy.
GR: How often does your menu change?
JP: Since we’ve opened we’ve changed the menu many times. I try to change the menu as we go, one item at a time. It’s hard to take away some items on the menu, especially if they are favorites, like the eggplant, corn, or chicken dishes. So I try to change the other dishes as much as I can.
GR: Do you mind talking about how you reached your $36 price point for 3 courses? How did you arrive at this price point? It’s really hard to come by in New York City.
JP: Originally I thought the price should be $45. But I didn’t want to pressure my guests. I’m not David Chang or Roy Choi. I’m not a famous celebrity chef. I’m just some guy that worked at Jungsik for a little bit and wanted to do his own thing. I didn’t my customers to feel like they had to pay a premium just to eat at my place. I really want to give my customers a very good meal and quality meal. Also, we wanted something more affordable than the Restaurant Week menu. That’s why I set my price at $36.
GR: For our last question, do you mind talking about your food philosophy and also the message you want to deliver to your customers?
JP: So Ato in ancient Korean means gift. I want to be that voice that gives to the New York dining scene. I want to deliver my culture. Whenever we’re eating in Korea with family or friends, we always eat pork over rice, soup, and some other dishes we share together. It’s our basic meal. I want to share with my customers the concept of banchan, the small dishes served with rice. The food I serve is not traditional Korean food, but I want to serve traditional Korean culture. That’s why I serve in the banchan style, using the bowl of rice as a piece of bread while the other small dishes act as complement.
The music in the video is Mozart's 18th Piano Sonata.
Played by Aileen Gozali.