Keen for Korean
Korean food is having a moment – and we couldn’t be more thrilled! Maddie Ballard chats to hospo maverick David Lee to find out why he’s excited to share Korean cuisine with Kiwis.
Psst, there’s a new cuisine on the scene. Kimchi and gochujang are available in major supermarkets. Bulgogi and bibimbap have entered the lunch rotation alongside sushi and sandwiches. And New Zealand now boasts a slew of great Korean restaurants, particularly in Auckland, where the country’s Korean immigrant population is concentrated. That immigrant population has long had its own web of food networks, but it’s taken years for Korean food to enter the mainstream. And while Korean and “New Korean” fusion food has taken off around the world – think of the success of David Chang’s Momofuku empire, or Eric Kim writing recipes for quick kimchi and seaweed pasta for The New York Times – it’s been slow going in New Zealand. So what’s changed? David Lee, hospo superstar, current coowner of Auckland Korean restaurants Gochu in Commercial Bay and The Candy Shop in Newmarket and a leading reason for the cuisine’s success in Auckland, has been trying to popularise Korean food among the masses for years. He began introducing the flavours of his native South Korea when he owned Little King in Milford and Major Sprout on Graham Street. How did the public respond to the inclusion of Korean flavours on café menus? “It didn’t go well,” says David. Initially, people stuck to the eggs bene and French toast they knew. But David kept trying. It was only when he was running Dear Jervois, a super-popular café on Auckland’s Jervois Road, that he began to have some success showcasing Korean flavours. David began offering options like Korean fried chicken, kimchi fried rice and manduguk, a dumpling soup. “Those dishes weren’t as popular as right now, but they were quite popular already,” he says. “I had a receptive audience there. And the moment I got that confidence, I was pretty sure it could work.” The real turning point for David was opening Parnell café Simon & Lee, with his friend and fellow hospo old hand, Oliver Simon. David crafted a menu of Koreaninfluenced café fare, introducing a whole new demographic to the delights of bulgogi and bibimbap. “I know Simon & Lee’s food wasn’t Korean-korean, but strategically I thought introducing it softly was the right way to do it,” he says. “I just wanted to change people’s perceptions about Korean food: it’s not cheap, it’s not junky. It’s good, healthy, delicious.” He says part of changing Kiwis’ perception was by making the dishes seem approachable. Cafés were a good place to do that. “I needed that sort of hardware, those people coming in for coffee and breakfast and lunch,” David explains. “Sometimes people want to try Korean food but they don’t really go to Korean restaurants – they’re a bit scared of that, they don’t know what to choose. But in my café menus, I always tweaked the name of the dish to make it more ‘western-style’ and included the ingredient description there too. People read it and they thought, oh that’s good ingredients, they’re all fresh ingredients, why not try this one today with coffee?”