“What you want is to make things personal. Might not be spectacular, but from there you can say it’s mine. Personal doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just personal. It’s memorable to you. Your identity: who you are, where you were, where you have been. Everything connects to everything.”
Susumu Yonaguni’s words as I have an afternoon chat over pasta and wine.
This space in a hanok (Korean traditional house) converted to a restaurant, has an energy that words cannot define. Upon entering, you immediately feel like you want to take off your shoes…like entering your own house. There is no host, or a manager with a suit, but a chef that will guide you to your table with a smile.
First impression? Hmm…definitely something different. As you finger through the menu, you will soon notice that there is no front of the house staff! Well, the usual servers with matching uniforms, aprons, or name tags (as this is the common standard in Korea) are no where to be found. The back of the house runs the show…yup...everything from the kitchen to the main floor…creating dishes, washing dishes, to pouring wine and greeting customers. I think I would say this is a first of its kind in Seoul, and my excitement grew even before I started on the wine…
Anago ball filled with sea eel, foie gras, banga-a leaf, Korean bok bun ja (raspberry) sauce to the left...Linguini with grilled mackeral, Korean sesame leaf pesto and mint to the right
So what’s their story?
Owner/chef Susumu Yonaguni, Japanese native, who have lived in multiple countries, is a true artist in all forms. Always lending an ear to hear your story over a glass of wine, and welcomes you into his home each and every time. O Kitchen.
He’s been a resident here in Korea for 11 years now, and him and his wife Oh Jeong-Mi (Korean native) began a school originally for food styling. Soon after, they realized that their students needed a space to hone their culinary skills, and Susumu began training their students. He taught them the basics from soups, sauces, to pasta and meats. As these students left the school to seek jobs in the industry, there was a lack of opportunities because restaurants/hotels in Seoul did not recognize the school they were trained in. What did Susumi and his wife decide to do? Open a restaurant of their own for their students to train, and develop their passion for food. Thus, this is where it all began…
Their favored starter-the assorted sashimi plate
Fettucini, green beans, jambon blanc, mint, pecorino cheese
First location was a 36 seater in Gahoedong near Samchungdong. Well kept and busy, but at the end of the day Susumu didn’t understand why they were losing money. He then realized that the food cost was much higher than it should have been (as there was a lot being thrown away), and gave his staff an ultimatum. “Either you shape up the restaurant in 2 months, or O kitchen will have to close.” This was a difficult lesson for his staff, as for most of them this was their very first kitchen. Slowly but surely, things started to unfold. Short after, they opened OK2 in Itaewon because there was simply not enough space for all their students to ‘train’ in their first location.
“I don’t want my staff to view their work in this kitchen as a job, but should only remain if they want to grow as a chef. The minute you start thinking that working here is a job, I don’t need you guys…I only want chefs who can be a leader for the next generation.”
There is absolutely no room for ego in his kitchen. The diverse team of 12 includes some chefs who have trained in Italy, Australia, and Japan. Susumu’s strong philosophy also includes that ‘knowledge should always be shared…if you are not willing to share, then there is no room for you.’ These chefs will stick around for years, and some will leave to further their studies elsewhere…however O Kitchen remains to be their home base. They always have a heart to return.
Susumu and friend/director Benson getting into a serious convo...about what?
“So what can I do for this country? As a foreigner…I planted a seed, it took years and they are just sprouting…when you die, you carry memories…fun memories, and best time of your life is in your 20’s and 30’s! This is the best time for you to grow while you have energy.”
Just listening to Susumu gets you excited, and pushes you to the edge to pursue your dreams...
Jeju horse carpaccio with soy & carrot sauce, quail eggs
Pork belly confit with mint mashed potatoes, served with grilled vegetables
Herb crusted rack of lamb with grilled vegetables, with bagnacauda
Luv the 'behind the scenes'...and they make all their pasta in house!
"What’s your favorite dish to eat at O Kitchen? I eat here everyday…I’m never bored. I’m blessed as a restaurant owner because I really enjoy the food here".
Ricotta gnocchi with amatriciana
Smiles with Susumu, always giving me sound advice...
Sneaked a peak of what the staff eats...ok, I seriously have to get invited to one of their lunch breaks, haha!
A well deserved break...
Frozen star anise souffle with torched banana (definitely one of my favs!!!)
“There are things called a process…adding sauce, mish mash…from there you start to think what’s necessary or unnecessary…then you weed them out and you begin to see much clearly what’s important. That’s what I teach these kids…everything through a creative process, because this is how I think. For example, to climb a mountain, each person climbs it a different way…through this you see the darkness, and experience good things. It’s about the feeling and memory."
About the menu: a little bit of European, Korean & Japanese...well, to best explain, it's Susumu's life journey. The food is just too good...
My memories with O Kitchen and Susumu are boundless. Truly grateful to have a new experience each time, and I not only leave with a full stomach, but always filled with inspiration!
Yongsan-gu, Itaewon dong 3-19, Seoul/서울시 용산구 이태원동 19길 3
Subway: Itaewon station (line 6), exit 1. Walk a few blocks until you hit 'Pacific shopping center' then take a right at the alley. Restaurant will be on your left.