1. Let’s start with the news of you closing Sepial’s Kitchen. What was the reason for this decision? How are you feeling about this?
I think I have tested the market enough for two years and I really appreciate every single customer who has been so kind to us. Now it is time to swim in bigger water and to meet the real challenges. If I can say Sepial’s Kitchen in Salt River was a small incubator to grow, now I need to jump into cold water. Salt River was really nice to start from, no big waves, no sharks, but a bit too shallow to grow. Because of COVID-19, fewer people eat out. Now location is more important. To maintain the same size business, we need more space to cover more small but varying demands.
I like moving around. I love meeting new people, new places and that leads me to a new life. I used to move my home every year. That excited me. I always took moving very lightly, but when I emptied out my first restaurant, Sepial’s Kitchen, I felt something really hard. Strange. A little emotional.
2. After a long lockdown, you bounced back into action with the opening of Ugly Dumpling. Where did the idea for this come from? What was the process of opening during such a difficult time for the industry like?
When you are in danger, your adrenaline level is pumped up so that you can act like you have a superpower (for a short time). COVID-19 and lockdown woke me up like taking a cold shower. I was about to move to a bigger place near Kloof Street just before lockdown. I think I was really, really lucky that there was a delay of the signing a lease just before COVID got started.
We survived with home delivery during the hard lockdown. We really did everything. As soon as eating out was allowed, the number of delivery orders dropped drastically. That was the hardest time for me since this pandemic started. I already used up my superpower and had to meet the real world. I was not sure what I could do anymore. I really did every possible thing. Sepial’s Kitchen is only 54 square metres and I could not keep my guests safe with enough space between tables. I needed to do something. At that time, my neighbour, Buns Bakery, started trading at the V&A Food Market and recommended us to the management. I could not say no. When I set a menu, I usually start thinking what I want to eat. So I visited and let myself feel what I need. The answer was dumplings! Casual and easy to eat. As people spend more time online than ever before, the items should be Instagrammable. As people stay at home and have less stimulation in general, the menu should have some punch in flavour but easy to digest. That is how I decided to sell dumplings at V&A Food Market.
If the given conditions are harder, you have to trust yourself more. That was what I did. It is hard to start something big, but something smaller is easier. As norms are not working as they used to be, someone like me who has less experience in this industry may have a slightly better chance. As all the regular rules do not really apply, my lack of experience in this industry became less serious.
I used to be a thinker and that used to make me stop doing many things. After suffering from mild depression, my brain didn’t work like before, I stopped thinking too much and worked harder. Strangely this helped me a lot during this hard time.
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3. What’s your personal favourite dish on the current menu?
Pork dumplings/baozi and kimchi dumplings! They are very easy to understand, straightforward and yummy. I like seafood dumplings a lot, but they are a bit difficult to serve correctly sometimes if you are not experienced. Organic pak choi and prawn dumplings have a delicate flavour. Mushroom baozi or dumplings are 100% my own recipe and I adopted French cooking technique to make something very Asian. How can I not like any of my dishes?! I love everything. It was really hard to keep the menu small so that we control the quality better.
4. What has the reception been to Ugly Dumpling? How are you finding it so far?
We have been loved more than I expected. Still, V&A Food Market has not fully bounced back after lockdown. I think it is not bad for us, as we can just make enough to sell every week. Once our production lines become better structured, we will sell frozen ones as well.
5. You’ve become an important resource for Korean food and culture in South Africa, but you’re also known for using lots of local ingredients in your cooking. How do you find this marriage of the two cultures? What’s surprised you most about this process?
Really? Wow! Amazing! Really? When I was at Silwood School of Cookery, we were taught and encouraged to use local and seasonal ingredients as much as possible. It is like a puzzle. It’s really fun to find ways to match new things to make something different and special. Also it is less harmful to the world. If you close your eyes and concentrate, you will find many similar things between different cultures. I have memories of food I used to enjoy in Korea, and I have many wonderful ingredients in South Africa. It is natural to match those two together. Imaginations, trials and adjusting the details. That’s what I like about cooking. Basically finding a good balance with different flavour, texture, colour, temperature and other factors are the fundamentals of good cooking whether we are in Korea or in South Africa.
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6. What is your favourite thing about the local food industry?
7. What is your favourite South African ingredient?
Wild garlic! Bokkoms! Pelargonium!
8. What is your favourite Korean ingredient?
All the sea plants!
9. Have you got anything else in the pipeline? What else have you been working on?
I am busy working on opening a new restaurant, Allium. Allium is a family name of bulbous plants including garlic, onion, spring onion, chives and leeks. I rely on those vegetables a lot when I flavour my dishes. They all even have beautiful big round flowers made out of small little ones. They look like me and my fellas working in this industry. We work together and create something together, which is bigger than we create individually. How can I not call my second restaurant Allium?