A perfect medley of delicious barbecued meats, unending side dishes and spicy soups, Korean cuisine has become a fast favorite of Western food connoisseurs.
It was precisely the American obsession with the hearty, flavorful Asian cuisine that prompted Suji Park, an internationally acclaimed restaurateur, to open a Korean restaurant in Omaha, and launch a line of fresh and frozen Korean foods, giving customers across the nation a chance to sample the Asian fare from the comfort of their homes. Proving that for every trend there is an equal but opposite trend, Park also owns restaurants in Korea and Japan, where American comfort food is served, much to the delight of Asian patrons.
While it is now commonplace to see Asian eateries sprouting up stateside, we rarely hear of those American-inspired restaurants that open on other continents. Sharing her perspective on creating innovative food outposts both in the US and abroad, Park is physical embodiment of fusion cuisine. Park, who studied art and music before switching to the culinary arts, first made a name for herself by taking the idea of New York City brunch to her home country, opening a restaurant in Seoul that served meticulously prepared brunch foods, including home-baked English muffins (made from scratch, of course) and home-cured Canadian Bacon. It's not hard to understand why she was successful with that venture, of course.
Park's corresponding fresh and frozen food company, called Suji's Korean Cuisine, has been steadily growing more than 35 percent year on year, and is on track to balloon by 200 percent in 2018. The brand is sold throughout Korea, Japan, and the U.S., and will expand into China, UK, and Australia next year. According to Park, her most popular locales for brand sales are Seoul and California, proving that Korean food is indeed a culinary cross-trend that is paying off, big time.
Here, we sit down with the bold, forward-thinking entrepreneur to dish on the restaurateur lifestyle, the frozen food industry, and why Korean consumers love Eggs Benedict.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? What was it like?
I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. I then went to study abroad in New York where I spent most of my 20's. I returned to Seoul and from there I moved to Tokyo for eight years and then moved to Omaha for three and a half years where I opened my first U.S. based Korean restaurant. And now you can find me in Seattle, WA.
What did you study and where? How did you get into the food industry?
As a student in Korea, I studied art and music, focusing on traditional Korean instruments. After high school, I went to FIT where I received my BA in International Business. I later decided to switch my focus to the culinary arts and studied at The French Culinary Institute, which is now ICC (International Culinary Center). At ICC my area of concentration was Restaurant Management and Culinary Techniques. This led me to open my first restaurant in Korea in 2005 when I brought NYC style brunch to the multi-cultural neighborhood of Itaewon.
Your first restaurant was one that served American brunch food, can you tell us why you chose to serve that kind of cuisine? What were some of the most popular dishes?
There are a few reasons I decided to bring American brunch to Korea. South Korea is heavily influenced by American culture, however many of the restaurants consist of chains or fast food offering very generic fare. At the time, there were not any places serving delicious, thoughtfully crafted American food. Having studied in the U.S. with my two younger brothers, we were exposed to the “New York Sunday Brunch" and realized that it would be a hit in the Korean market. Specifically, I wanted to introduce high-quality American food to the Asian market, in a comfortable atmosphere, similar to what you would find in trendy neighborhoods like The West Village or Chelsea in New York.
Our most popular dish was eggs benedict because we made everything from scratch. From curing our Canadian bacon, to baking our egg muffins, sous viding our eggs and making our own hollandaise. We wanted our food to taste as authentic and high quality as possible. This led me to receive a feature in the New York Times in 2007.
What styles and types of food are your favorites? Is there a specific cuisine that inspires you or that you are known for?
Personally, I enjoy all good food. I do have some food sensitivities to gluten, lactose and fried foods. I am a big fan of cuisine that uses fresh ingredients and good craftsmanship, whether it is high-end or grab-and-go. I strongly believe in the globalization of the food industry and sourcing ingredients from all over the world and not limiting them to local procurement.
Korean BBQ is getting more and more popular here in the US. Can you speak about Korean food in America and why you think it is having a renaissance?
I think Americans are becoming more exploratory and adventurous in their eating habits. It first started with Chinese food, then moved on to Mexican, and then Thai became very popular. Americans not only want bold and exotic flavors but they are also looking for balanced meals. I believe that's where Korean food comes into play. Korean food is all about balance and nutrition, combining the perfect amount of proteins with vegetables and starches while offering complex flavors. There are also health benefits like probiotics that come from fermented foods like kimchi.
Fusion cuisine is a really great trend that's happening in the food truck and street food scene. Korean food is so versatile that it's easy to create a unique dish that fuses American favorites with Korean flavors like Bulgogi Tacos or Kimchi Burgers.
Tell us about opening your first American restaurant. Did you have investors? Why did you choose the location you did?
My mother and I opened my first restaurant in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul. I didn't have any investors; I used my personal savings to start the restaurant. We chose Itaewon because it is an area that is heavily visited and populated by foreigners and expats. There is a military base close by, so I felt this was a good way to introduce brunch to Korea. Once the neighborhood locals came, Koreans soon followed who tend to be influencers or early adopters. From there it just took off.
Suji's Korean Grill
What kind of food do you offer at your restaurant? Are you planning to expand?
My restaurants in Korea and Japan offer NYC style food. In the United States, we have a Traditional Korean restaurant. I believe that there is a lot of opportunity for high-end Korean restaurants in the US market and I'm looking to expand into Seattle soon.
In terms of your newest business, Suji's Korean Food, can you tell us what kinds of items you offer? What are the most popular?
We offer a wide variety of Korean food, a few being bulgogi, rice bowls, udon, and marinades. These items are packaged as grab-and-go refrigerated items, frozen meals, and shelf stable sauces. We also do a lot of business in the foodservice industry. We currently have 30 products and 80 SKUs. Our food service items do really well. You can find them in delis, grocery store hot and cold bars, schools and cafeterias all over the United States. These types of businesses tend to be early adopters of our products and require very little education.
Where is your line sold? What are your biggest markets? Can you tell us about your expansion plan?
Suji's Korean Cuisine is sold nationwide at large retailers like Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods. We are working hard every day to get our line into even more retailers and into the hands of customers.
Frozen food is often given a bad rap because of the preservatives included. Can you speak about this? Is it true or does it depend?
Frozen food has been given a bad rap previously, but now, due to the tremendous growth in food technology and science, the quality has improved greatly. It's up to businesses like ours to educate consumers on the advancements in frozen foods. For instance, traditionally you could find frozen Asian meals with a 70-90 item ingredient list and only 30 percent or less natural ingredients. Our frozen meals have 20 ingredients or fewer and are 100 percent all natural. We attribute this to the improvements in technology and do our best to market and educate consumers through our branding and messaging.
The Quick 10
1. What app do you use the most?
Kakao – it's a Korean chat app that I use to communicate with my Korea/Japan teams.
2. Briefly describe your morning routine.
I usually wake up and immediately check my phone to see what has happened with my businesses in Asia. I am really trying to break this habit. After that, I grab my workout gear that I usually have laid out from the night before, and head over to my gym that's in Pike Place Market. I love going to the Market before it's open and then seeing it come to life when my workout is done.
3. Name a business mogul you admire.
Dorothy Hamilton – founder of the International Culinary Center in NYC.
4. What product do you wish you had invented?
It's not really a product but I wish I would have invented cloning, that way I could have a clone in both Korea and Japan.
5. What is your spirit animal?
I'll have to get back to you on that one.
6. What is your life motto?
Honestly, not to sound cliché but I live by the motto work hard, play hard. I always follow my passions 100 percent full force but when it's time to relax and unwind, I give that 100 percent as well.
7. Name your favorite workday snack.
It's not really a snack but I do love a good Bourbon at the end of the day when I'm catching up on work from my Asia teams.
8. What's something that's always in your bag?
My glasses, I have three pairs that I always keep with me and my apartment keys.
9. What's the most inspiring place you've traveled to?
It's hard to pinpoint just one place. I am inspired by each country, culture, and place that I travel to. For example, I enjoy the people I've met in Ireland, the food and perfectionism in Japan, how dynamic Korea is, and the passion displayed in Mexico.
10. Desert Island. Three things, go.
A carpenter, a personal chef, and a masseuse.
Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.