Modern Korean cuisine in Australia has hit the accelerator hard and fast in recent years. Barbecue restaurants have long reigned supreme, but a guard of chefs and restaurateurs are looking to expand the minds of local diners beyond sizzling grills.
Daero Lee and Illa Kim have done just that with the launch of Soul Dining in Sydney’s Surry Hills two years ago and the subsequent opening of Soul Deli just a short stroll away.
Kim talks to Hospitality about contributing to the growth of contemporary Korean in the local dining scene, turning a lockdown idea into a business and the addiction of opening venues diners simply can’t stop throwing their arms around.
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Illa Kim worked in marketing and PR before she made the jump into the hospitality industry. So what prompted the career change? “I married a chef,” she says. Said husband Daero Lee has spent most of his life in the kitchen, attending a hospitality high school and college in Korea before working in bakeries and French and Italian restaurants.
Lee secured an Australian working visa and the connections he made during the trip went on to shake things up in a big way. “Daero came back to Korea and then the people he worked with in Australia offered him a job,” says Kim. “I came to Australia too and worked in an office.”
When Kim and Lee made the move, they were both struck by the local Korean food scene. “I expected I would come to Sydney and there would be a lively Korean food scene, which there is, but not on the high end,” says Kim. “The idea of having our own place naturally developed and we started thinking about opening something for about two years before we actually did it.”
That something turned out to be Soul Dining, which flung open its doors on Devonshire Street two years ago. “Our thinking behind the concept was for Daero to cook what he wanted to cook; he always wanted to recreate dishes from his childhood with the techniques he learned from Italian and French restaurants. [Soul Dining is] Korean from our perspective; it’s Korean influences with local produce and modern techniques.”
The launch of Soul Dining brought about many questions from diners, who hadn’t experienced anything like it before. Hence, an opportunity presented itself for Lee and Kim to educate the public on a cuisine that’s prolific in not only Korea, but other cities such as New York.
“The understanding about Korean cuisine wasn’t there as much as we thought,” says Kim. “Everybody is so sophisticated about food here; they know about kimchi, they understand what Korean food is in terms of direction, but I think the general idea of Korean food is still on the cheaper end.
“Convincing people to spend more on Korean cuisine was quite difficult. So we made certain choices when we set up the menu including not having bowls of rice to order because we wanted diners to see how far Korean can go if you’re willing to try. People were asking, ‘Where’s the rice and kimchi?’ but I think once they tried it, they recognised other things in our food.
“We also offer an experience in the way modern Australian cuisine does with wine pairings and telling customers the story behind the dishes instead of just putting them down and walking away.”
The restaurant quickly found its footing and nestled its way into a relatively junior category. But around a year in, the pandemic hit, and Soul Dining faced an all-too-familiar dilemma: survival versus integrity. “We tried to stay true to ourselves and do takeaway in lockdown, but the food didn’t come to the table the way we wanted it to,” says Kim.
The answer was to do something different. Bowl by Soul saw the team put together a revolving roster of deopbap to keep staff in jobs and provide some comfort to regulars.
Kim and Lee had always considered opening a second venue, but they thought it would be a wine bar; one that focused on natural Korean rice wines. Bowl by Soul thwarted that idea (for now), and the pair started looking for a “hole in the wall takeaway shop” but ended up coming across a much bigger space. “The ideas started to snowball and we talked to so many people in the community,” says Kim
“Then we got introduced to Dan [Kim] from Primary Coffee and we thought the space would make sense as a café. We met more people in the Korean-Australian community and could use the space to show what Koreans do in Australia.”
So that’s what happened. Soul Deli is very much a hybrid venue with three distinct spaces: a café, deli and retail offering that offers curated Korean food products and wares. The venue was slated to open in November, however delayed permits and Christmas pushed the launch back to February.
With that said, the process was a lot easier the second time around. “We went with the same builder who we trusted and having another business up and running gives you
reassurance,” says Kim. “Many of the deli staff came from Soul Dining, so the team all know each other and our regulars have supported us, too.”
Spearheading a more casual venue has provided myriad opportunities for Lee and Kim, who have seized the day when it comes to trialling different concepts. For example, sauces and marinades were all requested by Soul Dining customers pre-COVID, and they’re now selling hot at the deli.
The past year plus a few months has been a huge lesson for operators and many are now future-proofing new and pre-existing concepts. “I did hear a lot from industry
peers that home kits were one of the biggest factors of their survival; same with anything that people can recreate at home,” says Kim.
“As a restaurant business, I do think we need to be versatile and have more outlets and categories to serve if something unexpected comes along. A hybrid concept allows us to reach a bigger audience and cover multiple price ranges.”
A more casual venue has also laid the foundations for more experimentation and a quicker turnaround. Soul Deli has the freedom to replicate dishes seen in Korea, with K-dramas playing a big part in meals that skyrocket in popularity.
“If we were in Korea, we’d have a bowl of rice with different ingredients on top of it while watching Kingdom,” says Kim. “We can be much faster and fun about trends at the deli. A lot of people would ask us about doing ram-don at Soul Dining, but we couldn’t because the authentic taste is with instant noodles, but now we can cook it for them at the deli.”
While it only took a few months to get Soul Deli up and running, recruiting proved to be a challenge. Like many other venues, Soul Dining lost a significant number of staff during the pandemic. “60 per cent went back to their home countries to be with their families,” says Kim. “Only two people could get JobKeeper and we had to carry three with our own money, which was scary because we didn’t know how long lockdown would last; but staff are family.”
Some Soul Dining team members have moved across to the deli, but the venue still needed extra hands. “Rehiring was difficult because they aren’t as many people with a certain level of experience; they’re either too skilled or entry-level,” says Kim. “But things have settled down a bit and people are now looking at employment differently; they want to stick with businesses instead of moving around.”
The wine bar may have been put on hold for now, but Lee and Kim aren’t ruling out further expansion of the Soul brand. “It’s totally stressful, but we have so many ideas and maybe we’ll do something with seafood,” says Kim. “We have lots of really interesting seafood dishes in Korea we could recreate with Australian produce. Once you do this, it’s a little bit addictive.”