Fine Korean cuisine and hybrid coffee: Meet Soul – hospitality
Modern Korean cuisine in Australia has hit the accelerator hard and quickly in recent years. Barbecue restaurants have long reigned supreme, but a guard of chefs and restaurateurs seeks to expand the minds of local diners beyond sizzling grills.
Daero Lee and Illa Kim did just that with the launch of Soul Dining in Sydney’s Surry Hills two years ago and the subsequent opening of Soul Deli just steps away.
Kim talks to Hospitality on contributing to the growth of contemporary Korean in the local food scene, turning a foreclosure idea into a business, and reliance on opening places, diners just can’t stop throwing their arms around.
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Illa Kim worked in marketing and public relations before making the jump to the hospitality industry. So, what motivated the career change? âI married a chef,â she says. Said husband Daero Lee has spent most of his life in the kitchen, attending hotel high school and college in Korea before working in French and Italian bakeries and restaurants.
Lee got an Australian work visa and the connections he made during the trip made a big difference. âDaero came back to Korea, and then the people he worked with in Australia offered him a job,â Kim says. “I came to Australia too and worked in an office.”
When Kim and Lee moved in, they were both struck by the local Korean food scene. âI expected that I would come to Sydney and there would be a vibrant Korean food scene, which is there, but not at the high end,â Kim explains. “The idea of ââhaving our own place naturally developed and we started thinking about opening something for about two years before we did.”
That something turned out to be Soul Dining, which opened on Devonshire Street two years ago. âOur thought behind the concept was that Daero cooks whatever he wants to cook; he always wanted to recreate the dishes of his childhood with the techniques learned in Italian and French restaurants. [Soul Dining is] Korean from our point of view; they are Korean influences with local products and modern techniques.
The launch of Soul Dining prompted many questions from diners, who had never experienced anything like it before. Therefore, an opportunity presented itself for Lee and Kim to educate the public on prolific cuisine not only in Korea, but in other cities like New York.
âThe understanding of Korean cuisine was not as present as we thought,â Kim explains. âEveryone is so sophisticated when it comes to food here; they know kimchi, they understand what korean food is in terms of direction, but i think the general idea of ââkorean food is even cheaper.
âConvincing people to spend more on Korean food was quite difficult. So we made some choices when establishing the menu including not having rice bowls to order as we wanted diners to see how far Korean can go if you’re willing to give it a try. People would ask, “Where’s the rice and kimchi?” But I think once they tried it they recognized other things in our food.
“We also provide a modern Australian cooking experience with wine pairing and telling patrons the history of the dishes instead of just setting them down and walking away.”
The restaurant quickly found its place and tucked into a relatively junior category. But about a year later, the pandemic struck, and Soul Dining was faced with an all-too-familiar dilemma: survival versus integrity. âWe tried to stay true to ourselves and make take out during the lockdown, but the food didn’t come to the table the way we wanted,â Kim explains.
The answer was to do something different. Bowl by Soul saw the team put together a rotating deopbap roster to keep staff on duty and bring some comfort to regulars.
Kim and Lee had always considered opening a second venue, but they thought it would be a wine bar; the one that focused on natural Korean rice wines. Bowl by Soul thwarted that idea (for now), and the couple started looking for a “hole in the takeout store,” but ended up finding a much larger space. âThe ideas started to snowball and we spoke to so many people in the community,â says Kim
âThen we were introduced to Dan [Kim] of Primary Coffee and we thought the space would make sense as a cafe. We have met more people in the Korean-Australian community and could use the space to show what Koreans are doing in Australia.
So that’s what happened. Soul Deli is truly a hybrid place with three distinct spaces: a cafe, a deli, and a retail offering that features select Korean food and produce. The site was scheduled to open in November, but delayed permits and Christmas have pushed the launch back to February.
Having said that, the process was much easier the second time around. âWe went with the same builder that we trusted and having another business up and running gives you
reassure, âsays Kim. âA lot of the deli staff came from Soul Dining so the team knows each other and our regulars have been supportive as well. “
Spearheading a more laid back venue offered a myriad of opportunities for Lee and Kim, who took the opportunity to experiment with different concepts. For example, sauces and marinades were all requested by Soul Dining customers before COVID, and they now sell hot at the deli.
The past year and a few months have been a huge lesson for operators and many of them are now in the process of perpetuating new and pre-existing concepts. âI have heard a lot about the industry
peers that home kits were one of the biggest factors in their survival; same with anything that people can recreate at home, âsays Kim.
âAs a restaurant business, I think we need to be versatile and have more outlets and categories to serve if something unexpected comes up. A hybrid concept allows us to reach a wider audience and cover several price ranges.
A more casual venue also laid the groundwork for more experimentation and a faster turnaround time. Soul Deli has the freedom to replicate dishes seen in Korea, with K-dramas playing an important role in meals that are skyrocketing in popularity.
âIf we were in Korea, we would have a bowl of rice with different ingredients on it while watching Kingdom, Kim says. âWe can be a lot quicker and funnier on deli trends. Lots of people would ask us to ram donate at Soul Dining, but we couldn’t because the authentic taste is instant noodles, but now we can cook it for them at the deli.
Although it only took a few months for Soul Deli to be up and running, recruiting proved to be a challenge. Like many other locations, Soul Dining lost a significant number of employees during the pandemic. â60% returned to their country of origin to be with their family,â explains Kim. âOnly two people could get JobKeeper and we had to carry three with our own money, which was scary as we didn’t know how long the lockdown would last; but the staff are family.
Some of the Soul Dining team moved to the grocery store, but the place still needed some extra hands. âThe rehiring was difficult because there aren’t as many people with a certain level of experience; they are either too skilled or beginners, âsays Kim. âBut things have calmed down a bit and people are now looking at employment differently; they want to stick with business instead of moving.
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. âIt’s totally stressful, but we have so many ideas and maybe we’ll do something with the seafood,â Kim says. âWe have a lot of really interesting seafood dishes in Korea that we could recreate using Australian products. Once you do that, it’s a bit addicting.