I didn’t have any sort of formal or informal cooking lessons growing up, but my childhood was filled with watching my mother cook and helping out when I could. Especially around Korean holidays, I assisted with simple tasks such as helping pan-fry jeon [zucchini]. Consistently being around food, and having a natural inclination for it, made being a chef my dream job as a child,” says Junghyun Park.
Following his childhood dream, he completed his degree in food science at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. He then traversed the globe, travelling to over 30 countries and gaining experience in an array of international cuisines. Looking back, he says that it was this experience, and especially that of working in a professional kitchen for the first time, that was a pivotal point in his career.
“I had wanted to be a chef since I was young, but my dreams became much more solidified once I began working in a professional kitchen. I had part-time roles in Korea at first, but The Ledbury [in London] was the first professional restaurant that I worked at full-time. It was there that I had a lot of realisations and lessons: from organising ingredient lists and managing kitchen timelines to the most basic herb trimming, vegetable cleaning, and knifework. It was at The Ledbury where those important fundamental skills were learned.”
His time at The Ledbury was followed by stints in various international kitchens from Finland to Australia. In 2011, Park settled stateside to lead the New York City team of Korean fine-dining restaurant Jungsik. Under his guidance, the restaurant earned rave reviews, along with two Michelin stars. Five years later, Park and his wife Ellia opened their
own restaurant Atoboy, serving progressive Korean cuisine. In 2018, Park opened his second Ato concept, Atomix –
now also awarded two Michelin stars – with a tasting menu inspired by Korean traditions and techniques.
“Prior to the opening of Atoboy, I had always envisioned what my version of fine dining cuisine would be like. In terms of the cuisine itself, while it has strong roots in my traditions and personal history of growing up in Korea, I also envisioned a place where I would be able to express my tastes freely outside of what is defined as strictly Korean – or any other cuisine – and explore combinations that were imaginative and delicious.
“As we prepared for the opening of Atomix, we considered all the elements that could make the dining experience special for the guests. We love the fine dining experience ourselves, but we have always felt that despite it being such a memorable experience overall, it is hard to actually remember all the dishes we ate throughout the course of the meal. Since fine-dining restaurants are not restaurants that are frequented but rather a special, often celebratory, moment for many guests, we came up with the menu cards as tangible memorabilia that the guests could keep with them even after the meal was over.
“Atomix is a warm but minimal environment, set in a bi-level townhouse in Gramercy. It’s unassuming from the outside, and we dreamt up an environment where each progressive moment is a subtle but impactful surprise. We hope our guests feel comfortable and open. Our chef ’s counter in the dining room is meant to feel communal while giving a sense of intimacy and privacy amongst kindred guests. From each artisan-made dish to the chopsticks that the guests choose for themselves, we want our guests to feel comfortable enough to openly explore new aspects of dining.
“Another signature of the dining experience for us is the menu cards, in which we elaborate on not only the ingredients but also such things as their sources, our inspiration behind the dish, or even the ceramicist whose dish we plate it on. There’s so much rich cultural information that we aim to provide, and we love it when our guests feel comfortable interacting, exploring, and enjoying. While in many ways Atomix has been noted as ‘New Korean’ cuisine, I don’t think that we think of our restaurants as representative of Korean food or representative of well-known Korean cuisine or dishes. I do believe and hope that my restaurants are spaces where guests, especially those who are not familiar with Korean dining culture and/or Korean culture, can begin to get familiar and comfortable with it.
“My style of cooking is inspired by my personal histories with a key focus on finding balance – often in new combinations of ingredients and cuisines. I think my philosophy has been ever-evolving, and my continued, varied exposure to different cuisines definitely contributes to it. New York has a diversity of culture and flavours that is unparalleled. Like myself, there are many chefs who are passionate about expressing their own culture and experiences on a plate and in their cuisine, but it’s always evolving as a whole. This allows me to try, taste, and experience all kinds of foods, service styles, and cultures, and this has definitely influenced my cuisine, as I love to learn and be inspired by diversity. As I’ve grown as a chef, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from around the world and in their residing cities. These eye-opening experiences have also helped me to expand my style of cooking.
“Balance is a key component in my cooking. I love combining traditional techniques and the flavours that tradition produces as a starting point, but then I’ll utilize local ingredients, or ingredients that are not native to Korea, to evolve our imagined boundaries of food. For example, one of my favourite Korean techniques to use is fermentation. We’re always experimenting with how to utilise this key technique to achieve balance outside of the very stimulating flavours that fermentation is often known for. For example, we’ve used the technique of fermentation and how it’s applied in the famous doenjang (fermented soybean paste) – but we instead used chickpeas to achieve the same level of comforting richness without what can often be considered overpowering or pungent.
“We also use many seasonal ingredients available in New York to experiment with new techniques, flavours, and recipes. Specific to the technique of fermentation, we’ve created different kimchis, such as tomatillo kimchi and eggplant kimchi, as well as jangajji (Korean pickles), using sunchokes. Using nuruk (a traditional Korean fermentation starter), we’ve created various jangs (Korean sauces and pastes). Since there are so many factors that affect the final result in fermentation, we’re constantly fine-tuning and experimenting with elements like temperature and humidity and working through different ways to control them. This is just one example of how I translate something that is so integral to me and my cuisine, yet how I continue to express it in new ways, pushing both my cuisine and my restaurants’ flavours to evolve.
“I actually consciously try to stay away from a singular approach to developing or designing a dish. Sometimes, I’m working without tying myself to tradition, rules, or expectations, combining inspirations that can be seemingly unrelated. Other times, I will dig deep into a singular study, whether it be food science, technique, ingredients or history. There are moments where long periods of learning, researching, and gathering come to a point of original output, and there are moments where creative pursuits end up as a homage to a time-tested classic. These moments are teachings of balance. I think balancing simplicity with complexity is key. Simplicity and complexity do not exist in extremes – simplicity is often a result of complexity, and complexity can be expressed in deceivingly simple ways. I find that inspiration can come from anywhere! It can come from something mundane, like a simple childhood snack or from an inspirational fine-dining dinner.
“We try to source produce as locally as possible unless it is unique to a specific region for taste or variety. We import ingredients that we need or want from Korea directly. Much of the produce that is available locally will be sourced through farms and vendors here, and we also import specific products as needed from specific regions to guarantee that we’re getting the best produce at their optimal times. An ideal product is really dependent on how it’s being used for a dish. For example, for one sweet course, we used several different types of strawberries. We needed one that would bring out a certain flavour profile when it was salted and preserved, as well as a fresh one that was needed for its naturally balanced sweetness. It’s about knowing what’s available – through your own knowledge and your supply partners’ knowledge – and being able to use that as a palette in designing specific dishes.
“Fine-dining restaurants, in generations past, had a focus on French, Italian, and Japanese cuisines. The way it was showcased, a more formal service, a specific kind of white-tablecloth experience, was the norm. Now there’s a huge growing diversity in not only the represented cuisines but also the experience format. There are avant-garde dining experiences, unlike the ones that were available previously – such as at restaurants Alchemist and Ultraviolet – that utilise cutting-edge technology towards an integrated, multi-sensory storytelling experience. Although we’re not as avant-garde as this, we’re taking a more storytelling, holistic approach at Atomix, which is different from the fine dining formats of the past.
“Fine-dining restaurants have become more than just restaurants with delicious dishes or gorgeous plating. I see so many new restaurants as vehicles to convey a story. Many restaurants place an emphasis on the importance of ingredients and sustainability, while many others see themselves as a cultural hub with a mission to tell a story. Maybe it’s due to the evolution of what fine dining looks like, but I’ve also seen that the fine-dining guests themselves have also become very diverse and now include a much wider range of guests. Dining has become an experience or event that especially younger guests have become keen to enjoy, for example. Ideating how, as a restaurant, you can become a place where many different types of people can feel comfortable, enjoy, and learn from each other is a welcomed challenge that I think fine-dining restaurants are tackling.”