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Q&A: PETER CHO + SUN YOUNG PARK OF HAN OAK

The curator of our upcoming Friends of the Café Dinner, chef Peter Cho has worked in celebrated kitchens and won a number of awards in the culinary world; he and his wife are also innovators in marrying work and life in a modern way. A native of Oregon, Peter worked for a decade under April Bloomfield – first at the Spotted Pig, and then as head chef at The Breslin. After he and his wife, Sun Young Park, had their first child, they began to feel the strain that restaurant life was putting on their family. They made the decision to move from New York to Portland to act as a support system for Peter’s mother, who was battling cancer. It was then that Sun saw a Craigslist posting that would inspire them to adopt an entirely new way of life.

What Sun found was a space that could be built out into a loft-style home with a restaurant attached. The restaurant eventually became Han Oak, a take on the Korean word for “home.” Their family home lies a few steps from the restaurant’s kitchen, which means that Peter and Sun can work in the kitchen – then open the door into their home to spend time with their children. Of course, it also means that one of the kids might make an unplanned appearance in the dining room, but that is what makes Han Oak feel so unlike other restaurants and more like its namesake, a real home.

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Han Oak has become a Portland staple and has earned recognition from Eater National, GQ, and Esquire, and Peter was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. Han Oak received a James Beard nomination in 2017 for Best New Restaurant and, in 2019, Peter was named a finalist for Best Chef: Northwest. You may know Sun as illustrator of our Studio Book Series and other books and projects. We spoke with both Peter and Sun about their journey to Han Oak and beyond.

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AC: You have a distinguished culinary background. Can you explain a little bit about how you came into the food industry and what your journey looked like when you were younger?

PC:  I always liked to cook as a kid.. always sat around the table when my mom would make dumplings, cooked a little in high school – but I moved to New York after college on the promise of free rent from my older brother who was already living in 4 story brownstone in Harlem. It was a community house with 12 people and we would all take turns cooking family dinners on Sunday nights. Cooking for more than just myself and a few others was a lot different than what I was used to. It required menu planning, prepping a day or two before. I really got into it. I was about to enroll in culinary school when, on a whim, I was walking by a small corner restaurant in Greenwich Village and decided to ask for a job. Instead of dropping $35k on a 9-month program, I took a job paying $300/week. I worked my way up to sous chef within 3 years, was promoted to be the opening chef of The Breslin in NY’s Ace Hotel and continued to work for Chef April Bloomfield for nearly 10 years.

AC: You have one of the most unique restaurant/family dynamics that exists today. For our readers who might not be familiar with your restaurant Han Oak, can you explain and give us a primer on the concept?

PC: We didn’t open Han Oak with a concept to start. In my mind it was a weekly supper club where we would only open 2 nights a week and focus on our new budding family. It was our living room as well as a dining room and we wanted to start small. With a non-existent budget, we opened with just our friends, family, myself and one other cook in the kitchen. My sister and friends were our servers, my mom made kimchi and dumplings, and my dad stoked the fire. Sun would run back and forth from the house side to the restaurant to host, serve, and nurse our infant.

We were really just trying our very best with what little money we had to make ends meet and stay as close a family as possible. It was risky and not always the right move for everyone. For me, signing a contract to work in a big budget restaurant meant signing my time away from our newborn and that was not an option at the time.

Through the next few years we saved enough money to hire staff, add more services and slowly built Han Oak to what is now a 4 night a week, full-service restaurant.

AC: Knowing what life is like for a chef in a traditional setting, what gave you the sense that this setup would work?

PC: Starting small while our kids were still young helped to give a better live/work balance. Not that it’s ever balanced… we are still pulled one way or another, but the distance between our home and the restaurant made it a lot easier.

SYP: We had no idea that it would actually work. I wondered whether we should tell people that we live in the restaurant at all – what if it was off putting and they ran in the other direction? I feel fortunate that we were accepted, appreciated, and it was allowed to turn into what it is today.

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AC: Because your family is so integrated into your business life, what do you think your children will take away from having such a unique living situation?

PC:  Our kids have been socialized is a unique environment. They hang out with our staff during our prep time. They welcome the guests when the doors open. Our private courtyard acts as their play space and our restaurant waiting area.

SYP: They are definitely not shy. They will approach tables to play with children who have come to dine and Elliott has taken desserts off of diners’ tables. I wonder if they’ll prefer a more reclusive or quiet adulthood because they’ve grown up around so much hustle and bustle or if they’ll party too much because they’re comfortable around highly stimulating environments. They might be spoiled with our staff taking such good care of them – but wait until we introduce them to the dish pit.

AC: You have also created a familial atmosphere for your employees. What does that look like for them?

PC:  We always joke with them that they’re full-time employees of Han Oak/part-time babysitters of our kids. We ask them to always have an eye out for the kids when they’re in the kitchen sneaking around to find snacks.

SYP: In this way we ask more from our staff than other restaurants do. No employee should have to look after children in the corner of their eye, but our staff does. It’s a role they embrace. They’re a part of the community that is helping me raise my children; my children adore them and there is no way to thank them enough.

AC: Much of your menu is a take on modern Korean food. How much emphasis do you want to put on tradition vs. innovation?

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PC:  My training isn’t in Korean cooking. I used a lot of what I learned working in NY to apply it to our local ingredients with a nod to tradition. It’s nice to have my mom and dad as a resource for what is “traditional” but also Sun who grew up in LA with a lot more exposure to Korean-American food.

In the end, we recipe test and taste with our staff. If we come up with something that all our staff likes and we used my parents and Sun as two ends of the spectrum, it goes on the menu.

AC: You have plans for another restaurant soon. What is the concept for that? And how will you adapt the expansion into your family first philosophy?

PC: Luckily the new space is just around the block from Han Oak. We want to make it a fun bar with bar snacks, so we’re hoping it’s a nice extension of what we’re already doing at Han Oak. Being that it’s so close, we’ll get to use Han Oak as a support for the new opening, so it won’t feel so different. The family has outgrown the space. We’ve been in a 600 square foot tiny home inside of the restaurant, so we’re looking forward to moving into a bigger house by this summer and give the kids a lot more room to play.

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AC: How has your work/life balance changed? Has this changed your vision for your future?

SYP: Yes, completely! My work/life balance has been tossed in the air and, as all the pieces have been falling for the past five years, we’re still trying to find a rhythm. Often our decisions feel like a compromise and we’re wrought with guilt that either we’re not having enough time for the family or putting our heads down and working. What we try to keep in mind, though it’s easy to forget with all the busy work that happens, is that it’s all worth it. Family time, time with our crew, giving back to our community, putting our heads down and working to grow our business is for the betterment of everyone’s future which, in turn, is also the best future we can offer our own children. We have to grow holistically.

AC: Because you have experience in everything from the traditional to the experimental, what advice would you offer to young chefs, on a fundamental level?

PC: The most rewarding thing for us has been owning our own business. We were fortunate to do it without giving away ownership. What we realized is that being able to call the shots has allowed us to do it in our own time and in our own way. My advice is always to do as much as you can with what you have.

Purchase tickets to Peter’s Friends of the Café dinner on March 26th at The Factory. We look forward to welcoming Peter—and our dinner guests—into our Alabama Chanin family and community.

All images courtesy of Peter Cho with photographer credits to Boris Zhartov, Ben Heath, and Stephanie Yao.

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