The Korean peninsula is littered with small, family owned restaurants. Many restaurants serve versions of popular Korean dishes like spicy chicken, fried octopus, or spicy chicken feet. Eating at small restaurants is one of the ways to experience Korean food culture. The restaurant as a phenomenon is an interesting but overlooked part of life on the peninsula. Rooftop on the Hanok caught up with Seyoung Park, a traveler and cook who recently opened a community restaurant in Mokpo, South Korea. Park shared about her experiences working in the food industry and traveling, her time volunteering as an organic farmer, what makes her restaurant unique, and why she opened a restaurant in Mokpo of all places. Park has worked in organic farming for four years, lived in Thailand and Japan, and has traveled to more than 25 countries. The name of her restaurant is Home: Soil, Soul, Society.
Rooftop on the Hanok(RH): What’s the story behind Home: Soil, Soul, Society?
Seyoung Park(SP): My restaurant was inspired by the book Small is Beautiful and the Indian British activist Satish Kumar. I got to know of him during my university days and he always spoke about Soil, Soul, Society. He’s really into cooking. I like the concept of cooking from your heart. It’s all connected. On my menu, it has everything in it. Like society, soil, and soul. I put my love into my cooking. That’s how I decided on my brand. It’s written as 집ᄉ씨 in hangul, which sounds like jib shi in English. Jib means home. Shi means seed. Together it means “home seed” in Korean. It also means gypsy or traveller. The reason I started my restaurant is related also to travel. I have been traveling a lot, for more than 10 years. Now I am traveling in Mokpo. During my travels, I met a lot of people that inspired and encouraged me. Now its my turn to host people and encourage them. I wanted to host people who were searching for connections, love, or meaning. I’m into listening to travelers dreams, not only serving them as far as cooking but also doing other services for them like helping them to find lodging, taking them on tours, and providing information. My place is an opportunity for people to find connections.
RH: Can you discuss some of your background? Do you have prior experience in the food and service industry?
SP: Growing up, I didn’t study about cooking in a professional way. Rather, I approached it naturally, from my life experiences and day- to- day living. I have worked in various restaurants including Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Hawaiian restaurants. I’ve cooked in many environments. I’ve even cooked in a big community kitchen. I can cook for 300 people or 500 people. I mostly helped feed big groups of people at festivals, and in Thailand and India. I’ve cooked in Germany, Japan, Estonia. I traveled to many countries. If I’m hosted by someone, I’m always helping in the kitchen. I always feel happy cooking for others. Its enjoyable.
RH: If someone put you in a kitchen, would you feel comfortable?
SP: The kitchen is the most comfortable place for me, in a house. Or a garden.
RH: How is that possible?
SP: During my childhood, only females were allowed to cook in the kitchen. It’s the tradition from my grandparents generation. My mom and my auntie were always in the kitchen preparing meals for the men. That kind of vibration made me feel warm. I can even feel its full of love. It’s a very big service and I always wanted to help there. I felt a strong connection to my mom, grandma, and auntie. There was no hierarchy. We were all equals.
RH: Have you ever felt too intimidated to cook?
SP: It’s very natural for me. I don’t even test the taste before serving it. I try to make the taste basic. Cook it to a basic state. If you feel you need more salt, you can add it yourself. I often believe it will be delicious.
RH: Do you add sugar to your sauces? Why do you think modern restaurants do that?
SP: No, I don’t. I only use sugar if the original recipe calls for it. Thai curry has some sugar.
RH: Do you just memorize recipe amounts? Or do you experiment?
SP: My weakness is I can’t follow a recipe. I found it’s impossible to make the same dish every time. Every time, you should make a unique dish.
RH: Are there any famous chefs you follow? Or cookbooks?
SP: I like Samin Nosrat. She’s basically talking about salt, fat, acid, and heat. These four things are the most important things in your diet. One more is Jamie Oliver, a big influence when I was young. I’m ashamed that I was more influenced by famous foreign chefs in my teenage years. In my twenties, I started to seek Korean cooking expertise such as that found in temple food and local traditional menus. It was one of the objectives behind my travels around rural Korea. I wanted to discover Korean cooking influences.
RH: Do you have a special philosophy regarding food?
SP: The most important thing for me is using local ingredients. The second most important thing is using organic products. The third thing is slow cooking.
RH: Why local?
SP: It’s fresh.
RH: Do you think that the local area reflects the local people?
SP: It’s also very helpful to support the local community and farmers.
RH: Why is slow cooking better?
SP: I think it is a spiritual process. Different areas have different ways of cooking. Nowadays, everything is about speed. People want a fast result. If you took your time, you would eat slowly and do it with the people around you. When you slow down, you feel more. You taste more. You can even imagine where the ingredients came from and who cooked it for you. You can experience nature. I think that kind of connection is a gift for us.
RH: You are from Busan. Why did you choose to open a restaurant in Mokpo? Did you find it difficult to acclimate to the area? How do most of the restaurant patrons find out about Home: Soil, Soul, Society?
SP: I always wanted to live next to the seaside. In 2019, I was thinking to go back to Busan, where I used to live. But Busan changed so much. It was so crowded. And the vibration wasn’t for me. Cause I was looking for more. The vibration wasn’t calm.
I was traveling west one day and the first day I arrived I felt similar energy to Portugal. Portugal was one of the places I wanted to live at. I wanted to open a restaurant there too. I am living in the old town. You can see the mountains, smell the sea. You can see the old culture. It reminds me of living in Kyoto as well.
It wasn’t difficult to get acclimated. I feel like I’m connected to the area.
RH: Did you have friends in Mokpo before you moved there?
SP: No, I didn’t have any friends. I had never been to Mokpo. I even had to look at a maps to see where Mokpo was. I made a few friends who were making their own little businesses like a cafe or bookstore. They encouraged me a lot. They helped me to find a place. Now I have more regular customers as well.
I haven’t been to Seoul for a year now. I travel around a lot to different islands.
When I decided to open the restaurant Covid-19 started. A worry was that I might travel all the time and maybe it was best not to open the restaurant. The Covid-19 situation was grounding. Also, people care more about healthy food now.
RH: Now are you eager to travel, since you haven’t gone anywhere since Covid-19?
SP: I want to travel. I also want to invite all of my international friends to Mokpo.
RH: When you walk the streets of Mokpo, do you ever wonder if it’s exactly like Portugal? Better yet, do you imagine it is Portugal?
SP: Yes, even today I thought about Portugal as I was walking home from the market. The hills— You can see the port. Like Lisbon. All the small streets and cafes.
RH: Does living in Mokpo make you want to move to Lisbon?
SP: Yes, I want to move there someday. I have been asking my Brazilian friend to teach me Portuguese. At the very least, I want to stay there for a short time.
RH: It seems you are looking for community.
SP: I think it’s from my personality. I feel connection even when I’m not living in the same place as other people. As a traveler, I feel like I have my family at spots around the world.. Some friends are in Suncheon, others in Bangkok, some in Kyoto, and so on.
My role is to find a new place that my friends can visit through me. There is a sense of connection even when separated. The distance doesn’t matter. No matter where I am I feel a bigger size of community as a human being.
That’s what i want to give to the next generation.
RH: What is Mokpo’s most famous monument? Is it the long bridge?
SP: There are a lot of islands here, so there are bridges. Mokpo Bridge is connected to Goha-do, an island. The other one is 1004 Bridge. It’s the longest and makes connections with all the small islands and beaches. I didn’t have much of an impression of the bridges. I had more of an impression of the market. Even, I was impressed by Mokpo because it’s an old town. I can see the culture and the people are living life.
Mokpo’s famous for its fish industry. Many people come to the fish market to sell fish.
RH: How do people find it?
SP: Mostly on Instagram, and through the people who visit here. Some people visit Mokpo and somehow find it. Which is funny because it’s not easy to spot. It’s next to a main road with some tall buildings on it. Some people even have a map and can’t find my place.
RH: What’s the most popular dish?
SP: Chai. It’s on my signature menu. There are two kinds of Chai. Two different ones that I named Sun and Moon. Sun is a golden latte with turmeric and moon is basic chai with black tea. As for the food, it’s like stew and curry. But my menu changes every week. The most popular one was tom yum thai curry.
RH: What special menu items do you have for vegetarians and vegans? Are there dishes that are gluten free or keto?
SP: I choose the best ingredients like soybean paste, soy sauce, and other basic ingredients. I don’t put MSG in any of my food. Those are hidden ingredients in the food. Like if you are eating soybean soup you can’t really see what they put in the food. A lot depends on the quality of the hidden ingredients.
My place prefers vegan dishes. Sometimes, I use seafood or eggs. If I use animal products, they are local and organic. They are only for special menu items.
I choose the flour that has less gluten. I choose the one that is not imported but that comes from Mount Jirisan. I believe the food that comes from nearby is easier for your digestion and health.
I make my own soybean products as often as I can. I don’t want to lose the traditional recipes as well, so I use them frequently.
RH: How many years did you work in organic farming?
SP: I started in like 2012, but I moved around to different farms for a few years.
RH: What lessons did you learn in all your years working with organic food that you apply to your cooking?
SP: I learned about diversity. It helped me to understand waste. It’s more of a holistic way of cooking so there is nothing that you throw away. So it teaches you to have zero waste.
RH: What kind of diversity?
SP: When you work on the farm, you can see lots of insects and plants on the crops. The soil conditions too. Everything is connected and everything is working together. Its more about the food chain as well. I think that’s how humans should live. It’s not really how humans are living today.
We always say diversity and freedom is important. But whenever we try to do something for it we make systems that do more to harm it. Diversity is from gratitude for nature. We really have to respect nature.
We really have to consider what good things we can do for nature.
RH: How can Koreans or foreigners residing in other cities visit your restaurant? Do you have recommended tours or information you share about Mokpo you share for out of town patrons?
SP: I do several things for my restaurant guests, including tours. So I offer tours. And you can also provide information to visitors about local places to see.
I take them to the morning market, take them to a different restaurant. There are a lot of guesthouses in the old town.
RH: Do you have any anecdotes about the locals?
SP: Lots of people are interested in my place. It doesn’t look like a restaurant. I only have 3 tables. I’m happy they talk to me. If it was Seoul, they wouldn’t care about my place. Because its a small city, they are curious and talk to me. They are kind of excited to see my place survive.
RH: What are your plans for the future?
SP: This year, I decided not to have a plan for the future. That’s my plan for this year. But I think probably after living here in Mokpo I want to go to an even smaller place. Because Mokpo is still a city. I want to live in a town or village. I want to continue with a small family and restaurant.
If I have an organic restaurant, customers can visit my place. When I decided to open the restaurant I wanted to meet people. Mokpo is accessible from Seoul. I recommend to come by train because its five minutes on foot from the train station to my place.
RH: Do you have plans for a book?
SP: I have a book that I am finalizing. This book is an essay book and a vegan recipe book at the same time. The essays are about all the communities I’ve visited in Asia and Europe. I chose the soul food I want to share with people and share the story that was linked to the food. It’s about the food and its relationship with the community, a conversation, and an experience.
This post was last edited on June 29, 2021.
David Kute has an appreciation for Seoul’s distinct neighborhoods. From Dongdaemun’s market stalls to Hongdae’s rock music venues, the city continues to fascinate him. After spending many years living and working in Seoul and South Korea, he started the blog Rooftop on the Hanok. The blog is a place to share information as well as explore facets of life on the Korean peninsula. He enjoys writing fiction and playing basketball when he’s not researching or writing Rooftop on the Hanok posts.