Chef Jongwon Kim's aspiration is to create a restaurant that instills a deep sense of pride in those who have been a part of Solbam. In the following narrative, we delve into his pursuit of acknowledgment within his professional circle.
What are your responsibilities as a sous chef at Solbam?
I handle tasks such as placing orders and managing the staff to identify any areas of improvement and support the head chef. Additionally, we're currently in the process of developing a new menu. My perspective has evolved since being promoted to sous chef. I've come to understand the significance of not only performing well, but also inspiring and fostering a positive atmosphere among my team members. By leading through hard work, I believe I can set the tone for everyone else.
How did you first become interested in cooking?
I've had a sensitivity to taste from a young age, which caught the attention of those around me and led them to suggest I try cooking. When it came time to choose a career path upon entering school, I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do or what my dreams were. I considered applying to the culinary arts department, as I found it intriguing, but my father strongly opposed the idea. Thinking I had a fondness for animals, I opted for the Department of Animal Resources, but soon realized that my affection for animals wasn't as strong as I had initially thought (laughs). I came to the realization that pursuing a career as a zookeeper or trainer might not be the right fit for me.
With a desire to work in Seoul and prepare for a chef's license on my own, I took up a part-time position as a hall server in an Italian buffet restaurant. The chef there noticed my interest in obtaining a cooking license and suggested that I work in the kitchen. That decision marked the beginning of my journey, and I spent over three years learning the ropes in the kitchen.
What kind of career have you had so far?
To be honest, I had no illusions about the culinary industry when I first started working at a buffet restaurant. At that time, I didn't even know what fine dining was all about. I had this notion that it was just about dressing up ingredients and creating elaborate plating. However, looking back at my journey and how far I've come, it's truly fascinating.
After changing jobs, I had the opportunity to meet Chef Eom in a new business venture, and it's been six years since then. I was young back then, and I remember the chef being 29 years old. He always spoke about his future plans, setting goals to achieve by the age of 40 and how he would accomplish them. At first, I thought it might be a mere bluff, but as I spent more time with him, I realized that he was genuine and truly committed to his dreams.
At some point, Chef Eom and I went our separate ways. I had a stint as a head chef at a popular restaurant in the U.S., but due to the impact of the pandemic, I returned to Seoul and joined a premium pork restaurant. However, I found myself lacking motivation there. When the sales didn't improve, the CEO even discussed the possibility of letting some staff go. That was the moment I seriously considered quitting. It was during my rest after work that our chef approached me and convinced me to join Solbam and work together.
Joining Solbam as an open member was both exciting and nerve-wracking. I knew that fine dining establishments always operate under intense pressure. Despite my extensive cooking experience, Solbam was my first venture into the fine dining business. I was anxious about starting over at this stage of my career. However, the chef's genuine desire to see me learn and grow again gave me the confidence to take on this new challenge. Looking back, I thought about my actions while Chef Eom talked about his dreams and systematically achieved them six years ago. I felt determined to work hard alongside him.
I realized that this opportunity might not come again, so I decided to take the plunge. The journey has been tough and filled with pressure. It's been years since I've worked, washed dishes, slept, and led a life with simple routines. Yet, there are so many new and rewarding experiences. I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in what I do, and I'm giving my best effort every day.
After holding various positions at Solbam, you were promoted to sous chef within two years.
My time at Solbam encompassed a range of roles, marking the most transformative phase in my career thus far. While serving as a garde-manger, I honed my collaborative skills, and my tenure as a roaster significantly bolstered my cooking responsibilities. I've become attuned to even the smallest details. A conversation with the chef brought about a new realization. Consider the patrons who eagerly anticipate their visit to Solbam for over a month or two. It struck me that the evening they spend and the culinary experience they enjoy are the culmination of patient waiting and fervent anticipation. This revelation deepened my sense of responsibility. Now, as a sous chef, I'm embracing a broader perspective that aligns with these high expectations.
Our promotions aren't contingent on age or a mere tenure in the field. Thus, ascending to the role of sous chef at Solbam was incredibly heartwarming and gratifying. It felt like both an encouragement to strive for excellence and a validation of the progress I've made thus far. I'm admittedly a bit bashful, but the congratulatory messages from my colleagues have further fueled my determination to work even harder!"
What are your thoughts on working at Solbam?
Working at Solbam feels like a whole new definition of "the best thing." The way we operate here is so different from my previous experiences. In the past, we used to efficiently prepare ingredients for two to three days ahead when they came in, but now, it's all about making everything fresh daily and taking care of any unused items at the end of the day. Even the ingredients are treated with utmost care. In other businesses, there's often a lot of cost pressure, but at Solbam, the chef insists on using the best ingredients, and surprisingly, the cost of purchasing them is kept quite low. It's my first time working in this kind of environment, so there are many exciting and novel things to experience.
Can you describe the work environment at Solbam?
Well, I can't just say it's all fun and games, can I? Stress is inevitable in any environment that aims for growth. Although I still dream of having just one prep day a week! (laughs) I used to be the type of person who arrived at work exactly at 10 o'clock, no sooner and no later. But ever since I joined Solbam, I haven't been even a little late, as if it happens naturally without feeling scolded or pressured. I don't see this tension as something negative; in fact, it motivates me to make the most of my free time and enjoy my days off meaningfully.
Sometimes, when I talk with my friends from other businesses, we discuss our relationships with our respective chefs and the overall atmosphere at work. We truly appreciate the chef's sense of humor, and there's a humane and warm atmosphere at Solbam. The team is highly valued here, and we have a lot of affection for one another. In some places, the chef can be really intimidating, and personal conversations with the chef might be rare, but at Solbam, we talk about personal things five times a day! (laughs) We work when we work and have fun when we have fun. That's the strength and uniqueness of Solbam. At some other open kitchen fine dining places, you can sometimes hear the tension and curses from the kitchen all the way to the hall, creating a hard and rigid atmosphere. But here, we prioritize ensuring team members feel comfortable, and we believe that when the team is at ease, it reflects positively on the customers' experience.
Do you have a dream that you aspire to fulfill through your involvement with 'SOLBAM'?
Up to this point, the guiding principle of 'Let's give our utmost in every present task' has truly resonated with me. Looking ahead to the remainder of 2023, our collective efforts need to intensify in order to support the team, ensuring that individuals who have been a part of Solbam retain their significance and those who have moved on continue to shine even brighter. In the grander scheme, my aspiration is to earn recognition from my peers.