Solbam’s Garde-manger Sihyeon Kim, who says that the endless Korean food culture and local dishes always give excitement. Let me introduce her story, who likes Solbam's first course.
How did you get started in this field initially?
Well, when I was really young, I had a strong desire to paint. So, I began preparing for art school entrance exams starting from my elementary school days. However, even at that young age, I began to realize that the idea of creating art by reproducing the same thing everyone else was drawing, like there was only one right answer, didn't quite resonate with me. So, I started to explore what I was truly passionate about, and that's when I naturally developed an interest in cooking. I had this vague curiosity about "food styling," which led me to enroll in culinary high school while still in middle school and earn various cooking certificates. As I immersed myself in the world of cooking, I discovered it offered a much broader and more diverse range of opportunities. That's how my journey into the culinary world began.
It sounds like you had quite an enriching experience in high school.
Absolutely. When I entered culinary high school, I initially aspired to become a food stylist, but during my time there, I delved into various culinary realms, including Korean, Western, Chinese, Japanese cuisine, and baking. What I thought I already knew well turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, and I found myself constantly falling into the depths of this new and endless culinary world. For three years, I focused on honing my skills in Korean cuisine without any distractions. Even when I participated in various cooking competitions, I always found myself drawn back to Korean cuisine, pondering its flavors and techniques, no matter where in the world I was.
What kind of career path did you pursue after graduating from high school?
Well, when I first ventured into the professional world, I felt it was important to diversify my career experiences. To kick things off, I started working at a large hotel, specifically the Intercontinental Hotel, where I spent about a year. During that time, I gained valuable insights into the concepts of "service" and "hospitality." It was in the VIP lounge's breakfast section that I encountered real guests for the first time. This experience allowed me to connect with customers and understand the art of serving people, something I hadn't fully grasped in the classroom. Working in such a large organization also gave me a glimpse into its intricate systems, which was quite enlightening.
Next, I had the opportunity to work at Michelin 2-star restaurant, Kwonsooksoo, for about half a year. Kwonsooksoo is renowned for creating its own condiments, which provided me with a deep dive into the fundamentals of Korean cuisine. I learned how to elevate overlooked components in Korean cuisine, like kimchi and pickles, to the forefront, and just how much effort goes into perfecting them. My time there was a masterclass in modern Korean cuisine, with a strong focus on essentials like pot rice.
Subsequently, I ventured into the world of Michelin-starred restaurants, including one-star Bicena and three-star Gaon. Over two and a half years, I delved into the intricacies of fermentation. This role demanded a nuanced understanding of the bacteria involved in fermentation and how various factors could influence the production of carbonic acid on any given day. For instance, take dongchimi, which I typically prepared. It doesn't naturally have carbonation, but by introducing something like pear juice, we could activate the bacteria and introduce carbonation on the same day. I learned practical lessons about factors like temperature and humidity, how to succeed, and even how to recover if things didn't go as planned. These experiences have proven to be an invaluable asset in my journey.
How did you end up at Solbam?
I initially had a strong desire to gain international culinary experience in New York, USA. However, due to visa issues, I had to stay in Korea, which was disappointing. Nonetheless, I was determined to channel the passion and energy I had stored in the right direction. During this period, I had the opportunity to join Solbam for a while, and I was truly inspired by Chef Eom’s enthusiasm. Up to that point, my career had been in stable and excellent restaurants, but when I came to Solbam, I felt a unique and vibrant energy that revitalized me, allowing me to focus and thrive. I also noticed that the cuisine here aligned with the direction I wanted to pursue. While rooted in Korean food, it embraced a delicate fusion of various techniques, unconstrained by nationality. This alignment with my culinary philosophy led me to join the Solbam team without hesitation.
What role do you currently hold at Solbam?
Right now, I handle the cold dishes as garde-manger. Chef Eom emphasized that the initial dish is "the first impression a customer gets when they dine at Solbam," so I'm giving it my full attention.
Could you share your insights on the culture at Solbam?
The Solbam team is well-known for its excellent camaraderie and positive energy in the industry, which had always piqued my curiosity. Upon joining this place and getting an inside look, I believe it's because the chef has maintained a close-knit relationship with the team members from the very beginning and gathered like-minded individuals who share a strong sense of commitment. It's truly a blessing to have colleagues who are not only highly attuned to food but also approach their work with warmth and care. Despite the demanding nature of a chef's job, notorious for its challenging work-life balance, Solbam's team members manage to excel in their professional roles while maintaining fulfilling personal lives. I aspired to be a part of this remarkable group.
What do you find most captivating about Korean cuisine?
Although I'm accustomed to Korean cuisine, the more I delve into it, the more fascinating it becomes. There's a wealth of knowledge to be gained, from traditional dishes to ancient recipes and modern culinary innovations. I once traveled to Pyeongchang to assist Park Gwang-hee in making kimchi, and it opened my eyes to how fundamental ingredients like red pepper powder and salt can significantly vary in quality. Even just by looking at them, you can detect differences in aroma and texture. This experience taught me that, even when recipes appear the same, maintaining the integrity of these basic ingredients is of utmost importance.
What is currently your primary focus?
Right now, I'm concentrating on two things: people and cooking. As a member of the Solbam team, my main priority is to learn and excel in crafting exceptional dishes here. I firmly believe that people are our most valuable asset. Understanding and connecting with not only fellow chefs but also artisans, designers, bartenders, and professionals from various industries is incredibly enriching. This broader perspective benefits everyone involved.
What are your aspirations for the distant future?
Looking into the distant future, I dream of becoming an owner chef. I've traveled extensively throughout Korea and contemplated how I can bridge the generational gap. My goal is to be a chef who not only preserves and passes on our culture but also gathers the diverse culinary traditions from different regions into one place, possibly in Seoul, creating a unique restaurant and space. I want to be a chef who deeply immerses themselves in the wealth of Korean culture, making it their own, and serving exceptional cuisine that reflects these traditions.