Solbam's garde-manger Sungmin Bae firmly believes in the phrase "There's no end to learning" and continuously seeks to overcome his shortcomings. His inspiring story is driven by his unwavering tenacity for personal growth.
Why did you start cooking?
It all began with a small opportunity. I used to play basketball until middle school, but the pressure to attend high school made me rethink my path. Investing in sports without any guarantee was financially challenging, and I questioned whether I truly possessed any exceptional talent. During high school decision-making, there were numerous information sessions, right? That's when I encountered a career introduction session focused on cooking and baking, and it resonated with me deeply. Until that point, I had never held a knife or thought about the difference between an omelet and a scrambled egg. However, as I delved into cooking, I fell passionately in love with it. I consider myself lucky to have found a path that I'm so enamored with.
What were you interested in during your school days?
While attending cooking school, I invested a lot of effort into preparing for competitions. However, I didn't feel as much interest in the competitive aspect of cooking. I found that I learned best on the job, in real-time situations. Despite my lack of experience and limited opportunities, I still found my place at a buffet. During my school days, I worked part-time at a buffet, and during vacations, I built my career at Italian restaurants or regular family eateries specializing in pasta dishes. I dedicated long hours from morning till evening, but I genuinely enjoyed the work and took pride in earning money while doing something worthwhile.
How did you end up at Solbam?
As a teenager, my family circumstances were challenging, and my priority was to financially support my family, so I followed the path that led to "earning money" first. However, by the time I turned 22, my family situation improved significantly, allowing me the opportunity to explore myself and my aspirations. Rather than rushing into further education, I had a strong desire to gain practical knowledge in the culinary field. So, I decided to join the army to fulfill my military service and simultaneously immerse myself in the "Fine Dining" business, a dream I had cherished for a long time. Although financial considerations were important due to my family circumstances, I hesitated to pursue work in the dining industry due to rumors of relatively low salaries.
My story is a testament to my passion, resilience, and unwavering commitment to self-improvement. Despite encountering challenges and financial constraints, I never gave up on my love for cooking. I followed my heart and pursued my culinary dreams with sheer determination. Eventually, I found my rightful place in the culinary world, and my journey at Solbam is a perfect example of how tenacity and staying true to one's dreams can lead to success.
When you were about to start working, you mentioned that you didn't know how and where to begin applying. Could you tell us more about that experience?
Yes, that's correct. It was a challenging time for me as I was unsure about the right path to take. Seeking guidance from my seniors and colleagues, they advised me to gain experience in a business that excels in accepting star stocks. Following their advice, I gradually gained insight by observing and learning from the operations of Michelin's one-star and two-star restaurants. Eventually, I found my way to Solbam.
And what is your role at Solbam currently?
Currently, I hold the position of 'Garde-manger' at Solbam, responsible for preparing the menu at the forefront of the course. My role evolves with each season, and lately, I've expressed my interest in learning more about fish, focusing on preparations involving mackerel. Working at Solbam has been an eye-opening experience, allowing me to learn and explore new horizons.
Compared to your previous career, is it more challenging to work in a fine dining business?
It's challenging to explain exactly, but I feel that my current self is closer to what I had envisioned during high school. I consider myself fortunate that both Solbam and my previous workplace have set standards for my thinking and work ethic. While there have been difficult days, I believe it's much better than living with regret for not pursuing my passion. Fine dining businesses may not necessarily be more "excellent" than pasta shops, but they excel in delicacy and precision when it comes to customer-facing interactions and food preparation. The variety of food ingredients is expanding, and the understanding of how to handle the same ingredients is increasing.
We're curious about your future aspirations.
As a cook, I see two main roles. The "Chef" represents the realm of artists who create food with their unique vision and flair, while the "cook" takes on the role of producers who use excellent techniques to create high-quality dishes in line with the chef's vision. Currently, I'm focused on honing my skills as a cook.
The moment I feel rewarded as a good cook is when I achieve precise execution of the chef's intentions. While many chefs find fulfillment in creating delicious food, I find it more important to ensure that the dishes match the chef's vision precisely. It brings a great sense of accomplishment when I deliver excellent quality or exceed expectations efficiently.
However, I don't want to stop here. My dream is to become a chef as a creator someday. I see Chef Um Tae-joon at Solbam as an excellent example of someone who continuously improves his skills and creativity. At Solbam, we have a "Cooking Contest" where team members create new menus under their names and evaluate each other's dishes. Winning dishes have the chance to be featured in the next season's menu. This process feels like climbing the stairs of progress, one step at a time, with valuable feedback guiding our growth.
That sounds like an exciting journey! How do you spend your free time recharging?
During my free time, I tend to enjoy activities with a touch of romance. Reading books or engaging in heartfelt conversations with someone I like helps me relieve stress. I also indulge in savoring delicious food, which is a great pleasure for me. Additionally, I take the time to review any stressful situations I may have encountered, reflecting on how to handle them better in the future. This helps me achieve mental comfort and growth. Furthermore, I find joy in exercising, maintaining a consistent routine of weight training and running.
Looking ahead, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In the next 10 years, I believe I will still be on a continuous journey of learning and self-improvement. My desire to fill in my shortcomings and grow both internally and mentally will remain unwavering. Technological advancements will also be on my radar as I strive to stay updated and relevant. More than focusing solely on the job title or position, I believe it's essential to prioritize personal growth and development.
How do you envision your future in the culinary scene?
Currently, I feel that I am gaining the most valuable learning experiences. As my foundation becomes more solid, I aspire to explore and master various culinary techniques, such as barbecue, rice soup, and native Korean cuisine. While it's still a somewhat vague idea, I hope to establish a diverse range of restaurants, each specializing in my favorite foods like ramen and waffles. I envision unique dining experiences, where individual items and places offer distinct character and charm. Of course, plans can evolve and change along the way. However, I believe that as long as I continue to learn and grow, a promising path will unfold before me in the culinary world.