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Head Sommelier: Dongyeon Ko

I wonder what made you decide on a career as a sommelier.

When I was in my second year of high school, my close friend was working as a bartender. While talking with him, I vaguely thought, 'I want to do a job dealing with alcohol.' At first, I wasn't interested in wine and wanted to learn about cocktails.

At that time, I was getting math tutoring from my cousin, and I told him about this. He asked me, 'How about becoming a sommelier?' Although my cousin works in an unrelated office job, I guess he knew some friends who were happily working as sommeliers. So I became fascinated with this job and started looking into it. I bought books about sommeliers and researched job prospects. I even bought a book called 'Wine Bible' and read it cover to cover several times. When I went to college, my relatives convinced my parents as well, and that's how I ended up joining the sommelier department.

How did you study wine?

When I first started learning about wine in college, I believed that drinking and "experiencing" were everything. However, as I delved deeper into my studies, I realized that knowledge was 90% of it. When you talk about wine, having knowledge allows you to understand its depth, and the wines you taste and experience require a framework of knowledge to be meaningfully remembered. Therefore, I think it's crucial to keep studying. Like many professions, being a sommelier requires lifelong learning, and the amount of information to absorb is vast. Nevertheless, the rewards and sense of fulfillment are definite.

What kind of experience did you have before joining Solbam?

While I was in university, I gained practical experience alongside my studies. I worked at a wine bar in Jeongja-dong, Bundang, that served Chinese food. I did everything from serving wine to making cocktails and had a great time while gaining confidence in my abilities. After graduating from college and completing my military service, I immediately joined a fine-dining restaurant called Jungsik. I spent a year and a half there before earning the title of Junior Sommelier. I continued working there for five more years, receiving guidance and inspiration from my seniors and colleagues. I also prepared for international certifications and participated in wine competitions. My seniors would ask me detailed questions about wine during work to ensure that I was properly studying, and my colleagues displayed a continuous attitude of learning and challenging themselves. They became role models for me, and I always maintained an attitude of personal growth by approaching my work with a mindset of constant development. I followed in their footsteps as they quietly led the way.

How did you join Solbam as an opening team member?

I was at a point in my life where I wanted to challenge myself. However, I lacked the courage to break my own routine, so I sought a change in environment. About a month after I quit my previous job, I was contemplating my direction when I was introduced to Chef Eom. During the job interview, I vividly remember his passionate gaze, expressions, and intonation. He explained the three years of preparation leading up to Solbam and shared his vision for the next 10 years. I felt confident that I could trust and follow him. The fact that he treated his colleagues as team members, not just hired employees, as demonstrated by "Solbam's Ending Credit," left a strong impression on me. Until then, I believed that the team, as the sum of individuals, would develop if each person individually developed and worked harder. However, I was also inspired by the idea that the team itself could grow together.

How was the time from the beginning of the opening until now?

It was truly challenging! Chef Eom, the General Manager, and I went around the cafe for discussions and meetings. However, it was a valuable time for learning how to create a new restaurant. Even after the soft opening, we had only three service team members until the end of 2021, and I remember doing my best to build strong teamwork in this situation. We started with fewer than 10 guests, then gradually increased to more than 10 and eventually more than 20. And to our delight, we received our first Michelin star. I am working happily with the confidence that we will continue to grow every moment.

I feel that the bond among the team members has become stronger now. We work well together, thanks to clearer sharing of the values we pursue in our service. Our focus is on providing professional service with warmth and coziness. I now feel like we are truly embodying the image of "Solbam" as a team.

What do you focus on the most when developing the wine list?

As a sommelier, the wine list is like my face, so I pay great attention to its details, even down to the tiniest typo. Rather than creating a personal favorite list, my first consideration is whether the wines pair well with our chef's dishes. Regardless of the bottle chosen from the wine list, it will complement our food wonderfully. Initially, I was passionate about featuring wines from various producers and vintages to create a vast list. However, now that we have hundreds of wines, it is time to focus on developing a more in-depth list. For instance, instead of introducing wines from nearly 20 producers in a region, we aim to refine our list to showcase the best options that represent the region's terroir. We also want to offer our guests access to various cuvées, vintages, and wines.

One of our most interesting wine pairings was...

I distinctly remember the "Oyster and Sauternes" pairing, which received opposition from fellow sommeliers. As the first pairing menu of the course, I matched fresh oysters with a dessert wine called Chateau Rieussec, Sauternes.

Many people thought it was unusual, but it turned out to be delicious! The raw oyster itself has a soft texture, along with a solid texture, salty taste, mineral notes, sweetness, and the unique flavor of the sea. While champagne might come to mind for many, I believed that adding freshness, acidity, and concentrated sweetness would enhance the charm of the pairing and maximize the aftertaste of the oyster flavor. I still remember the satisfied expressions of customers who tried it for the first time.

We also introduced Solbam's Korean liquor selections: apple wine and Andong soju.

I always strive to break away from stereotypes and explore various possibilities that can inspire our guests. We aim to play a role in better promoting our culture to our curious and enthusiastic gastronomic explorers.

We offer Dom Perignon as our first champagne on the wine pairing menu.

Currently, we are offering the 2013 vintage of Dom Perignon as the first champagne in our pairing. In fact, Dom Perignon is a relatively expensive champagne, so it wasn't an easy decision to include it in the pairing menu. However, I chose to do so because I wanted to make the experience more memorable for those who visit Solbam on special occasions.

Dom Perignon has a masculine image - strong at first sight, but when you actually taste it, it's a beautiful champagne with delicate and multi-layered layers. I've never told the chef myself, but I think he's like Dom Perignon. (laughs) Our chef’s creations go really well with this champagne because his food is always very delicate, unlike his appearance. Hahaha!

My future plans are...

I want to recruit and train more sommeliers who are better than me. I aim to make Solbam a "sommeliers' training school" where those who are truly serious about becoming sommeliers can learn and develop. Additionally, I aspire to create a wine list for Solbam that I am not envious of even the three-star restaurants.

On a personal level, I have always dreamt of becoming the best in the wine industry. I want to prepare for the Master Sommelier certification and excel in competitions worldwide. Since I have dedicated my life to this pursuit, I refuse to give up and will continue to strive for greater achievements."


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