Sous-chef Jinsu Lee is currently at the helm of Solbam's kitchen, crafting dishes that bring joy to people.
What sparked your interest in cooking? Back in middle school, my teacher suggested I explore baking due to my adeptness with my hands. This led me into the world of baking, gradually evolving my passion for cooking. I pursued a culinary major in college, initially leaning towards Western cuisine. During my university years, I worked part-time in various settings, spanning pasta joints to casual restaurants.
In my final year of university, news of the Michelin Guide launching in Seoul caught my attention. I vividly recall watching the star showcase with great anticipation. The idea of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Seoul intrigued me, and that desire fueled my journey.
Could you share some of your culinary experiences? One of the most memorable experiences in my early years was dining at "Bo Innovation" in Hong Kong, a Michelin three-star restaurant that offered an innovative take on its cuisine. This experience ignited my passion for the kind of cooking I aspired to create. Upon returning to Korea, I had a similarly delightful experience at ‘Alla prima’. Impressed, I eagerly awaited a job posting and promptly applied, expressing my genuine love for their cuisine. Luckily, I got the opportunity to start working there.
My culinary journey continued at ‘L’Impression’, which garnered a two-star award from the Michelin Guide. As COVID-19 spread globally, many chefs with international experience returned to Korea, and I joined ‘L’Impression’. Conversations with these chefs about their overseas experiences sparked my curiosity, leading me to decide to go to the U.S.
I spent about a year at ‘Saison’ in San Francisco, even taking on a roster position. Later, I worked at a pasta bar called ‘Cement’ in Hannam-dong, intending to explore the future direction of casual restaurants upon returning to Korea. During this period, transitioning from sous chef to head chef, I learned valuable lessons on effective communication with restaurant owners and teamwork with employees. Leading a diverse team required thoughtful consideration of different personalities and mechanisms, akin to the adage that "positions make people."
What were the key learnings from your journey? My diverse experiences broadened my perspective on both the technical aspects and the mindset required as a chef. In my initial role, I honed skills in Japanese cuisine and aquaculture. The second job exposed me to the latest recipes and techniques in the United States. Working in different kitchens taught me about small etiquettes and organizational dynamics. The U.S. stint introduced me to a more extensive and systematic kitchen culture, prompting me to rethink my approach to food ingredients. Observing the chef at Saison buying fresh ingredients every morning and involving the team in the decision-making process fostered a new level of communication and collaboration. These experiences shaped my culinary philosophy and leadership style.
What makes fine dining attractive to you?
For me, fine dining is where you encounter the epitome of culinary excellence. Many in this field share the same sentiment. Once you've tasted the essence of it, engaging in something less formal feels somewhat casual and lacks the same intensity. The constant pursuit of crafting exceptional dishes and reflecting on what defines excellence drew me to fine dining. Despite initial resistance from my parents, particularly my father, who opposed my choice to enter the culinary world, I remained determined to excel in this pursuit.
It's undoubtedly challenging, with numerous variables in both the kitchen and the dining area. However, when all these elements seamlessly align, the satisfaction derived from a perfectly cooked dish, impeccable service, and the laughter of satisfied customers is truly unparalleled. People often say they seek activities that release dopamine, and for me, nothing quite compares to the joy experienced in those perfect moments.
Can you describe the culture at Solbam?
Solbam boasts a fantastic atmosphere in the kitchen. Working with colleagues who share camaraderie minimizes unnecessary stress. However, it's not just about fostering good relationships; there's a heightened focus on work, cooking, and service. Given the chef's background with experience in the United States, there's a daily rediscovery of flavors. Despite the challenges of trying every dish due to business demands, at Solbam, we taste and inspect each dish daily before serving. This dedication contributes to maintaining the exceptional quality of the place. It's about trusting your team but also ensuring meticulous checks for perfection, believing that continuous repetition births something even better.
What do you consider the most crucial virtue for a fine dining chef?
Mistakes happen to everyone, but the key lies in how swiftly and effectively you resolve them. Managing your mindset and transforming setbacks into positive outcomes is crucial. At Solvam, the concept of compromise is not embraced. There are instances where you must discard a sauce just before service, and with numerous variables, maintaining composure to swiftly rectify the situation without faltering is paramount.
What are your future plans?
My goal is to accumulate a wealth of 'data' here. To produce meaningful output, one must continuously input information—whether it's about interpersonal relationships, organizational dynamics, recipes, technical aspects, or creativity. This accumulation of knowledge will serve as the foundation for my own venture in the future. While I once delved into innovative concepts like "Unexpected Combinations" and "The Beauty of Twist," my perspective has shifted at Solbam. Instead of relying solely on novel ideas that may not resonate with people, I now emphasize the importance of quality and a serene joy. A small ripple can create a significant wave.
What defines a good dish for you?
A good dish, in my opinion, is one that brings laughter to the person enjoying it. Merely being delicious isn't sufficient. The entire experience, from the person savoring the food to the ambiance of the space, contributes to the overall excellence of a dish. As a chef in a restaurant, creating an environment that brings pleasure and laughter is paramount.