At traditional Korean restaurants, banchan are the complimentary side dishes that act as a segue and accompaniment to the "real" meal. Whether it's a small plate of kimchi or marinated tofu, banchan has never been treated as the main act in Korean cuisine, but Chef Junghyun Park takes a new approach at newly opened Atoboy in the Flatiron District. This week we chatted with Chef Junghyun to learn more about the underlying influences of his "banchan style" menu, and how he and his wife (and manager) Ellia thoughtfully designed and customized every detail of Atoboy to create a casual fine dining experience rooted in Korean culture, but reflective of its surrounding city.
What inspired you to open Atoboy as your first solo project?
My background is in fine dining, having worked at places like Jungsik, The Ledbury in London, and Cutler & Co. in Melbourne. I really loved working in that kind of environment, where everything is so precise and perfect, but I couldn't expect my friends and family to come by for a casual meal. Paying $250 for a meal is for special occasions – not everyday dining. So I wanted to open a restaurant that would deliver the same high-quality, thoughtful food you'd get in places like Jungsik, but in a more approachable, casual atmosphere. I also wanted banchan to be the core of Atoboy's dining experience. Because I was born and raised in Korea, a typical dinner for me has always consisted of a bowl of soup, a bowl of rice, and different types of banchan that everyone at the table shares. I wanted to bring this culture of Korean communal dining to New York, in an elevated way, and that's how Atoboy was born.
Where does the name "Atoboy" come from?
In ancient Korean, “Ato” (ah-toh) means "gift". As a restaurant, Atoboy delivers the gift of a new type of Korean food culture to the New York culinary scene.
How is Atoboy's menu structured?
Each person chooses 3 out of 20 options on the menu that come with a complimentary bowl of rice and housemade kimchi. All the dishes come out pretty much at the same time in a typical banchan-style manner. So everyone ends up with a spread of their selected dishes with the option to share family-style. Some may think $36 for three banchan dishes is expensive, but our food is really high quality and has been prepared with a lot of care – we don’t use any frozen products, and make everything from scratch by ourselves.
Where do you draw influence for the flavors in your dishes?
I don't want to categorize my food as traditional "Korean" food or flavors, because it's not. Everything comes from different places – I like to call it a "New York" take on Korean food. New York is such a multi-cultural city, full of so many different restaurants and cuisines. If I try some really great sauce at a Filipino restaurant, I’ll get inspired to bring that flavor into my restaurant. If I try some amazing Vietnamese dish, I might get inspired there too. Even though the foundation of our food is Korean, there is a lot of global influence.
What was the process of designing and building out this space?
This place actually used to be a deli, called “Chicken Delicatessen”. The first time I saw the space, it was an odd setup – there was an open kitchen that stretched from the entrance to the end of the deli, and stations lined up that served sushi, bibimbap, noodles and paninis. But I took a step back, and noticed the high ceilings and nice long rectangular shape of the whole place. Back when we were conceptualizing the restaurant, we initially thought of serving food by cart – so that long shape seemed ideal for a cart to roll up and down each direction in. It wasn't until we started the demolition that we saw how interesting and industrial the walls looked. Ellia and I both like minimalist, simple designs – in a kind of Scandinavian style. So we incorporated different materials like cement and steel to complement that look. We designed everything ourselves, including the wooden tables and the lamps. Even the menus, and every paint color in this room – we chose all by hand. It was a really hands-on experience
How did you end up doing custom plateware for the restaurant?
We realized it would be hard to find pre-made, high quality plates that would be a good fit for our banchan, so we decided to go custom-made. I've always wanted to work with young professionals in Korea, so a friend of mine who works in the Korean restaurant industry referred me to Soilbaker. They were really excited to work with us and understood our concept from the start. We sent samples back and forth and did the collaboration through video chat. It was so important that all the bowls, plates, and cups would fit our banchan-style of dining, so we simulated the table settings and literally just cut out of pieces of paper to show them the size and shapes of plateware that we needed.
The aprons are also beautiful – what inspired you to collaborate on those as well?
A good friend of mine is a menswear designer in NYC, and I always told him that when I opened a restaurant he should design our workwear. When we were building Atoboy, he came and saw the industrial aesthetic of the space, and we brainstormed together how to design aprons that would match that look. We incorporated the shape and cut of traditional Korean hanbok, and even used the same material that hanbok are often made out of.
Was design and interior aesthetic always part of your vision with Atoboy?
In a restaurant, food is of course the most important thing . But at the same time, all the interior concepts and branding need to support and match the food. So for us, the banchan concept required a lot of thought with curating the plateware. And the service needed to match that, so that's where the aprons came in. And then the design of the space where that service and dining took place also needed to match all of that. That's why being thoughtful about every detail was so important to Ellia and myself.
Do you have any advice to culivate our readers?
I always want to shed more light on Korean food and culture. Nowadays, many people assume that Korean food is just BBQ and kimchi – of course, those are two important parts, but there's so much more. If you go to H Mart in Koreatown, you'll see a huge selection of Korean food. You can also just google food bloggers like Maangchi who like to showcase all different types of Korean food. I really want people to be curious and learn more about Korean cooking and fermentation techniques beyond BBQ and kimchi. You can learn so much on the web.
What has been the highlight of opening Atoboy so far?
We just opened six months ago, but I really didn’t expect as many diners and as much recognition this early on. I feel really lucky in the New York dining scene because I only moved here four years ago, and my experience in New York was only at Jungsik – there are so many others who've worked at multiple places like Daniel or Jean Georges. So it was a huge honor to be named a Rising Star Chef this year, and for Adam Platt to name Atoboy on his list of "Where to Eat in 2017". But my favorite part of this experience has been working with our whole team. The best moments are after service, especially on Saturday nights when everyone – the kitchen crew, service team, and Ellia – we share wine, food, and stories about that day's service. That moment makes me really happy. Running Atoboy as a business and building a brand is obviously important, but treating all my employees as a family is just as important to me.
Kitchen Snapshot - Junghyun Park
Go-to homemade meal: Instant ramen noodles.
Culinary quirk: No matter what I'm making, I never just use salt to season – I always balance the seasoning differently, whether that means adding some sugar or vinegar.
Kitchen tool I can’t live without: a rubber spatula. I use it for everything.
I never use: the sous vide machine. I used to use it a lot, but nowadays I don’t use it at all. When you cook something sous vide, it comes out with a perfect texture, but it doesn’t feel really like real food. Like for fish, I prefer using the grill or a searing hot pan to make it crispy. It might turn out on the drier side, but I'd rather have that. It feels more cooked by man, not by machine.
Photography by Anne Z. Chen.