The story starts with four friends and a couple of beers. Jun Lee, Rio Yoon, Ayden Jung and Max Ji used to meet once a week when they studied at Melbourne's Monash University.
“Every Friday was Korea day. We’d have a Korean student gathering and we met there,” says Lee.
They talked about starting a business together, but they first needed to graduate and gain work experience. Two of them went on to work as chefs, and the two others entered the corporate world.
“A few years later, we were all in Melbourne and we were sitting in a pub nearby my old place and we started talking about it again. With two chefs among us, going into food made sense,” explains Lee.
“We were not sure it would work here. Fried chicken and beer in Korea is like an English pub in London. People go there after work with friends and have beers and chicken. I didn’t know if it would work because there are already a lot of pubs here,” says Lee.
Korean fried chicken, or KFC, as it’s often abbreviated, is indeed massive in South Korea. There’s a Korean word for the combination of fried chicken and beer, chimaek. It’s even reported that the number of fried chicken shops in South Korea outnumbers the number of McDonald’s globally.
“Korean fried chicken started from American fried chicken, it came to us after the Korean War,” explains Lee. “But the American crust is so thick, which we loved decades ago, but we started feeling it was a bit too greasy. Koreans started developing a thinner crust [that's] less oily.”
It’s this twice-fried thinner crust that differentiates Korean fried chicken. That, and the sauces used to coat the bird. “Koreans are naturally good sauce-makers, so we started marinating sauces to put on top of the chicken,” says Lee.
In 2009, Gami took the leap and opened its first fried chicken and beer shop in the Melbourne CBD.
"Fried chicken and beer in Korea is like an English pub in London. People go there after work with friends and have beers and chicken. I didn’t know if it would work because there are already a lot of pubs here.”
A whole fried chicken with sauces will feed a few diners and set you back $35. You can also order half a chicken, wings, ribs and boneless chicken. The frying powder, with its 17 herbs and spices, is unique to Gami. The sauces (sweet chilli, soy garlic and spicy) can be used for dipping or to coat the chicken. Like in South Korea, you’ll get a small plate of pickled radishes.
Beer is the other component of the chimaek combination. Brunswick’s Thunder Road Brewing Company brews some especially for Gami Chicken & Beer. “When we were very small, we beg[ged] them to brew our beer. They ask why and it was because we wanted to match the beer taste to the chicken taste perfectly,” explains Lee.
Sides, like kimchi pancakes and corn cheese, also complement the chicken.
If you’re not meat-inclined, you can get the vegetarian fried chicken, made with soy and a black sweet sauce. “We didn't do that to market ourselves to the vegetarian market, but because we’re about the Korean sharing culture. There are people who come in groups and some of them can’t have Gami, so we developed the vegetarian fried chicken so they can all enjoy it together,” says Lee.
Korean fried chicken has taken the world by storm in the last few years, and Gami is making its way to the rest of Australia. You can now eat its chicken in 19 stores across Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Canberra. And there are talks about expanding to other states. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the brand will rake in $16.3 million in 2018.
The four friends are still involved in the business. Lee says there’s no secret to the success of Gami. There’s the taste of the chicken, of course. After all, “gami” means “beautiful taste”, in Korean.
“And our menu is very simple, fried chicken and beer, people get it,” he says.
For locations in Victoria, NSW, ACT and WA, visit the Gami website.
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