Jung Eun Chae was not used to eating commercial soy sauce and chilli paste until she moved to Melbourne at 20. When she lived in Seoul, she could rely on a steady supply of her mum’s homemade sauces.
“She did everything from scratch, so I never had artificial sauces since I was a child. When I came here, I tried them, and right away I told my mum to send me hers,” recalls Chae.
Her mum is from the South Jeolla province, in the southern part of South Korea. The region is known for its seafood, salt and a strong culture of fermentation. “Once a year, she would turn a thousand cabbages into kimchi, which takes three days. After she finished, we had less than 20 cabbages left because she’d sent it to everyone,” explains Chae, who was always asked to help.
When Chae moved to Australia, she couldn’t help but turn to a cooking career. “I had confidence about tasting food because since I was a kid, I tasted so many things. And my mum said I had a very sensitive tongue; I think that's why I wanted to cook,” she explains.
After studying at the William Angliss Institute, she worked in some of the city’s best kitchens, like Lûmé and Cutler & Co. But a couple of years ago, a car accident injured her ankle – and derailed her plans. “Working in a kitchen environment can be physically challenging and the long hours were not good for my ankle. I couldn't go on like this forever. So I went back to Korea, because I lost my dream to pursue a career in fine dining,” she says.
“Once a year, she would turn a thousand cabbages into kimchi, which takes three days. After she finished, we had less than 20 cabbages left because she’d sent it to everyone.”
Looking for her next step, she set up meetings with several culinary experts from her homeland, like Jeong Kwan, the Buddhist nun featured on Netflix’s The Chef’s Table.
“I realised after working with her that anyone can be my teacher, it doesn’t need to be famous people. I found my real teacher next to me, my mum. I was always looking for masters of cooking and didn't realise that my mum is a master,” says Chae.
She came back to Melbourne with a plan. For the first time, she would be cooking South Korean food in a restaurant setting, with a strong focus on fermentation, health and seasonality. She wanted to run the restaurant on her own terms, from the Brunswick apartment she shares with her husband, fashion designer Yoora Yoon.
He admits he wasn’t initially too fond of the idea of having strangers coming in and out of their home, but that Chae convinced him.
The chef welcomes six diners at a time in her apartment for multi-course lunches and dinners. Her menu changes constantly, depending on what she finds at the market. She makes everything from scratch; from gochujang and kimchi to doenjang and tofu. Her mum sends her ingredients from South Korea like salt, sesame oil and seaweed. And she can still rely on her to send some of her condiments, like fish soy sauce, which involves a long fermentation process.
Chae wants to show a side of Korean cuisine that’s not well known in Australia. She prepares dishes like local mushroom japchae with beef tartare, perilla leaf pickle and a dessert of steamed pear stuffed with ginseng, ginger, date and fermented pumpkin rice syrup.
Chae wants to show a side of Korean cuisine that’s not well known in Australia.
She’s also a student of Chinese medicine, which means serving nourishing food and catering to dietary requirements is paramount. “I always want to use seasonal ingredients that are good for our body, fermented food and very good salt,” she explains.
Certain ingredients, like the salt used to marinate barramundi fillets, take years to develop. “Chae doesn't take shortcuts in making her dishes,” says Yoon, who is the only person helping her with the restaurant.
Following word-of-mouth recommendations and media coverage, Chae’s waitlist is now over 6000-people long. And while the attention has been a little overwhelming, Chae is happy to see an increased interest in Korean cuisine.
“My plan is to do this until I’m 80 years old, that's my dream,” she says.
You can find out more about Chae and how to book one of its elusive seats here.
288 Albert Street, Brunswick VIC
Tuesdays – Wednesdays 12:30 pm
Fridays – Saturdays 7 pm
This soup is associated with birth in Korean culture; it’s usually eaten on birthdays and is traditionally made for new mums to replenish the body.
I call this the minestrone of Korea. Sujebi is a comforting and wholesome soup, filled with potatoes and hand-torn dumplings, that’s perfect for cold weather.
Doenjang jjigae is a deliciously funky Korean stew made with fermented soybean paste that never fails to please - regarded as the ultimate in comfort food.
This soy-braised beef dish is sweet, salty and garlicky with a hint of spicy kick from the green chillies. It is one of the most beloved banchan (Korean side dishes) to put in a lunchbox.
Kongnamul guk is the epitome of home-cooked comfort food. This is an everyday soup and most Korean households would normally serve it as part of a simple meal.
When I first discovered Korean fried chicken, it was a revelation: the coating is flakey and crunchy, the skin is thin and crispy, and the meat is super juicy and tender.
Japchae has to be the most popular noodle dish in Korea. It is made with sweet potato glass noodles tossed together with beef strips and lots of vegetables.