It might fly in the face of reason that a six-seat restaurant – a one-person operation run from a residential apartment in Melbourne’s inner north – could cause the culinary equivalent of a sonic boom. Yet, as an 8,000-person-strong waiting list can attest, Jung Eun Chae has managed to turn a lot of heads and expand many minds with her restaurant Chae and its uncompromisingly original expression of what a dining experience can be.
The cuisine alone has no equivalent in Australia. Chae’s cooking is heavily influenced by her mother, who hails from South Jeolla province in South Korea, a region renowned for seafood, salt and fermentation. There’s a meticulous, hands-on artisan bedrock to all of the dishes and many of the drinks Chae serves. The flavours are all driven by traditional Korean fermenting and preserving; the tofu, gochujang, soy sauce, doenjang, kimchi, the makgeolli all handmade.
Just as radical though is Chae’s approach to business. Health – her own and that of her customers – longevity and personal happiness are intrinsic parts of the business plan. While she and her partner, Yoora Yoon, have just moved Chae from the Brunswick apartment to a house in semi-rural Cockatoo, there’ll be no increase the number of people she serves, despite the pressure of the waiting list, because that has the potential to compromise the experience.
"My dream is what I’m doing right now,” says Chae. “I want to make and give food to people and enjoy doing that for as long as I am physically able. People ask me to serve more people but that would compromise the goal of sharing this very traditional Korean food to Australian people. I want to eliminate all the noise that comes with running a traditional restaurant and focus on the cooking, to give small groups of people a quality dining service.”
Chae has had experience with fine-dining restaurants. When she moved to Australia aged 20, she studied at William Angliss Institute and worked in restaurants like Lûmé and Cutler & Co. After injuring her ankle in a car accident and being unable to stand for the long hours commercial kitchens demand, she had to rethink the way she wanted to approach a career in cooking. Visiting her mother in South Korea during this time brought home to her that she wanted to bring the traditional Korean ideas of fermentation and preserving to Australia.
“We expected some interest because we knew Melbourne was diverse and adventurous but we were actually surprised by the reaction and the response to an unfamiliar form of cooking,” she says.
That reaction – and acclaim – came from fellow chefs, food writers and the public.
Colin Mainds, head chef at Gimlet, who worked with Chae when she was a “quiet, raw talent” at Cutler & Co says that his meal at Chae “was one of the most refreshing experiences of both my chef and my dining career.”
“Just the food alone – Korean temple food I think she calls it – was not just alien to me but introduced me to flavours and techniques I’ve never come across before,” he says. “Eating there you just get the feeling of being in the presence of someone with a passion for looking after people. It gave me a sense of joy that I’d never felt dining out in Melbourne before.”
Chief food critic for The Age, Gemima Cody, says that she was immediately drawn to Chae’s “dedication to showcasing Korea's fizzingly vibrant world of ferments in dishes that are equal parts medicinal and delicious” but also her approach to business.
“Six diners only means maximum attention, minimal waste and hopefully a sustainable model that means she can carry on for years to come,” she says. “Melbourne, and the world, needs more of that.”
Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.
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