The Korean trailblazer chef had amassed a waitlist 8,000 strong: an eager mix of pre-existing fans and first-timers who’d heard big things about her way with traditional Korean ferments.
A couple of years down the track, business is as healthy as ever, only now you’ll find Chae operating from a gorgeous house in Cockatoo, which she opened for service in 2022. Here’s how she reflects on a year of Chae in Cockatoo.
My business, Chae, is best known for a degustation menu that celebrates some of the lesser-known aspects of Korean cuisine, including Korean fermented condiments prepared using traditional techniques. Nestled within the tranquil Dandenong Ranges, guests immerse themselves in a unique home-based dining experience, a place where they can unwind and savour the true essence of Korean culinary traditions.
How did Chae first come to be?
I had been working as a chef, pursuing a career in the fine-dining scene. Then in 2019 a minor car accident left me with an ankle injury that required time off from work. Given the physically demanding nature of the industry, it became clear that returning to my previous role would be challenging.
Throughout my career, the idea of this very small-scale, home-based dining concept had been in the back of my mind and the injury presented an opportunity to give it a shot. To my surprise, people embraced it, and were open to exploring the lesser-known aspects of authentic Korean flavors.
How has Chae as a business grown since then?
Our core concept of welcoming up to six guests per session, with four sessions a week, remains unchanged, and I have no plans to alter it. This concept has resonated strongly with our guests, as they value the close interaction with the chef, the intimate space we provide, and the opportunity to fully enjoy their dining experience. This guest capacity is also what I’m most comfortable with, as it allows me to offer truly personalised customer service to each and every guest who visits Chae.
What has evolved is the scale of our Korean ferment production at Chae. We began with small batches of condiments like doenjang and gochujang, but we’re now producing significantly larger quantities of these authentic condiments. Moreover, we’ve taken a significant step towards crafting these condiments in a traditional manner. We recently imported 20 onggis, traditional clay jars designed for ferment storage. These onggis are crafted from a specific clay that allows them to breathe, helping maintain the optimal temperature and humidity for achieving the perfect flavour in the condiments they store.
Chae is one of the very few Korean restaurants – if not the only one – in Australia that makes our own condiments using these traditional methods. I take immense pride in being able to share this rich heritage with my Australian audience.
My favourite dish is kimchi. It’s an incredibly versatile food that pairs well with everything, from a simple bacon and egg breakfast to an elegant steak dinner. What I love most about kimchi is how its flavour evolves as it ages. You can enjoy it in its refreshing early state or savour the aged, sour, and tangy versions. The possibilities with kimchi are vast: you can use it to make stews, pancakes, fried rice, and so much more.
Some challenges I’ve faced have been… We put in a lot of effort into engaging with our audience through our social platforms, including creating interesting videos and writing informative blogs. It certainly helps if you can express yourself eloquently and hold a conversation in a way that grabs people’s attention. For someone whose first language isn’t English, it has always been challenging to communicate effectively. English is not my strongest skill, so I’ve always wished I had better English to articulate my thoughts and communicate more elegantly. Fortunately, with the help of advanced translation tools, I have been able to bridge this gap.
My greatest supporters have been… Of course, I’m immensely grateful to everyone who continues to show interest in Chae and Korean cuisine in general. I often have guests who have waited for years before they were able to secure a booking, and I’m truly thankful for their patience. Additionally, my partner, Yoora Yoon, has been a tremendous support in establishing Chae. In the early days of Chae, Yoora was juggling his day job as a fashion designer with helping with the business. Last year, he couldn’t keep up with two roles, so he finally came on board full-time. He has a clear vision of Chae’s brand identity and our position in the market. He works tirelessly to connect with our audience and share our journey. I’m the type to just focus on honing my culinary skills, whereas Yoora is a creative force continuously seeking ways for brand development, marketing strategies, storytelling, and building Chae as a brand to reach a wider audience.
An unexpected new skill I’ve learnt is… We’ve embraced social media as a way to connect more deeply with our fans and audience. This involved learning how to create engaging videos and write blog posts to reach a wider audience and attract more followers. We strongly believe that, regardless of what your business offers, compelling storytelling plays a pivotal role in brand building. We see these skills as valuable tools that enable us to achieve our objectives.
The piece of equipment I never knew I needed is… I never imagined that I would need gardening tools like a lawnmower, whipper snipper, or even chainsaw when running my own venue. After relocating to a house with a sizeable backyard, however, we spend a significant amount of time tending to our lawn, mowing, weeding, and performing general maintenance.
If someone asked me for advice on opening their new venue, I would tell them… Many people raised their eyebrows when I shared my vision of the home-based restaurant. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but don’t let anybody decide your future for you. If you have a vision that you truly believe in and work hard for, eventually, there will be someone who appreciates your work. Moreover, advanced technology and social media make it easier for you to build your own platform to showcase your work, allowing you to connect directly with your audience. It has never been easier to promote your own idea, work and brand.
I’m most proud of… I take immense pride in creating my own intimate space where I can solely focus on delivering a quality dining experience. At Chae, I can effectively tune out the typical noises that often come with running a conventional restaurant, such as managing a team and handling the pressures of profitability while covering hefty overhead costs.
While Korean cuisine is widely known for its delicious barbecue, fried chicken, bibimbap, and more, it boasts a rich tapestry of flavours and dishes beyond these well-known classics. I take immense pride in the opportunity to introduce the lesser-known, authentic flavours of Korean cuisine to our Australian audience.
I’m excited about the future because while Chae is typically seen as a restaurant, we are committed to not limiting ourselves solely to that category. When we approach our business objectives with a broader perspective, the range of opportunities grows boundlessly. We envision ourselves as a bridge through which people can immerse themselves in Korean heritage through the culinary experience. I’m genuinely excited about the future because we have several projects in the pipeline that will enable us to further engage with our audience.
This final question comes from last month’s featured business owner, Thi Le, co-owner and chef of Jeow: Which producer is your best Victorian producer-find and why?
Michael Edwards operates a family-run farm called Citrus Prime Produce in the Yarra Ranges. Not only does he supply citrus produce, but we’ve also become very close friends. This close relationship has allowed us to learn about his ethics and the organic methods he insists on using to grow his produce.