Why Chan’s Heong Soon Park Wants to Ditch the 'Korean' Label on His Restaurants

By: Julien Perry | Posted August 21, 2014
A rendering of Tray Kitchen

On Tuesday, I had two emails in my inbox: One announcing Eric Banh’s upcoming Vietnamese steakhouse opening this fall and another announcing chef Heong Soon Park’s dim sum-style Tray Kitchen opening around the same time. And with Girin and Trove on the way, I thought, "Bold flavors! A 2015 trend!"  

And then my bubble burst a littl bit when I sat down with chef Park yesterday, who told me that he’s leaning away from traditional Korean cuisine (i.e. bold flavors).

Chef Park came to Seattle 7 years ago, quickly opened Bacco in Pike Place Market, followed by Chan (right next door) in May 2012. His new restaurant will be located between Fremont and Ballard, or Frelard—a nickname that makes my skin crawl—across the street from Brown Bear Carwash at 4012 Leary Way NW. Graham Baba (RockCreek, Revel, Cuoco, Melrose Market) will be doing the design work on the former auto repair shop. 

While the 32-year-old Park was born and raised in Korea, he doesn’t want his restaurants to be known as Korean.

“The most regrettable thing I did was calling Chan ‘modern Korean food.’ When I’m creating a dish, it’s really hard to think outside the box because people already come [into the restaurant] with this perception that I’m an authentic Korean place. It also limits our creativity in terms of creating new dishes.”

With Tray, which is strongly patterned after the James Beard Award-winning State Bird Provisions in San Francisco where there is both a standard menu and special small plates passed around on carts, he’s going to rely more on seasonal ingredients than his Korean heritage.

“I want to go in a different direction. Really, it’s Northwest cuisine. It’s not really Korean Korean, but I can’t just ditch my past.”

Park has an organic-certified farm in Woodinville and grows his own veggies, like carrots and kale, which are not exactly prominent in Korean cuisine. It’s been frustrating for him, until recently.

“It’s really easy for us to create a new menu now, because we have a baseline on what we’re basing the menu on instead of thinking, ‘What are we gonna do?' We already know what we’re going to do. We just have to work around the ingredients”

The strongest Korean influence at Tray will be Park’s approach to using spices and soy sauce. “I feel like cuisine is a culture and it changes over time. It evolves. The world keeps getting smaller. [Cuisines] are getting more mixed.”

This move away from bold flavors sort of hit Park a couple of years ago when he was doing a little food research for Tray, traveling to places like New York and San Francsico for inspiration.

“I never felt any food was salty or spicy or too strong. Everything made sense in terms of the ingredients and that clicked with me.”

“Bolder flavor for me is overwhelming sometimes. You know, I love Chinese food. When I get off at 1 a.m. I eat it and it makes me feel good. But, if I go there, I don’t want to go back for another week or so. It makes your palate very tired. On the other hand, right now I’m moving towards more acid. It’s much more wine friendly and you don’t really get tired of it. It wakes the palate up, I think. It’s easier to get a good impression off one bite with bold flavor. But I always tell my cooks that if they try the soup and it’s good and salty, it’s too salty for customers because they’re going to have a full bowl of soup, not just a spoonful." 

Park says he plans to be the chef at Tray seven days a week. Right now, the plan is to offer dinner and brunch, with daily breakfast and lunch possibly added in the future. 

Park is using the kitchen from the now shuttered, and conveniently located, Marché for recipe testing and such. Still no word on who's taking that beautiful courtyard space, but I hear some heavy hitters have shown interest in putting a restauant there.

Look for Tray Kitchen to open in late October at the earliest.