+ A

After success with Italian cuisine, Korean dishes offer new direction

Nov 22,2017
Chef Kim Ji-woon of Cucciolo Group massages dough to make pasta at Cucciolo Terrazza, which is the newest of the five restaurants he runs across Korea. Bottom left is sausage pasta, one of the most popular items on the menu. [PARK SANG-MOON]
While getting ready for a photo shoot, chef Kim Ji-woon of Cucciolo Group was constantly massaging a handful of dough in his hand. Moving it from one hand to the other, stretching it out and then putting it back together was all one smooth process for the camera to follow and capture at his newest restaurant, Cucciolo Terrazza in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. Soon after the shoot, that small chunk of dough turned into a plate of pumpkin pasta, which he has been refining for weeks.

Walking into Cucciolo Terrazza, you immediately feel like you are in someone’s countryside cottage. The pink flowers painted on the plates and small wine glasses that could be mistaken as water glasses feel like they came out of the cabinets of a neighbor’s home. Just like the pasta cooked on the spot, the overall ambience is very casual and easy.

When word got out that the restaurant would have its soft opening in early September, it quickly became impossible to confirm a table, just like the restaurants chef Kim has opened under the umbrella of the Cucciolo Group over the past two years. It was instantly known as a spot to see and to be seen not only among foodies looking to taste what’s on the menu, but also celebrities wanting to feel the ambience of eating and drinking on a terrace between buildings, often found in the streets of Europe.

“People want a restaurant that can be explained in one keyword,” said Kim, who also goes by Julian, explaining how his restaurants have always exploded with reservations. This restaurant is all about Italian food, especially pasta.

But getting his five restaurants - Cucciolo and Maremma in Yongsan District, central Seoul; Volpino in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, and Busan: and Cucciolo Terrazza - to be known as simple Italian eateries is actually all part of a meticulous plan. Instead of staying in the kitchen at his restaurants, Kim has set up a back office where a research and development team works their creativity. Some of the chefs that work in the restaurants take turns working on new menus and concepts.

“What I do best is making products, so I do that,” said Kim. “Other things, like operations, is something that others can do better. I invest in finding talent so that I can focus on what I do best, and they can focus on what they do the best.”

All his restaurants are connected under the Cucciolo Group, a concept rare in Korea, but commonly seen around the world. Chefs and hall staff move around to cater to different clientele to learn how to be resilient to respond in different atmospheres. Some of the company’s 90 staff members live together in a dormitory, go on trips together and play soccer on days off.

Whenever the chef feels like he has mastered the signature elements of one of his eateries, he opens a new restaurant. He always questions why he wants to try something new and what products will appeal to diners.

His next move is expected to be a lot different from what he has done so far: It will be a Korean restaurant outside of Korea. The move isn’t too surprising, as he wrote his graduate thesis on how to make Korean food global while he was studying in England.

“Korean food gets its strength from home-cooked style meals,” said Kim, who has long dreamed of opening a Korean restaurant overseas. He is considering cities in Europe or the United States to make his dream come true.

“I’m not so good at explaining something that doesn’t exist as a product yet, but to make Korean food shine among all the tasty dishes overseas, I have to choose the ‘best eleven’ for the big leagues,” Kim said, adding that he has a penchant for noodles such as Pyongyang naengmyeon, buckwheat noodles served in cold broth, kongguksu, noodles served in ground bean sauce, and ramyeon, or instant noodles.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]