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Chef hopes his pizza transports diners abroad: As Darobe expands, Kang Woo-seok has ambitious dreams

Oct 11,2019
Chef Kang Woo-seok of Darobe pulls a pizza out of a wood-burning oven he ordered and shipped from Italy. [PARK SANG-MOON]
At Darobe’s new branch in Cheongdam, southern Seoul, a variety of small tapas-style dishes, right, are available as well as its popular Neapolitan-style pizza, left. [PARK SANG-MOON]
The people who frequently line up outside of the popular pizza shop Darobe in Seongsu, eastern Seoul, can breathe a sigh of relief now that the restaurant’s second location in Cheongdam, southern Seoul, has opened its doors. The two-year-old pizza place, which has been one of the most popular spots in the trendy Seongsu-dong neighborhood since it opened its doors, will hopefully have shorter lines so that diners can better enjoy their time while eating. Chef Kang Woo-seok also wants to create a more relaxing pizza experience, so visitors can better appreciate his Neapolitan-style pizza cooked in a wood-burning brazier that took him a year to get from Italy to Seoul.

Who says a wood stove is only for making pizza? Chef Kang thought he could make other things in the oven that can reach over 500 degrees Celsius (932 degrees Fahrenheit) for deeper flavors and crisp textures. He now serves food tapas style - different dishes with food in smaller portions, alongside pizza - and is thinking about coming up with more options. The tapas style is an idea that is familiar to many Koreans, who lay out a variety of banchan (also known as side dishes) all at once to accompany rice and soup, rather than a course-style meal at home. This style set accommodates groups, who come after weddings held in the building the new pizzeria found a home in.

“I wanted to make a very fulfilling tabletop for those who are enjoying a day at a wedding,” Kang said. “The style of food may not be too different from what people might have had elsewhere, but the service and the way each dish is served are different and new.”

Neither of Darobe’s locations are decorated to make visitors feel like they are in Italy. Instead, the design evokes an exotic ambience that isn’t specific to any one place. Visitors are more likely to remember experiences of time spent overseas while they eat at either branch. Kang frequently checks out places that Koreans visit while abroad to study the types of foods that they find most appealing. His pizzas are certified as truly Neapolitan by an association in Italy, however, he continues to explore different flavors to appeal to local tastes.

“Don’t you think everybody has some longing for their time spent on an overseas trip as they go through their daily routine here?” said Kang, adding that making a place that customers want to go to and spend time at is what is most important to him. “I wanted to bring back fond memories that customers would want to share with those they eat within Seoul.”

About 12 years ago, the chef decided to focus solely on mastering pizza making. After doing that for about eight to nine years, he started to think about utilizing the wood stove to cook other things besides pizza, since there is no other way to heat things up at such high heats. Even salted dishes served at Darobe go through the hot oven for some time. The exterior of the dish gets completely burnt to condense the flavors inside, and the chef plans to try out different ways to utilize the oven from now on.

“It is so charming to work with the brazier,” said the chef. “Even when I close my eyes, I see fire.”

The chef, who dreamed about being a professional golfer when he was younger, says that making dough and putting the pizza in the stove and pulling it out feels similar to practicing martial arts. The muscles he uses are different from ones he uses while cooking other dishes, and the time he spends cooking pizza is much shorter than any other dish.

To make the pizza experience more unique, Darobe has its own wine. Kang’s dream of having a wine label made only for his restaurant came true thanks to a French winemaker who agreed to create a special label for the pizzeria, even if the quantity was going to be small.

“It feels like I’m doing everything I have dreamt of: I wanted to have my own wine label, have a small restaurant on a small street and take a trip overseas with colleagues,” said the chef. “Now that the business is getting bigger, I feel much more responsible and look for ways to help my colleagues and employees grow, which is why I’m opening more branches.”

It took about 18 years for him to start his own restaurant, yet it only took two years for him to open another location. And it will take even less time to open up a third branch. Kang is looking to open another place next year in Hannam-dong in central Seoul’s Yongsan District, where even high school students can visit without worrying much about the price.

“There are still so many people who don’t know what Darobe is,” said Kang, adding that he wants his brand to be widely known for a long time.

“Later on, I will have a car painted in red and decorated with the logo of Darobe in white, and that car will drive around the city to deliver the ingredients needed at each branch from a central kitchen.”

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