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Family tragedy turns into family business

June 02,2018
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Kang Eun-mi, far left, her husband, Park Jong-ho, center, and their kids on their farm in Gimje, North Jeolla, on May 21. [SHIN IN-SEOP]

For many Korean diners, side dishes are a vital part of the meal, but with an increasing number of people living alone, more are opting to buy their side dishes instead of making their own as is traditionally done.

Enter Kang Eun-mi, 42, and her husband, Park Jong-ho, 49, who have been running a farm in Gimje, North Jeolla, for the past six years and delivering ready-made side dishes to over 10,000 clients.

The couple grows their own barley, beans, nuts, peppers, sesame and vegetables to make the side dishes. They ship nationwide, and clients usually order through KakaoTalk, a messaging app, or via text.

Clients can choose from over 50 dishes, including kimchi (fermented cabbage), jangjorim (salted beef) and perilla leaf pickles and sometimes, the couple even bundles them into full meals, throwing in soup, rice cake and fruit.

Every day, Kang posts pictures of the food, the farm and her family on social media. She said she was able to get a majority of her clients through these platforms.

About 3,000 people have become regular buyers and been using their service for at least five years.

It wasn’t always easy for the couple, who used to live in Seoul. Park was a landscape architect at a firm in the capital, while Kang was a makeup artist director at a salon in upscale Cheongdam-dong.

But tragedy befell the couple in 2007 when Kang gave birth to twins and one died because of a mishap at the hospital. Overcome with depression, Kang quit her job and stayed at home.

To help ease her pain, Park decided to move to his hometown in North Jeolla in 2008 and set up a farm there. Kang joined four years later, and they opened up their business in March 2012. Now, Kang is a mother of five children between the ages of 2 and 12 who happily run around their nearly 40 acres of land.

The couple started selling crops, but when they couldn’t earn enough, they adopted a new concept: actually making dishes. Kang started taking cooking classes and attended agriculture classes at Jeonju University.

There, she met Han Bok-jin, a professor of food business, and was able to expand her customer base through Han’s connections.

Kang continues to study culinary arts. Twice a month, she goes to Seoul to take a class in Korean food and plating. She brings back what she learns and teaches a three-hour class on how to ferment and make side dishes at agricultural research centers in Wonju, in Gangwon, and Gimje every Thursday for those aspiring to create a business like hers.

“My dream is to be able to cook even into my 80s,” Kang said. “They say Jeonju is failing to create traditional Korean food, but my wish is to learn more about Korean food and correct Jeonju’s troubles. I hope to open a traditional Korean restaurant that makes food right.”

Six full-time employees run the farm, but on busy days, they hire three more people to help them. The crew boasts a diverse background. One is the owner of a Korean restaurant near the farm, another leads an agricultural research institute in the province and one worker is part of a medical association in North Jeolla.

Although most of the crops are grown by the family, they sometimes procure ingredients from a local store.

“Although I’m more physically worn out and make less money than my previous job, I’m a lot happier now,” Park said.

BY LEE TACK-HEE [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]