Korean chef helped turn quiet street into dining mecca

Just a short stroll away from the bustling multicultural neighborhood of Seoul's Itaewon lies the lesser-known, yet trend-setting street of Gyeongnidan-gil.

A short walk from Noksapyeong Station, this stretch of road is filled with craft breweries, terrace cafes, unique restaurants and quaint shops steeped in culture and creativity.

Located two blocks away from the main streets of this up-and-coming neighborhood is a narrow alley, nestled away in a residential district that is even further off the radar.

Although typically quiet and laid-back on weekdays, when the weekend comes, the alley bustles with young crowds that flock to some 10 or so small restaurants, bakeries, cafes and bars where the cramped quarters have visitors bumping elbows with each other.

The limited range of options, however, does not deter the continued influx of locals looking to try out some of the street's exclusive eats and enjoy the homely atmosphere.

Up until a few years ago the area used to be a quiet residential neighborhood, largely unknown to most of the public. It was only after fashion photographer-turned-chef and CEO Chang Jin-woo opened the humble, one-table restaurant "Chang Jinwoo's Kitchen" in 2011, as well as a number of other cafes, bakeries and bars in the following years that the area began to suddenly gain attention.

"Why did people keep coming? At first, they probably came because they liked the owner. And then they were satisfied with the food and then more probably continued to come because they were curious," said Chang in an interview with The Korea Herald.

The chef ― who can often be spotted chatting with customers in and around his restaurants ― operates most of the popular establishments along the street. As a result, the area is popularly referred to as "Chang Jinwoo Alley."

Today, the neighborhood is considered to be an urban hot spot among those who are looking to spend a casual night out in the city in an intimate atmosphere, as well as a hangout venue frequented by many foreigners who are drawn to the beauty of Seoul's quaint, old city landscapes.

"Everybody expects to hear some kind of a special story behind my success. However, there is no special formula behind success in the food and beverage business other than working very hard to keep making good-tasting food that people can come back to and regard as special," he said.

The Korean-style retro bar Bangbum Pocha, Frank's ― a bakery famous for its signature "rainbow roll" ― the octopus soup restaurant Moon Ori, Mathilda and Grand Bleu ― two artsy Western-style bistros ― all offer unique dishes personally developed by Chang and his chefs.

"It's not having a funky interior or excellent services that leads to a restaurant's success, including my restaurants. Looking back at how and why my businesses have managed to survive after five years, taste is the absolute key ― good food that I myself can eat for an entire week."

Though Chang's few signature dishes now define his restaurant brands, the 29-year-old CEO, who also considers himself a gourmet chef and designer, said he continues to work day and night to develop ways to improve his cuisines by experiencing new tastes in and out of Korea.

"Many regard the life of a CEO as being very glamorous, but it is actually quite exhausting," said Chang, who reportedly squeezes in four meals a day to try as many new foods as possible.

He travels at least once a week, going abroad at least twice every month to destinations like Japan and Europe to discover novel ingredients, taste different foods and gain fresh insights.

Thanks to his continued dedication and efforts, Chang's business has been on the rise. In March, Chang Jinwoo's Kitchen and Frank's bakery each opened a new branch in Gourmet 494, the dining area located inside the high-end Galleria Department Store in Gangnam-gu. Construction is currently underway for two new guesthouses run by Chang as well.

"I have never sought success. Even now, I don't see myself as being successful," he said. "However, I am very happy. And that's the foremost thing in business, because only a person who is happy can create good-tasting bread or come up with a great recipe."

By Sohn Ji-young (jys@heraldcorp.com)