Chefs to Watch 2017: Junghyun ‘JP’ Park, Atoboy, New York City

Amy Cavanaugh

The rush of banchan dishes hitting the table signals the start of a Korean meal as they offer a flurry of flavors and textures—there’s usually a funky kimchi or two, maybe a creamy potato salad, and if you’re lucky, crunchy fried anchovies. These little plates are traditionally designed to complement and enhance the rest of the meal, a concept that Junghyun “JP” Park turns on its head at New York City’s Atoboy by making them the star of the menu. The South Korea-born chef reimagines banchan by simultaneously celebrating its roots and taking it in new, unexpected directions. 

“I love the concept of [banchan], as well as how it all revolves around a constant that is a bowl of rice,” Park says. His prix-fixe menu offers a choice of three savory dishes per person, served family-style with rice and kimchi. “There is really so much you can do with banchan…and being laid out on a table simultaneously with other dishes allows people enjoying the meal to really come up with an infinite number of flavor and texture combinations as opposed to a coursed-out tasting menu,” Park notes.

His food often plays with classic Korean dishes, but the flavor profiles don’t necessarily hew to tradition, with dishes like a wreath of sunchokes and oyster mushrooms with pops of orange and black truffle mayonnaise (recipe), mackerel perched atop a slice of daikon in green chile broth, and chicken fingers dotted with fried garlic set over spicy peanut butter. 

“I can’t say that my food is Korean, aside from the fact that I’m a chef who happens to be Korean,” Park says of his menu. “I’m influenced by many cuisines, cultures and chefs, but I like to be strongly rooted in the foundational sauces and flavors of Korea.

Park and his wife, Ellia, who is the restaurant manager and runs the beverage program, opened Atoboy in 2016 after Park decided to strike out on his own following stints at Jungsik in New York, The Ledbury in London and Cutler & Co. in Melbourne. Prior to cooking, Park studied food science in Seoul.

“Reading about the world-renowned chefs in the 1990s and early 2000s, I knew I needed to master the classic French cuisine and/or really immerse myself in the Western hemisphere,” he says of his time in school. “I learned so much during those years, but I think what I learned most importantly was how to find my own place in the culinary scene. Learning these techniques and getting to work with these ingredients was truly rewarding, but it always felt as though something was missing.”

At Jungsik, he immersed himself in “new Korean” cuisine while watching a wave of Korean restaurant openings. “When that small renaissance time came about for Korean cuisine here in New York, I knew it was the right time to showcase my passion also,” he says.

His passion is evident in each part of Atoboy, from the shared enthusiasm of the servers to the warm dining room. But, naturally, it’s the food that gives the best insight into Park’s philosophy. 

“I think my culinary philosophy is still constantly evolving, but now I love trying to find balance in flavor, techniques and ingredients,” he says. “I also find extreme satisfaction in layering lots of complexity in what seems simple.”

Q&A ith Junghyun Park:

What is your favorite ingredient?
My favorite ingredient would have to be ganjang, which is Korean soy sauce. I think it’s one of the most fundamental flavors of Korea, and it has an immense depth of umami flavor.

How do you find calm in your restaurant?
I think nothing is as calming as manning the dish pit. If my dishwasher is out or busy with another task, I enjoy filling in and zoning out. It’s quite peaceful!

What music is usually playing in the kitchen?
We play a lot of upbeat music to go along with our upbeat pace and food. Right now, we have a good mix of ’90s hip-hop with some instrumentals from the recent years.

What cookbook is most important to you?
Though a tough question, I think it has to be The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s the book that ultimately was like a turning point in my young adulthood. I always knew I wanted to pursue culinary [jobs], but this book made me want to become the chef at a reputable restaurant.

What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
There are many here and there, but I think my biggest pet peeve is when the delivery is not on time. This delays everything, leading to mise en place not being ready before dinner service. 

What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
I would say an architect or a DJ! Sounds completely different, but they can be somewhat similar in a creative sense.

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
I find inspiration in so many places—going to the farmers’ market, dining out, travelling (as time permits), nostalgia and new ingredients.

What restaurant is your dream stage location and why?
Another tough question, but I think Maison Bras in Laguiole, France. I really admire Michel Bras, in the way that he is a self-taught chef who brought a lot of new light into the culinary scene in France with a new perspective on many things, beginning with dishes like the gargouillou de jeune legumes.

What’s your bucket list restaurant to visit and why?
I've been thinking about going to Asador Etxebarri in Spain. I’m really drawn to their concept of wood-fired cooking. I love the modern techniques like sous vide, but I think you really get to learn cooking when you get down to its primal stages—back to the basics.

What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
I would like to really master the art of dehydration.

What do you like to cook on a day off?
I enjoy making non-Korean food, but those were the days before Atoboy came into the picture. Nowadays, when I do find myself cooking on a day-off, it’s usually instant ramen. Such a classic, but so good!

Wine seems to be an important part of Atoboy’s concept—how does that fit in, and why is wine such a good fit for Korean food?
Most importantly, I think it plays a big part of our restaurant because Ellia and I both really enjoy wine. I also like that our guests are pleasantly surprised to find my food (heavily being Korean-influenced) goes so well with wine. But Ellia, who is in charge of the beverage program, picks carefully to make sure that our wines reflect our cuisine and the restaurant well. Like how I want our food to be able to be enjoyed by many, we also want our wine lists to be accessible. We have great classical wines or geeky varietals that may entice the wine enthusiasts but also easily drinkable and deliciously affordable ones for those who may not know wine as well as others.

What does the restaurant name mean?
“Ato” in ancient Korean language means a “gift” or a “present.” I want our guests to feel as though they have been gifted when they dine with us. That can be our food or even the experience overall. “Boy” comes from the English word, but I’ve heard our guests and staff define it differently. So simply put, it’s a “gifting boy.” Or sometimes people say that, since Ellia and I don’t have any kids, Atoboy is our firstborn baby. It was never our intention for it to carry that meaning, but I guess it's sort of true. It's our first restaurant together and we work tirelessly to look after it, to have it be successful.

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