Even on a cold Monday evening, the wait at Cho Dang Gol it was over an hour.
Crowds of twenty-somethings spilled out of the cozy restaurant in Manhattan’s Korean Quarter, where steam billowed from stone bowls of soondubu jigae in a dining room decorated with paper lanterns and musical instruments. A few hopeful customers peeked in, eager to see if a table had become available.
A few blocks away, dinners at Hojokban — a sleeker, more modern restaurant that opened last fall — eagerly took photos of a plate of fried rice wearing an empty Shin Ramyun noodle cup like a hat. The dish had already gone viral on TikTok.
A little south, Atomix, a Korean gourmet restaurant with two Michelin stars, was sold out the following month. And the searched for Corn Cake at the nearby Lysée, a Franco-Korean pastry shop? It had been full since noon.
Korean cuisine in New York has never been more interesting, vibrant and diverse. And a single company, owner or co-owner of these four restaurants and 17 others, generates much of this innovation: Handmade hospitality.
Hand has achieved what many non-Western restaurants still struggle to do in America: gaining a large following while focusing on a narrow audience – in this case, young Koreans and Korean Americans eager to sample the energy that emanates from South Korea.
“Rather than playing with an Americanized idea of what people would expect from Korean food, they are simply making a version of what Koreans eat in Seoul,” said E. Alex Jung, editor for New York magazine and author from its restaurant newsletter. Last year.
Some servers at Hand speak little English. Some dishes are identified on menus only in Korean. “They are not trying to please non-Koreans,” Mr. Jung said.
Yet non-Koreans still show up. The company’s wide range of establishments reflects the globalized and ever-changing form of eating in South Korea, a country whose vast cultural influence has become such a phenomenon that it has a name: hallyu.
Some Hand restaurants were imported directly from Seoul and specialize in a single dish, such as the bulgogi served at Samwoojung, or Okdongsik’s comforting gomtang soup. Other restaurants, like Atomix and Atoboy, are in partnership with Korean American chefs, or are influenced by French technique, like Lysée or Little fool. A few are more casual and clubby, like Take31. (Hand even manages three Japanese restaurants: Izakaya Miou, No no no And Hakata Ton Ton.)
“There’s no limit to what Korean cuisine can be,” Mr. Jung said, “and that’s what they’re demonstrating.”
But who exactly are these “they” at the head of Hand? Figuring it out took some perseverance and persuasion.
While many of the group’s chef partners are recognized names in the food world, including Junghyun and Ellia Park, co-owners of Atomix and Atoboy, or Eunji Lee of Lysée, its main players, Kihyun Lee and Kyungrim Kim, prefer to stay apart. . Their names are not listed on Hand’s website. They repeatedly declined interviews for this article. Ms Kim, 32, asked if she could skip her photo shoot.
“We didn’t want to show ourselves,” said Mr. Lee, 43, known as Kiro and identified on the website only as “the founder.” A soft-spoken man who favors baggy sweaters, he said one of the reasons he agreed to speak was the opportunity to show the item to his mother, who lives in Incheon, South Korea. and her two young children – to make them proud.
Among his peers, Mr. Lee and his company are already considered pioneers.
“They are an inspiration and an influence for Korean chefs in Korea and for New York chefs and just for American chefs,” said Deuki Hong, 34, a chef and author of the upcoming cookbook “Korea of the world”, who ran the Koreatown barbecue restaurant Baekjeong.
“They bend New York to their tastes,” he said.
Atoboy and Atomix, for example, have repeatedly appeared on critics’ best restaurant lists. (Atomix was No. 2 last year on The New York Times’ “100 Best Restaurants in New York.”) But Ms. Park, who runs both establishments, said she and her husband had difficulty finding investors in their contemporary vision of Korean. food until they meet Mr. Lee. He partnered with them and invested in their restaurants. (The Parks declined to specify the amount.)
Hand Hospitality’s success has been enhanced by its location. New York has approximately 1.2 million people of Asian origin, and a gastronomic public well-versed in a myriad of cuisines. The heavyweight of Korean culture today certainly contributes to this.
And the company’s influence extends beyond its own restaurants, to places like South Korean Restaurant It’s like in Charlie in downtown Manhattan. David JoonWoo Yun, who co-founded the restaurant last year, said Mr. Lee encouraged him to tap into both his Korean heritage and his Atlanta roots, and to serve sweet tea with mushroom bibimbap.
Thanks to Hand’s example, said Mr. Yun, 33, “more and more Koreans are trying to develop the cuisine into something more unique with their own experience.”
Mr. Lee said that approach seemed risky to him when he started in 2011. He had grown up in a restaurant-owning family near a U.S. Air Force base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, and had moved to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. He and his friends couldn’t find places to hang out.
“There were no trendy restaurants,” he remembers. “Everywhere there was old, traditional K-Town food.”
With a $300,000 small business loan, Mr. Lee opened Take31 just off the main stretch of Koreatown. The soju selection was extensive, the servers were other young Koreans, and the menu alternated between Korean and Japanese dishes, as Mr. Lee had lived in Japan for several years. He organized exhibitions for his artist friends and attracted a small but loyal following.
People encouraged him to make the food sweeter to attract more customers. “But I don’t think like that,” he said. “I think we need to show what our basic taste is.”
He studied the restaurant business by reading restaurateur Danny Meyer’s best-selling book “Setting the table: the transformative power of corporate hospitality.” This confused him. Why did someone have to be taught to be hospitable?
“For Asians, hospitality comes naturally, it’s innate,” he said. “It’s not something you learn or develop.”
Two years later, Mr. Lee opened Izakaya Mew, followed by His name is Han, which serves traditional Korean cuisine. He brought in partners – Keisuke Oku, Alex Bosung Park and Jinan Choi – to develop different parts of the business. Ms. Kim joined Hand in 2016 as a server at Her Name Is Han and became the company’s general manager in 2022.
She said that until recently, when an outside investor brought in money, the business was mainly supported by Mr Lee’s initial loan and subsequent profits, which she reinvested in new restaurants.
The opening of Her Name Is Han was a turning point, Mr. Lee said. Until then, almost all of Hand’s clients were Korean. At Her Name Is Han, these people started bringing non-Koreans, who became repeat visitors.
Hand’s approach has remained more or less the same since then. “Usually the foods we open restaurants in come from our childhood,” Ms. Kim said. “Most of our employees are immigrants from Korea or even Japan. We are very focused on Asia.
Mr. Lee regularly travels to South Korea to find restaurants that will do well in New York. Hand often brings not only the food, but also the minimalist and sometimes brutalist or industrial sensibility of some Seoul restaurants. (The company works with Korean American designer Junho Choi.)
Mr. Lee’s instincts are often spot on. Okdongsik, a narrow soup counter specializing in gomtang, regularly has queues at lunchtime. Its success led to the opening of locations in Tokyo and Honolulu this year.
If a place doesn’t find an audience, the company can simply turn it into another restaurant; After small plates restaurant Palpal closed in 2023 after just one year, it was reborn as Hojokban. The menus are constantly changing to attract people.
“They actually keep up with modern times,” said Hung Nguyen, 26, a venture capitalist who was recently eating at Take31, where the menu features many of the latest Korean culinary trends, such as Dalgona, a honeycomb candy and mala seasoning. “When ‘Parasite’ came out, they introduced jjapaguri.”
These innovations are not to everyone’s taste.
“I feel like if I brought my Korean elders here, they’d be like, ‘What did they do to the food?’ ” said Wook Bae, 31, a legal assistant who was dining at the restaurant. Seoul Fair. The restaurant is Hand’s upscale version of a sool jib, or drinking establishment, with dishes like spicy octopus risotto and rose tteokbokki, cheese-topped rice cakes in a creamy sauce spiked with gochujang.
By prioritizing a younger crowd, Hand could also alienate its older employees and customers, who frequented Koreatown long before BTS became a household name. At Cho Dang Gol, a waitress in her 50s who started before Hand bought the restaurant in 2016, said some dishes had been sweetened to appeal to younger diners and she feared for her job.
“They are moving to younger employees,” she said in Korean. (She did not give her name, saying she feared it would hasten her departure.) “I can’t go anywhere. I do not speak English.
Aiden Min, 39, the restaurant’s general manager, said Hand hasn’t changed the recipes and there are no plans to let the old servers go. They’re part of the restaurant’s charm, he said, reminding diners of their mothers and aunts.
Still, it’s hard not to notice that it’s people in their 20s and 30s who flood Koreatown every night, whether for dinner, karaoke, or a visit to H Mart.
Mr. Lee located Hand’s headquarters and most of his restaurants in Koreatown. This includes Jooo Okthat Hand will open in April as a play aimed at making the neighborhood a dining destination.
“Whoever built K-Town is amazing,” he said. “It’s in the heart of Manhattan, right next to the Empire State Building.”
For him, Koreatown represents the trajectory of Korean food and culture – a once-siloed space that these days can feel like the center of the universe.
Hannah Ahn contributed to the Korean translation of this article.