sōn mät 손맞 literally translates to hand flavor
“As family legend had it, they had a magic touch: [sōn mät]. Flavor in their fingertips. Flavor that had been passed down over thousands of years, from generation to generation, flavors that were now part of their very spirit.” -Roy Choi, L.A.SON
I love cooking and eating. For example, when I was super skinny and eating only 1 baked chicken breast with 7 stalks of steamed asparagus, 8 almonds, a protein shake and half a cup of yogurt—I read cookbooks at night, like bedtime stories. In the midst of dieting and being skinny, reading about food and recipes comforted me and it lulled me to sleep.
Maybe that’s not a good example. Don’t judge.
I wanted to do many things when I grew up. One of them was owning and running a restaurant, serving homestyle Korean food and pastries and coffee and quiche. And I did just that. No quiche or pastries but close enough and of course, homestyle Korean food and good coffee.
The dude and I had no experience* but we wanted to do everything. We hit the ground running at full speed, like there was an angry beast nipping at our ankles, about to consume us. Doing a lot of the work on the place ourselves in order to save money, staying late into the night–painting, cleaning, fixing minor things–we opened with less than 5 items on the menu and people started trickling in. Then those people came back, and brought their friends and family, and told their co-workers—pretty soon the dining room was packed during lunch and dinner.
Once the restaurant was fully operating, I had a new dream. I wanted to be nationwide—no, worldwide. I wanted to make bulgogi bowl and kimchi as accessible as a hamburger or pizza, anywhere in the world. I wanted to redefine Korean food. All my recipes were made as streamlined as possible. Each ingredient served more than one purpose, the same seasoning and marinades were used for most of the dishes, but with a few changes that set each dish apart. I used mainly* fresh whole ingredients, never sacrificing flavor or quality while keeping costs low.
At first, we were open 7 days a week from 10:30 to 9:30. And then 11:00 to 9:00, then closing in between rush hours, then open 6 days a week and closing major holidays, then closing even on the minor holidays, like President’s Day. What restaurant closes on President’s Day? No restaurant closes on President’s Day. And then, on some days, we just closed up shop.
I did most of the cooking and a lot of the prepping and cleaning, I covered both shifts too many times, and for about a month it was just me in the kitchen–running a 6-burner stove, a grill, a flat top, and a deep-fryer–serving about 20 different freshly prepared items. And the cleaning, the non-stop fucking cleaning.. I drove from one city to another, picking up fresh ingredients. My boyfriend–who had his own business before we bought the restaurant–was managing the front, handling advertising, taking orders, doing the accounting, helping me in the kitchen at times and also picking up ingredients; all the while, still running his business.
We were working 15–20 hour days, 6 to 7 days a week. I was constantly anxious, tired, and stressed. Chain-smoking and guzzling diet coke, my only relief. My body was breaking down, my fingers and hands unable to grip. The never-ending, constant physical and emotional grind was slowly and surely wearing us down. And then the final straw—I started getting panic attacks—in the kitchen, while the orders were coming in. I would hang on until after the order went out, to go shut myself in the storage room to try to .. just .. breathe. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to hang on and I would lose my mind, right there in the kitchen. So cliche, but my world would come crashing down. The pressure—a thick, viscous, intense, physical force—suffocating me…
My goal changed. I just wanted to stay open for more than a year. I wanted to beat the statistic that most restaurants close within a year. Never-mind that my goal didn’t even make sense. So, when a year and a few months was up, we closed the doors for good.
After we sold the restaurant, I tried several things: made a few websites, briefly went into business with my dad, tried photography and learning programming. But for the most part, my puppy was sick and I drove myself crazy taking care of him. Turns out he had a life-threatening brain disease (that’s a story for another day). When I look back at the past year of my life, it’s blurry. No real progress made, no goals. Just going through the motions.
For a while, I wanted nothing to do with the kitchen. I kept finding excuses to not cook, like, the stove is too weak, there’s no counter space, I don’t want to do dishes today, etc. But slowly, I started cooking again and what I realize now is that my love for cooking and wanting to share it with everyone is a real and tangible thing. And thank the sweet baby Jesus for that.
Since I wasn’t able to make the restaurant a worldwide operation, I’ll settle for the next best (maybe better) thing: the Internet. I’ll be sharing my secret recipes from the restaurant. I’ll share my family recipes. I’ll share anything and everything I like to make and eat. And yes, I’ll share pictures of the pups.
Thank you for stopping by and please come again.
Our vision was: “What would we want to eat at a home-style Korean restaurant? And the portions better be legit.”
*I had some–very little– experience. I owned and ran a hot food pop-up at local farmer’s markets for a year prior to opening the restaurant. I originally wanted to keep the pop-up going (I kept it running for a month or so into opening) but the restaurant was priority and it needed all my attention.
99% of ingredients were whole and fresh. We used to sell these packaged ready-made Korean vegetarian dumplings which we deep-fried and served. They were very popular. I ate them all the time.