“Hey, let’s go to dinner in Murray Hill!” said no one, ever, before our friends at Atoboy came along. The first restaurant from husband-and-wife team Junghyun (“JP”) and Ellia Park has been a hit since the day it opened in late July 2016. Diverting diners from nearby K-Town, their menu was an inspired take on the Korean tradition of banchan, a flurry of small dishes served family-style and best enjoyed with a warm bowl of rice.
Last year they followed up with a more formal tasting counter, Atomix, which garnered two stars in the most recent Michelin Guide. And although the duo have somersaulted onto the international stage in recent years — making the long list for this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards and collaborating in Tokyo, Copenhagen, London, and beyond — it’s not hard to find them here in NYC. So today I’ve turned up for a chat about the challenges of creative partnership, and what happens when one restaurant blossoms into a group.
Could you tell me a little bit about the early days?
EP: Well, first we need to rewind to way before Atoboy was even an idea in our minds. In fact, we’ve only been in America for 7 years! JP and I went to the same college in Korea. We met there. I was working in Human Resources before…
Before you ventured into hospitality?
EP: Well, before we came to New York. We came for his work at Jungsik.
JP: Yeah, that was just after they got their first Michelin star, like a year after it opened. Initially, I thought we’d only stay in the U.S. for about two years before going home to open my own place. [laughs]
So much for that plan! What changed your minds?
JP: Well, I had been the sous chef at the one in Seoul, but I had already worked all over — Asia, Australia, the UK. At that time, it just seemed to me like there was a lot of potential for Korean food in the U.S. in general, and NYC in particular. More than in other places. More than in Korea, even.
JP: New York is just so open. There are so many different cultures, and so much diversity of cuisine. You are not restricted to doing Korean BBQ.
And once you identified this opportunity…?
EP: Then came the hard part! I was working front of house again — at Kajitsu, Maialino, Noreetuh — while JP had to create our business plan, start looking for investors, and so on.
JP: My idea was to open Atomix first. Eight to ten seats, almost a sushi-ya type of seating. But nobody knew us here, and we knew no one. It would have been hard to open up and ask for $200 right away.
Instead you asked for less than $40. An impossible steal these days!
JP: When we first decided, it was like, let’s just be lower than Restaurant Week.
But with your fine dining background (at Jungsik, The Ledbury, etc), did you feel stifled at that price point?
JP: Well, when I was in Melbourne, before I was at [Chef Andrew McConnell’s flagship] Cutler & Co., I was at an all-day cafe called Cumulus Inc. and I loved it there. There’s so much freedom in what you can do.
And now that you guys are running not one but two restaurants, how much freedom do you feel like you have?
EP: Welllll… [laughs] When we opened Atoboy, it was our first time opening our own place, so it was a big learning experience for both of us. Two years later, with Atomix, we have two babies, and like any new parents, it was very hard for the first few months.
Of course, you can’t be in two places at once…
EP: Exactly. Instead, now we are tasked with enabling decision makers, and we need to allow our leaders like Ahris [Kim, GM @ Atoboy] and our chefs to create their own style.
Speaking of style, was there every any backlash from traditionalists? Anyone saying, “Wait, this isn’t really banchan” at Atoboy, or stuff like that?
JP: My thought about the banchan is like, it’s not about one dish. It’s about sharing. It’s about the culture. Besides, Atoboy and Atomix don’t have a strong ego. We just let them free, let them be.
It’s also about the rice, right?
EP: Yes, which we ran out of the first time that Pete Wells came in! He came with [Sam] Sifton, at the 10pm seating, and we had run out of rice. What a mess! Luckily he came back, and he has come to really like both of our places. We look back at that night and laugh about it now.
What happens when you look forward?
EP: Well, 2019 has been a perfect year for us. So many great collaborations and trips and recognitions. We are so proud of Atoboy, which turned three over the summer. Atomix getting two Michelin stars recently was a “Wow!” moment for us.
JP: Yes, Atomix is showcasing who we are in a really special way right now. But it’s kind of hard to say whether or not this is our permanent home. Who’s to say that one day we won’t open in Paris or Tokyo or somewhere completely different? But not yet!
In the meantime…?
JP: We work.
EP: Exactly. When I wake up, I work. When I am not awake, I sleep.
And what about days off?
EP: In general, we don’t have a true day off. We stay 24 hours together, and no matter where we are, we are talking about the same stuff. It’s the same for all business owners, I think.
JP: Even going shopping together, we are like “Oh, these could be great uniforms for our next restaurant.”
Ellia, if your Insta-stories are any indication, you’re a bit of a gym rat, is that right? Do you take time out of your busy schedule to work out?
EP: I have to. For those one or two hours, nobody is going to bother me. I don’t check texts or emails. It’s so peaceful, and good for me, mentally and physically.
And JP, do you join her?
JP: Not a chance. I’d rather sleep. Or drink. :)