Leading the way with a modern touch: Lucia Cho, CEO of restaurant group Gaon Society, has ambitious plans for Korean cuisine

June 21,2019
Lucia Cho, CEO of Gaon Society, left, checks the menu at Gaon in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. The design of Bicena, top, and dishes served there. [PARK SANG-MOON, GAON SOCIETY]
The culinary world has become Korea’s oyster as interest in Korean food grows internationally. Lucia Cho, the CEO of restaurant group Gaon Society, is hoping to take that opportunity and be at the forefront of culinary innovation globally.

The sister company to local ceramic maker Kwangjuyo was handed down to Cho from her father and founder of the company Cho Tae-kwon, who is now chairman, in 2012.

Lucia Cho was born in Greece and lived in the Britain, the United States, Italy and Japan before she ended up in Korea in 2010. With her experience overseas, the company, which already has a sturdy local base with its two Korean restaurants - Gaon and Bicena - is getting ready to branch out to diners outside of Korea. Gaon, located in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, has had three stars on the Michelin Guide Seoul since its first edition in 2016. Bicena, which first opened in Yongsan District, central Seoul, and has since moved into the Signiel Seoul hotel in Songpa District in southern Seoul, has one star.

“We should not just try to follow what looks more ‘developed’ globally,” said Cho. “We [should] study the styles considered to be developed overseas, and then try to [create] the ‘movement’ with our own Korean food and culture.”

Before solidifying plans to bring food from either Gaon or Bicena overseas, she hopes to help her team gain as much experience as it can outside of the country. In early July, the team from Gaon will travel to New York to work on a collaborated dinner with Atomix, where fine dining style modern Korean food has been served since it opened last year. Atomix, run by Korean chef Junghyun Park, was just ranked No. 119 on the top 120 restaurant list released by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants organization this week. She will also collaborate with Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se in the United States this year and next.

Cho is different from any other local restaurant group CEO. She is more than a restaurateur, as she studied cooking in Italy and worked in a kitchen in the United States. She understands the technical side of the kitchen and how to prepare ingredients and present them on a plate, while also sketching the bigger picture of where each plate should be served.

The interior of Gaon, far left, and some of the dishes served there. [GAON SOCIETY, PARK SANG-MOON]
The dynamic between chef Kim Byoung-jin of Gaon and Cho is quite interesting, as Cho spent the majority of her life overseas while Kim has never worked long term in a restaurant overseas.

“I sometimes wonder if the path Kim is taking is something that I needed to take,” said Cho looking back her past in the kitchen. “But now, I enjoy painting with another hand in order to hand down what’s been handed to us from history.”

At the restaurants owned by Gaon Society, Cho curates tableware, small objects, artwork and everything that matters to the dining experience. She is the mastermind who brings together traditional items with simple and modern design touches, like a wall decorated with small, yet colorful ribbons at Gaon, and a white object hanging from the ceiling at Bicena.

Cho recently sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily to share her vision for the future of the restaurants.

Q. What makes a dish Korean at its core, regardless of how “modern” it is?

It has to be simple yet refined. The beauty of Korean culture comes from the simplest things, I think. Imagine you are walking inside Gyeongbok Palace at night, under the moonlight, and listening to the sound of your footsteps. It is about being delicate more than overdoing things.

What is the difference between you and your father in terms of management style?

My father created something that did not exist before. He made something that the country now recognizes and something that has a group of followers. Now I work on what makes a company good. I need to work on how we can be better at entering the digital world. I need to work on securing enough funds to run projects. What I learned from my father is that I should never be discouraged to the level that it shakes me off of the direction I need to be heading.

What lies ahead for Gaon Society?

We now know that the dining scene can be changed. We might do a series of franchise restaurants or open a restaurant in a city overseas. We could also make a research center. The restaurant group is in the process of becoming a bigger business. There are still many things that seem so dark and so blurry, so what’s important is how we see them and how we can make them brighter. We are at a starting point.

What does it take to win and keep stars from the Michelin Guide?

The Michelin Guide is both a company and a system. If there was no such [rating] system, we would just need to do our best [to stand out,] because there would be no criteria to judge who does what better. For example, if I were to compete in a sport that had never been introduced at the Olympics, then the rules I am familiar with become the official rules once it becomes part of the Olympics. So, I would just need to continue doing what I do best. But if there are already rules in place, then I need to analyze the players in the race with me. How you play and evolve after you understand the rules opens up a different playing field.

Which cities are you considering opening a restaurant in?

We are still in the very early stage of brainstorming and looking for local partners and investors. It is important to have someone local in that city to set the groundwork together with us. We may have the kitchen more open so that the staff can better interact with the guests. The U.S. market is tempting for us. Of course other countries also have a rich dining culture, but we think the style and language that restaurants in the United States use to describe their dining culture [suits us] best. To test the waters, we will be doing many different pop-ups in the coming years. After the event with Atomix, we will be doing more collaborations with chef Thomas Keller, and even have a Halloween party. We will be more active internationally from now on.

What motivates you?

I hate to lose. I take things seriously. It is difficult to smile every day, but its important to make the effort. Now I see I was never alone in doing things. It was all done together with people around me. Someone fed me, someone educated me and someone encouraged me to do what I want throughout my life.

Are there any other projects you want to try?

I want to do video production. Setting things up to run a restaurant may be a kind of production, and I want to expand my producing scope. I want to make content that is fun; not to make you laugh, but something that makes you have a comfortable smile. I’m good at approaching people. I want to approach more. That energy I have, mixed with the energy I get from the people I talk to, becomes what helps me continue to change and adapt to new environments.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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