Rookie CookThe waiters and waitresses began to move swiftly as customers filled the two-story restaurant off an alley in Sindang-dong, near Dongdaemun Market.
As the sun began to drop, the staff of Samdae Halmun-nae, an eatery specializing in tteokbokki, or rice cakes bathed in hot, spicy red paste, soon was breathing hard as it tried to keep up with the furious pace of orders. Samdae Halmun-nae means “The 3d generation of Grandma's place.”
In the midst of what appeared to be chaotic commands coming from all directions, a clattering of metal spoons and chopsticks and the boiling and sizzling noises endemic to cooking, one waitress calmly took down orders apparently unaware of the din.
“Will that be two persons’ worth of tteokbokki with instant ramen and four boiled eggs?” the waitress asked, in a halting, hard-to-place accent.
A customer looked up at the young woman and studied her face carefully, then suddenly asked, “Aren't you the famous Shihomi Takenaka?”
When Ms. Takenaka smiled back pleasantly, the customer said, “I’ve always wanted to try your special tteokbokki.”
Shihomi Takenaka has become Samdae Halmun-nae’s cover girl, a 27-year-old kitchen celebrity featured in both Korean and Japanese television features.
When you chat with her a bit, an obvious question comes to mind: Why did this young woman travel from Japan to Korea to learn how to cook the snack food tteokbokki in a mom-and-pop restaurant instead of apprenticing with a French chef at an escargot establishment?
Ms. Takenaka’s answer to such a query is simple and direct. “I like tteokbokki a lot and Sindang-dong is the most famous district [in Seoul] for cooking tteokbokki.”
Ms. Takenaka’s involvement in the restaurant began when she first traveled to Seoul three years ago.
“I was fascinated by the culture and the foods,” she says. “I couldn't get enough of tteokbokki and galbi.”
After returning to her home country, she couldn’t stop thinking about Korean food and in subsequent years made a couple of trips back to Seoul.
“There are Korean restaurants in Japan, but they are not quite as good as those in Seoul,” says Ms. Takenaka.
She returned to Seoul last March to participate in a Korean language program at Sogang University, and wound up a rookie cook.
For at least 40 years Sindang-dong has been the most popular neighborhood for tteokbokki. The prevailing belief has these reddish rice cake logs appearing around the end of the Korean War. But the tteokbokki that most Koreans enjoy today is believed to have originated as recently as the early 1970s.
Samdae Halmun-nae opened in 1972 in a district that now contains 20 cafes with almost identical fare.
When Ms. Takenaka studied at Sogang, a professor there asked all the foreign students to write down what they wanted to do in Korea when they finished school. While others wrote that they wanted to work at Korean companies or in consulting firms, Ms. Takenaka responded that she wanted to learn how to cook tteokbokki.
“My professor and the whole class thought I was joking,” she says.
But she wasn’t, of course.
“My professor told me that I should go to Sindang-dong, where the real tteokbokki is made and served.”
When she finally did get to Sindang-dong, she was startled to see tteokbokki restaurants lining both sides of the streets. At one restaurant she noticed a job flier stuck to a glass door.
Summoning up courage, Ms. Takenaka walked into Samdae Halmun-dae and, in fumbling Korean, asked the first person she met to point her in the direction of the owner.
When Park Young-hwan appeared, Ms.Takenaka asked him about the part-time job. Mr. Park's wife, Baek Seung-suk, 42, is the third generation cook in this family business. Ms. Baek’s mother Jung Moon-hwa, 73, was the second generation and still toils in the kitchen. Jung Cheong-young, 80, who started the entire operation by setting up shop in in the streets of Sindang-dong three decades ago, is the younger Ms. Jung’s aunt on her father side.
“When I first met Shihomi, I was stunned,” says Mr. Park, 44. “It was new for me to hire a Japanese, and I didn’t know quite what to make of Shihomi’s request to work as a part-timer.”
It was the self-introduction essay that Ms. Takenaka handed to Mr. Park that changed his mind. “Shihomi's Korean wasn't good then, but her essay showed a strong will and I had no other choice but to hire her.”
The rest of the family, including Mr. Park’s wife, was against that decision. “They were worried because Shihomi’s lack of Korean would affect the tteokbokki sales in a negative way,” Mr. Park says.
Still, Mr. Park refused to change his mind and Ms. Takenaka started working at the restaurant Oct. 16.
Mr. Park found a little one-room apartment behind the restaurant for Ms. Takenaka, and she began serving, cleaning and taking orders at the restaurant, starting each day at 11 a.m. Samdae Halmun-nae is open 24 hours.
From the beginning, Ms. Takenaka 's quest has never been easy. “I had to closely follow her for a month,” remembers Mr. Park. “Because her Korean wasn't good she would often come back with the wrong order. Once she served two people a four-person order of tteokbokki. A lot of customers were baffled at first but when we explained that Shihomi was Japanese and that she was working here to learn, the customers smiled with amusement.”
Today, a lot of customers come just to take a look at Shihomi. For laughs, customers sometimes plays jokes on her, like confusing her with orders like “tteokbokki with no eggs but with instant ramen.” But Shihomi’s too good to get mixed up by such tricks, says Mr. Park.
Mr. Park half-jokingly refers to Ms. Takenaka as a time bomb.
“I used to double-check the orders she brought in, but nowadays I leave it up to her because she’s a veteran. Still, she’s a time bomb.”
In her three-and-a-half months at Samdae Halmun-nae, Ms. Takenaka has become part of the family of this family-run restaurant.
“She’s now like my own grand- daughter,” says Jung Moon-hwa, 73, Mr. Park’s mother-in-law. “Shihomi is a good kid and I really want to introduce a nice young man to her.”
Mr. Park adds that every grandmother and grandfather around the neighborhood loves Ms. Takenaka, including the customers. On the eatery’s Web site (www.samdae.com) some customers cheered for Ms. Takenaka when she wrote that she promised to do her best, even though it was never easy working at the restaurant.
“Some of the customers think it’s cute when Shihomi makes a mistake, Mr. Park says. “They think she’s adorable, even the elders.”
Ms. Takenaka says there is much to learn about preparing tteokbokki. “I've only learned the basics, and there is much more that I should know.”
Mr. Park says the secret to tteokbokki is the sauce that is used. Ms. Takenaka, according to Mr. Park, hasn’t reached the point where his wife wants to tell her the recipe of the family’s secret sauce.
“My wife is planning to tell her, but Shihomi has only made it halfway,” he says (Ms. Baek says that she is planning to teach Ms. Takenaka the secret recipe later this month).
“The first thing a person working in the restaurant business should master is how to properly serve customers,” says Ms. Baek. “That’s why Shihomi has spent most of her time taking down orders. Her Japanese etiquette makes her outstanding in this area.”
Ms. Takenaka is working on her own recipe, which the family is testing. “It's different from what we sell here, but she needs to put in a little bit more effort,” says Ms. Jung.
Ms. Takenaka plans to return to Japan for personal reasons in the spring, and stay there. “I will really miss this place,” she says. “Unlike Japanese, Koreans are affectionate and every person in the restaurant is like a member of my own family.”
Down the road, she might like to set up a tteokbokki cafe in central Tokyo, a restaurant that specializes in her own brand of tteokbokki.
by Lee Ho-jeong