Even on a cold Monday night, the wait at Cho Dang Gol was greater than an hour.

Crowds of 20-somethings spilled out of the homey restaurant in Manhattan’s Koreatown, the place steam billowed from stone bowls of soondubu jigae in a eating room ornamented with paper lanterns and musical devices. Some hopeful clients peeked inside, anxious to see if a desk had opened up.

Just a few blocks away, diners at Hojokban — a sleeker, extra trendy restaurant that opened final fall — eagerly snapped pictures of a plate of fried-rice carrying an empty Shin Ramyun noodle cup like a hat. The dish had already gone viral on TikTok.

Slightly to the south, Atomix, a Korean fine-dining restaurant with two Michelin stars, was booked stable by way of the subsequent month. And the sought-after corn cake at close by Lysée, a Korean-French pastry store? It had been offered out since lunchtime.

Korean eating in New York has by no means been extra fascinating, dynamic or various. And a single firm, which owns or co-owns all 4 of those eating places and 17 extra, is producing a lot of that innovation: Hand Hospitality.

Hand has achieved what many non-Western eating places nonetheless discover tough to do in America: win large attraction whereas specializing in a slim viewers — on this case, younger Koreans and Korean Individuals eager for a style of the power pouring out of South Korea.

“Reasonably than taking part in to an Americanized concept of what folks would need from Korean meals, they’re simply doing a model of what Koreans are consuming in Seoul,” stated E. Alex Jung, a employees author for New York journal who wrote its eating e-newsletter final yr.

A few of Hand’s servers communicate little English. Some dishes are recognized on menus solely in Korean. “They don’t seem to be making an attempt to attraction to non-Koreans,” Mr. Jung stated.

But non-Koreans present up anyway. The corporate’s big range of institutions displays the ever-evolving, globalized form of meals in South Korea, a rustic whose vast cultural influence has grow to be such a phenomenon that it has a reputation: hallyu.

Some Hand eating places have been imported instantly from Seoul and concentrate on a single dish, just like the bulgogi served at Samwoojung, or the soul-warming soup gomtang at Okdongsik. Different eating places, like Atomix and Atoboy, are partnerships with Korean American cooks, or are influenced by French approach, like Lysée or Little Mad. Just a few are extra informal and clubby, like Take31. (Hand even runs three Japanese eating places: Izakaya Mew, Nonono and Hakata TonTon.)

“There isn’t a restrict to what Korean meals might be,” Mr. Jung stated, “and that’s what they’re demonstrating.”

However simply who’re the “they” on the head of Hand? Discovering out took a bit of persistence and persuasion.

Whereas most of the group’s chef companions are acclaimed names in meals — together with Junghyun and Ellia Park, who co-own Atomix and Atoboy, or Eunji Lee of Lysée — its lead gamers, Kihyun Lee and Kyungrim Kim, favor to remain out of the highlight. Their names aren’t listed on the Hand web site. They declined interviews for this text a number of instances. Ms. Kim, 32, requested if she may skip her photograph shoot.

“We didn’t need to showcase,” stated Mr. Lee, 43, referred to as Kiro and recognized on the web site solely as “the founder.” A soft-spoken man who favors saggy sweaters, he stated one purpose he agreed to speak was the possibility to indicate the article to his mom, who lives in Incheon, South Korea, and his two younger youngsters — to make them proud.

Amongst his friends, Mr. Lee and his firm are already thought-about trailblazers.

“They’re an inspiration and an affect to Korean cooks in Korea and New York Metropolis cooks and simply American cooks,” stated Deuki Hong, 34, a chef and the writer of the approaching cookbook “Koreaworld,” who used to run the Koreatown barbecue restaurant Baekjeong.

“They’re bending New York to their tastes,” he stated.

Atoboy and Atomix, for instance, have landed repeatedly on critics’ best-restaurant lists. (Atomix was No. 2 final yr on The New York Instances’s “100 Best Restaurants in New York City.”) However Ms. Park, who runs the 2 locations, stated she and her husband struggled to seek out buyers of their modern imaginative and prescient for Korean meals till they met Mr. Lee. He partnered with them and invested of their eating places. (The Parks declined to specify the quantity.)

Hand Hospitality’s success has been bolstered by its locale. New York has roughly 1.2 million people of Asian descent, and a eating public well-acquainted with myriad cuisines. The juggernaut of Korean tradition right this moment definitely helps.

And the corporate’s affect extends past its personal eating places, to locations just like the Korean-Southern restaurant C as in Charlie in downtown Manhattan. David JoonWoo Yun, who co-founded the restaurant final yr, stated Mr. Lee inspired him to faucet each his Korean heritage and his Atlanta roots, and serve candy tea alongside mushroom bibimbap.

Due to Hand’s instance, stated Mr. Yun, 33, “extra Koreans try to develop the delicacies into one thing extra distinctive with their very own background.”

Mr. Lee stated that method felt dangerous when he began out in 2011. He had grown up in a restaurant-owning household close to a U.S. Air Pressure base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, and moved to New York to attend the Vogue Institute of Expertise. He and his associates couldn’t discover locations to hang around.

“There have been no hip eating places,” he recalled. “In every single place was previous, conventional meals in Okay-City.”

With a small-business mortgage of $300,000, Mr. Lee opened Take31 simply off Koreatown’s predominant stretch. The soju choice ran deep, the servers have been different younger Koreans and the menu toggled between Korean and Japanese dishes, as Mr. Lee had lived in Japan for a number of years. He hosted displays for his artist associates and drew a small however loyal following.

Individuals inspired him to make the meals sweeter to draw extra clients. “However I don’t assume like that,” he stated. “I feel we should present what’s our core style.”

He studied the restaurant enterprise by studying the restaurateur Danny Meyer’s best-selling e-book “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.” It confused him. Why did anybody should be taught how you can be hospitable?

“For Asian folks, hospitality is clear, it’s innate,” he stated. “It isn’t one thing you study or develop.”

Two years later, Mr. Lee opened Izakaya Mew, adopted by Her Name Is Han, which serves conventional Korean meals. He introduced on companions — Keisuke Oku, Alex Bosung Park and Jinan Choi — to develop totally different components of the enterprise. Ms. Kim joined Hand in 2016 as a server at Her Title Is Han and have become the corporate’s chief govt in 2022.

She stated that till just lately, when an outdoor investor put up some cash, the enterprise was supported primarily by Mr. Lee’s preliminary mortgage and subsequent earnings, which it has rolled into new eating places.

The opening of Her Title Is Han was a turning level, Mr. Lee stated. Till then, most all Hand’s clients had been Korean. At Her Title Is Han, these folks began bringing non-Koreans, who grew to become repeat guests.

Hand’s method has remained roughly the identical since then. “Normally the meals that we open eating places round are from our childhood,” Ms. Kim stated. “Most of our staff are immigrants from Korea and even from Japan. We’re very Asian-focused.”

Mr. Lee visits South Korea repeatedly to seek out eating places that may transplant properly to New York. Hand usually brings over not simply the meals, but additionally the minimalist and generally brutalist or industrial design sensibilities of sure Seoul eating places. (The corporate works with the Korean American designer Junho Choi.)

Mr. Lee’s instincts are sometimes spot-on. Okdongsik, a slim soup counter specializing in gomtang, repeatedly attracts lengthy strains at lunchtime. Its success has led to places in Tokyo and Honolulu that may open this yr.

If a spot doesn’t discover an viewers, the corporate could flip it into one other restaurant; after the small plates restaurant Palpal closed in 2023 after solely a yr, it was reborn as Hojokban. Menus continually change to attract folks again.

“They really sustain with trendy instances,” stated Hung Nguyen, 26, a enterprise capitalist who was consuming on a current night at Take31, the place the menu options most of the newest meals traits from Korea, like dalgona, a honeycomb-esque sweet, and mala seasoning. “When ‘Parasite’ got here out, they launched jjapaguri.”

These improvements aren’t to everybody’s style.

“I get the sensation that if I introduced my Korean elders right here, they’d be like, ‘What have they performed to the meals?’” stated Wook Bae, 31, a authorized aide who was having dinner at Seoul Salon. The restaurant is Hand’s high-end model of a sool jib, or consuming institution, with dishes like spicy octopus risotto and rose tteokbokki, cheese-topped rice truffles in a creamy, gochujang-spiked sauce.

By prioritizing a younger clientele, Hand may additionally be alienating its older staffers and diners, who have been frequenting Koreatown lengthy earlier than BTS grew to become a family identify. At Cho Dang Gol, a server in her 50s who began earlier than Hand purchased the restaurant in 2016, stated that some dishes had been sweetened to attraction to younger diners, and that she feared for her job.

“They’re switching over to youthful staff,” she stated in Korean. (She didn’t give her identify, saying she feared it could velocity up her exit.) “There’s nowhere I can go. I can’t communicate English.”

Aiden Min, 39, the restaurant’s common supervisor, stated that Hand had not altered recipes, and that there have been no plans to let older servers go. They’re a part of the restaurant’s appeal, he stated, reminding diners of their moms and aunts.

But it’s exhausting to not discover that individuals of their 20s or 30s are those flooding Koreatown on a nightly foundation, whether or not for dinner, karaoke or a visit to H Mart.

Mr. Lee has planted Hand’s headquarters in addition to most of its eating places in Koreatown. This consists of Joo Ok, which Hand will open in April as a play to make the neighborhood extra of a vacation spot for tremendous eating.

“Whoever constructed Okay-City is superb,” he stated. “It’s within the coronary heart of Manhattan, proper by the Empire State Constructing.”

To him, Koreatown represents the trajectory of Korean meals and tradition — a once-siloed house that, as of late, can really feel like the middle of the universe.

Hannah Ahn contributed Korean-language translation for this text.



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