Dave Park is one of Chicago’s most driven chefs, and when the pandemic forced him to close Jeong, his contemporary Korean restaurant that he opened in 2019 with partner Jennifer Tran, they had a backup plan. The couple shifted to takeout using recipes perfected while the two operated Hanbun, a food stall inside a suburban Korean mall.
But last week, Jeong reopened with tables spread out and a nine-course tasting menu ($165 per person, inclusive of tax and tip). The restaurant is only seating six tables with two seatings to keep things socially distant. Before the pandemic, the tasting menu cost $87 (which excluded tax and tip). Tran and Park went over the books to make sure opening the restaurant was safe and fiscally worth it at a reduced capacity.
“We never want to be a restaurant where it’s just too overpriced,” Tran says. “We want to make sure we’re affordable so everyone can come.”
The decision to resume indoor service came despite a successful pivot toward carryout. Customers responded positively to the casual dishes of Korean favorites of kalbi and tteokbokki. But Park was not content. As a chef who’s staged at Alinea and a 2017 Eater Young Gun, Park opened a Chicago restaurant to give himself a larger canvas, to show off Korean ingredients with an intricately prepared and plated tasting menu.
While Hanbun hummed along in March — they filled 200 orders over two days each week until late August — Park reflected. When they opened Jeong, he worried about how non-Koreans would react to tastes he grew up. It’s a common conundrum for immigrants in America, balancing cooking what they want to cook — often the food they grew up tasting — with domestic palates afraid to challenge what they know. This is a business decision that can keep many non-white chefs from reaching their full potentials.
But after more than a year of running a restaurant, Park has had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s OK to serve a spicy broth that will make customers sweat, for example. Now, with limited seating and a trusty kitchen staff, Park feels it was time to unleash his ideas, to show customers how much he’s grown since Jeong opened last year. He expects those who book reservations to understand his cooking.
“I think they know who we are and they’ve been to our restaurant multiple times,” Park says. “They’ve been supporting us since Hanbun.”’
Highlights include a first course with blue prawn and avocado. Then there’s the seolleongtang made with beef bones. It’s got a milky and creamy consistency, says Park. He grew up eating it and wanted to showcase the dish. It’s served with a poached ribeye.
Park says he wants to ensure customers venturing out are pampered. If they’re coming out for during a pandemic both he and Tran want to make sure they feel welcomed and can briefly escape (the tasting takes two hours) the rigors of the regular world.
Tran says she’s grateful Jeong is in the position to reopen and doesn’t take that for granted. The Hanbun pivot was never meant to be permanent, and it’s a safety net in case the disease forces lawmakers to cap indoor dining. But right now, Park and Tran’s hearts are with Jeong and hope they can provide customers with a little peace during these turbulent times.