It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and JungHyun Park, who goes by JP, is squished onto a small sofa with one of his sous chefs. A nervous cook is sitting across from them, interviewing for a spot on the line at Atomix, the fine-dining restaurant that JP runs with his wife and business partner, JeongEun Park, whom everyone calls Ellia. After the usual interview questions — past experience, interests outside of work — JP asks the prospective cook if he has any questions. He does: “Would you consider this authentic Korean food?”
It’s a question that JP and Ellia hear often and one that they’ve spent plenty of time considering. “A lot of ‘Korean’ food is very new, like tteokbokki and budae-jjigae,” JP tells me. “Even the onion has been important in Korea for only 100 years — but now every recipe in Korea has onion in it.” Time, in other words, shifts the perception of what qualifies as “authentic,” and more than anything, the Parks are interested in exploring that evolution. “Maybe what we are doing, in 100 years, this is what ‘Korean’ food can be,” he offers.
The couple has given themselves a few different venues to house that exploration. Atoboy, opened in 2016, was inspired by banchan — the small plates that are a part of traditional Korean meals — and is now a spot to find riffs on well-known Korean dishes and ingredients (fried chicken served with a peanut sauce, the cinnamon tea sujeonggwa reimagined as granita). A couple blocks north is Atomix, a two-level space that opened in 2018. At the downstairs tasting counter, the Parks present a ten-course, $375 menu that allows them to define their own vision for contemporary Korean dining (one that might, for example, transform Korea’s beloved stamina-boosting eel into sauces and mousse). For the past couple years, the restaurant has consistently placed in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, where it currently sits at No. 33, making it the top-ranked restaurant in the United States. They also run Naro — part of the cadre of high-profile arrivals in Rockefeller Center — where, across from the ice rink, they interpret the history of the Korean culinary canon (a recent menu, for example, focused on the cuisine of the Joseon era, which comprises the five or so centuries prior to the 20th century). Finally, there is their newest, and most casual, spot, Seoul Salon, a Koreatown destination with an emphasis on cocktails and soju.
The couple has only lived in New York for about a decade, but they are already among the city’s most prolific and acclaimed restaurateurs, collecting Michelin stars and critical accolades along the way. Next, they want to turn their success into a foundation for the future: “Our first goal was to open our small restaurants well,” Ellia says. “Now our goal is legacy, the legacy of our culture in this country and of the next generation.” They’ve assembled their restaurants under the umbrella of a new hospitality company — Na:eun — they have the Korean Cookbook due in the fall, and they are taking their new standing as role models seriously. “I came here for Danny Meyer, for Thomas Keller,” Ellia says. “They’ve led the industry for 30, 40 years now and they are still here. I want to be here in 10, 20 years too — this is about community and culture. How can we make a better industry for the next generation?”
The couple met in Seoul, at Kyung Hee University. While Ellia completed her culinary science degree, JP studied abroad in Finland and externed at a restaurant in London. He ended up at the Ledbury, which had just earned its first Michelin star. JP was their inaugural intern; he started work at 8 a.m. and finished near midnight. He loved it. “The energy of the kitchen and all the line cooks, they were eager to succeed,” he recalls. “Everyone was on the same page.”
He continued in fine dining and worked in Australia before he went back to Seoul to learn more about the cooking that could help him stand out as a chef. “I knew Korean food could be my secret weapon,” he says. “But I didn’t know many things about Korean food, so I wanted to learn more.” He reconnected with Ellia and got a job under chef Jungsik Yim, working at his esteemed eponymous restaurant. “He was a baby,” Yim says, laughing. “But he knew everything.”
In 2012, he got the green light to work at Jungsik’s new Tribeca outpost. Two days after he and Ellia got married, they moved to New York. JP went to work for Yim and Ellia began plotting her own career. “I moved here for JP’s work, but I’m the person who is really competitive,” she says. “I wanted to work with the best.” She bought a Zagat guide and handed out her résumé. When they could, the couple dined at the city’s esteemed spots like Daniel, Per Se, and Eleven Madison Park. Eventually, Ellia was hired at Kajitsu, and, in 2015, as part of the opening team at Noreetuh, the Hawaii-inspired restaurant in the East Village, helmed by veterans of Thomas Keller’s restaurant group. “She worked harder than anyone else,” says Jin Ahn, the restaurant’s general manager and a co-owner.
Inspired by the positive reception of Jungsik, the couple decided to open their own restaurant. As unknowns, they found it difficult to secure investors until they met Kihyun Lee, whose own restaurant group, Hand Hospitality, was starting to take shape. “JP had been all around the world — he knew where fine dining in New York was going,” Lee recalls. “Ellia was very similar, in terms of having a clear vision and passion for the project — I could see them creating something extraordinary.” Hand offered support with construction, licensing, and other city-specific operating resources; the Parks focused on food and service. Ellia also began to hone her own style of hospitality, an approach that is designed to — in her words — change the air. “We don’t want to be stiff or soigné,” she says. “Our goal is to be warm, considerate, and humble — to create a better mood and a better atmosphere. That,” she explains, ”is changing the air.”
The couple still lives across the street from Atoboy; they don’t cook at home and they’ve excised anything from their lives that might take their focus off their restaurants or their staff. “Since the early days, Ellia has asked people, ‘What is your plan?’” says Ahris Kim, who started as an assistant manager at Atoboy and is now the director of operations at Na:eun. “It’s a cliché to ask, but she genuinely wants to know the answer — she remembers what people say and she makes it happen.” Kim continues, “We have so many stories of line cooks who became chefs, or managers who got their start on the floor.”
Arnold Byun, a former maître d’ at Atomix, wanted to work for the couple after one meal at that restaurant. “I was having this out-of-body experience,” he says. “It was something that resembled me, and my childhood, but in a way that was refined and intentional. I was like, Something is happening here and I need to get involved.”
He directly credits his time with the Parks as the catalyst for his current project, Maum Market, a monthly shop in the Los Angeles area and an incubator for Asian-owned businesses: “They inspired me to dig deeper into my Korean heritage and roots and to look within myself for inspiration.”
To some extent, this is the couple’s ultimate goal, and the reason they wanted to build a corporate entity separate from Hand (which is still involved in a few of their restaurants). “We realized we need to create our own system for support,” Ellia says. “What Hand wants and what we want — the visions are both good but different. What we want to do is more about the legacy of the industry and building our own culture.”
Yim, who has stayed in touch with the couple, says that as their profile continues to rise, so does the outside support. “They’re being watched by even Korean chefs,” he says, “and we always cheer for them — they are in the most important position at this moment.”
It’s safe to assume that all of this was not going through JP’s mind when the prospective line cook asked whether he considered his food to be “authentic.” “It’s hard to say it’s ‘Korean,’” JP replied. “The flavors are Korean, but we are more New York, and we get to be inspired by other places.” He then mentioned his experiences in Europe and Australia. “Those flavors and techniques informed my cuisine,” he said. “Now I can share: This is me.”