The emergence and spread of COVID-19 have been unpredictable and changed our everyday lives. The effects of the disease have dealt a severe blow to the world, and the restaurant industry has not been immune. However, there may yet be a silver lining to this, as dealing with this unpredictable crisis has compelled the restaurant industry to find innovative solutions to try and keep afloat. Chef Lee Choong-hu of one MICHELIN Star restaurant Zero Complex talked about what the COVID-19 era has taught him.
Social distancing has been implemented due to the spread of COVID-19, and it seems to have had a lot of impact on restaurants.
The first confirmed case occurred in Korea at the end of January, and since mid-February, COVID-19 has spread in earnest, which has greatly affected the restaurant industry. We had a hard time in March when the fear of COVID-19 peaked. Reservations were canceled, and not a single foreign tourist came to eat in our restaurant. The government postponed the opening of schools, and many companies recommended that their employees telecommute. People were not sure how long this period would last, and they were all terrified.
Restaurants didn't foresee this happening at all, and none of us were prepared for anything. Fine dining restaurants were directly affected by social distancing because people go there to meet each other and share a meal, and as a restaurant, we would have to be in close contact with other people. Many people were afraid to go out, especially for group meetings and business meetings. I think both the chefs and the restaurant owners must have had a hard time.
Almost half a year has passed; What's the situation in the restaurant now?
The number of diners has increased, but the pattern of visits has changed a little. Rather than gathering with acquaintances or having business meetings in restaurants, there are now more reservations involving those with close relationships, such as lovers and family members. Perhaps this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
What part of the restaurant has become more concerned about in response to the COVID-19?
Hygiene is of course of utmost importance to a good restaurant, but this pandemic has raised awareness and has led to higher hygiene standards. Zero Complex is located in a cultural complex where there is an art gallery, cafes and shops, so besides restaurant guests there are many other visitors that enter the building. We always make sure to wear a mask and refrain from moving around the building. We also disinfect everything that customers can touch, such as a door handle or chair. In addition to wiping the tables, we thoroughly disinfect them before and after service.
Most chefs must have the same concerns during this period. When serving food in a fine dining restaurant, it's customary to tell guests more information about our creations, we do not just drop them off at the guest's table. However, some guests have been a bit wary of this. We considered writing a description of the menu on a piece of paper and delivering it, but we didn't do so because it didn't seem to fit our restaurant's style. Now our servers wear masks and explain it briefly, but only to the extent that it doesn't make the guests uncomfortable.
I'm sure you had a lot of concerns as a chef and also as a leader.
Of course, I had a lot of worries. If you are a chef-owner, you have to pay attention to the management of the restaurant. Even if you are not an owner, you have to think about the smooth operation of the restaurant as a leader. I have had to concentrate all my energy on overcoming this crisis and consider how it affects the employees and my family. I've spent a lot of time asking questions about ‘the essentials’, as I can't force people to stop canceling their reservations due to their fear of going out. I tried to solve the problem by focusing on why people come to eat, and what should be the value that a good restaurant can offer.
More than five months after the initial spread of COVID-19, I feel the number of diners has recovered – maybe even more than before. It's probably because traveling abroad has become impossible and everyone is tired of being in lockdown. Dining at a nice restaurant can give people a similar experience to travel. In a restaurant where you can taste something that bears the distinct character of the chef, it is similar to experiencing another world for two or three hours. For a chef, it became more important not only to enhance the taste of food, but also to think about what kind of experience the diners can have.
Many chefs are developing products such as take-out menus and meal-kits to try and hedge risks.
In this world today, why wouldn't anyone be thinking about a new revenue model? A good leader knows that a stable business environment is very important. When considering a take-out menu or meal kit, I think the most important thing seems to be the chef's own uniqueness, which will be the biggest challenge. Maybe a chef takes pride in making a perfect dish that is cooked precisely, but with a meal-kit the consumer will be in charge of the final cooking. So how can we capture the chef's personality and the restaurant's unique characteristics here? I haven't found a clear answer yet, so I keep thinking about it.
How do you think the dining scene will change after COVID-19?
Spending time outside of the house is a risky situation for most of us, so the meaning of ‘spending time’ has become even more precious. As a chef, I would like to deliver a meaningful time for the people who come here to eat.
I remember the day when I was in New York for a collaboration event with Atoboy. After this event, chef Junghyun and I went out to eat. It was a rainy day, so we took a taxi. Looking at the scenery of rainy Manhattan out of the window, I suddenly realized that this journey to the restaurant was part of my dining experience. Up till then, I thought that a dining experience would start as soon as I entered the restaurant, but that really changed the way I looked at it.
Now, Zero Complex has moved up to the foot of Namsan Mountain from the Gangnam area, which was more accessible. Even though it is now not as accessible and takes a bit more effort to get here, I believe one’s journey to our restaurant can be included in the dining experience. If you look at the beautiful scenery from our dining table, you can see how the seasons change. I welcome our guests with the thought of creating a pleasant memory of this short trip despite having to live with COVID-19.
How do you think 2020 will be remembered?
The words 'comprehensive health check-up' comes to mind. It's already been seven years since I opened the restaurant, but I've kept running and progressing. COVID-19 made me stop for a while and gave me the chance to look back on my management and think about the future. I've learned how to deal with the crisis. In the past, I used to live as a chef, but now as the leader of a restaurant, I have to pay a lot of attention to and learn about the business environment. We also should think about where we are now.
This situation has been better handled in Seoul, Korea compared to other global cities, I think. Thanks to the efforts of our citizens following recommendations to wash our hands and wear masks, we were able to continue to cook and greet our guests without any suspension of business. The worst was avoided. The crisis is not over yet, but if there is another pandemic like this, I think we can deal with it better in the future.
What are you and your restaurant focusing on the most right now?
Regardless of COVID-19, the aim has been always the same. Since the restaurant opened, my wish has always been that people can tell a dish is from Zero Complex just by looking at a picture of the food. It’s very important for me to show my distinct style in my cooking just like how I can tell who was the painter of a painting that I’ve seen for the first time.
I love architecture, too. Good architecture can be enjoyed over a period of many years. Cooking has can be enjoyed spontaneously and in the moment of eating, but if you have a distinct style, it can last as long as a building. Thus, I tend to be quite bold when planning my menu in order to capture my distinct style in every course. I tend to create a unique dining experience for diners almost as if they are appreciating artworks in a gallery. I hope our guests can enjoy the vivid taste and style here so that coming to Zero Complex can be something to brag about.
What is the future of Zero Complex?
I would like to think that we got a good ‘vaccination’ with this COVID-19. We had a lot of difficulties, but we’re coping with these hardships and learning even more than ever. Also, we actually have a lot of new customers. Many people have seemed to rediscover dining at local restaurants. I think it's a good thing for the restaurant industry.
I'm sure everyone is humble now - we all realized that nothing is a given. I have made a promise to remember that it is our duty to keep this heart beating, and to do our best to the guests who courageously come to our restaurant in this faraway place. I also spent more time in the restaurant during this pandemic. I didn't want to let people down because I knew how precious our guests were.
I want to keep cooking dishes that fully showcase the style of Zero Complex. I want to focus on the natural taste of the ingredients to show a clear and bold style rather than adding layers of flavor. Carrots will be enjoyed like carrots and tomatoes like tomatoes. So good crops from good land are very important to me. I’m constantly trying to get good ingredients by meeting many producers. From now on, I would like to provide a special experience where dining out becomes a unique trip to enjoy the character of Zero Complex.