In Mapo-gu, Seoul, resides a warm and comfortable restaurant, where diners feel as though they’ve been invited to a friend’s home. The place is 16-year-old Chez Simon, which is currently run by Chef Sim Min-gyun and his wife, manager and co-owner, Seo Eunkyo. Using the right ingredients according to the seasons, the course-only menu is slowly tweaked, giving guests the chance to feel its natural pace. Rather than captivating diners with extravagant long courses, the menu is composed of relatively concise menus – five courses for lunch, six courses for dinner – that showcases the chef's confidence in cooking and the best dish of the day.
As Chez Simon has been selected as a MICHELIN Plate restaurant in the MICHELIN Guide Seoul 2021 selection for the first time, we ask Chef Sim about his dreams and culinary philosophy, as well as what it’s really like to work hand-in-hand with one’s spouse.
How did you get passionate about cooking?
My mother ran a restaurant when I was young, and starting when I was a teenager, I often helped her with her work. My older brother majored in French, went to France to study cooking, and then opened a small French bistro – Chez Simon. All my family members ran this restaurant together and I naturally helped my brother, learning how to work in the kitchen. I have never received professional education from a formal cooking school or worked at a famous European restaurant. Instead, I learned from cookbooks, traveling and working in this kitchen.
At first, I wasn’t enthusiastic about this job as a chef; but the more I cooked, the more attractive it felt. I like to greet people with sincere and warm food, so cooking gradually became my life. You can convey happiness to someone, comfort to someone else, and imbue beautiful memories with your creations as a chef. Now I'm in charge of Chez Simon with my wife and I'm always trying to move forward step by step.
Eunkyo and I have a favourite restaurant in Paris, which is also a MICHELIN Plate establishment. I'd be very happy to run a similar restaurant to Le Baratin. Located not even on a busy street in Paris, the wife is the chef while the husband serves wine as a sommelier. It's a place where you can enjoy great food and wine comfortably, and it's known to be a popular place for famous chefs in Paris to unwind. It's a comparatively humble space, but you can feel the shining efforts of this amazing co-owner couple during your meal. I hope Eunkyo and I can create an attractive space like that.
The cuisine that Chez Simon pursues is...
I want to provide great food at a reasonable price. I discussed with Eunkyo that we want to make this place as an entry restaurant for French dining, where anyone who wants to experience dining by courses will be interested. For those who have difficult or uncomfortable feelings about fine dining, this is a place to come and expand their experience.
So, I try to cook something that is not too complex – which is not to mean it’s simple – but a dish that can satisfy customers of all ages without unnecessary explanations. Most of all, anyone who comes here should feel comfortable, having enjoyed the meal.
What does Chez Simon mean?
16 years ago in 2006, Chez Simon opened in Samcheong-dong as a small French bistro with a la carte menus. The name means Simon's house in French. In 2016, we moved to Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, and changed our concept to a French dining restaurant.
We did discuss about a name change after moving. However, we had been operating more than 10 years and didn’t want to lose our previous guests. As there are customers who visit us every few years, we felt the restaurant’s name was apt as they would return to visit our ‘house’. Although we have changed locations, we have returning guests who have been away from Korea, or those after marriage or childbirth who visit again as they have fond memories here.
Chez Simon's Signature: Beef Tenderloin Steak
It is a classic tenderloin steak, seared outside and pink inside with a juicy texture. It is served with mashed potato, beef jus and vegetable garnish to add diverse flavors.
“We constantly change the menu using the freshest ingredients according to the season, so it's hard to pick one signature dish. Nevertheless, there are only two dishes that never change: crème brûlée and tenderloin steak. These are evergreen items loved by many guests.”
What is your favorite ingredient?
It's hard to choose just one, but the ingredient I like to use these days is celeriac. When oven-baked, it is so flavorful that it fills the kitchen with a unique scent, and it’s good to make nice creamy puree with milk and butter. Well-baked celeriac can be a great wine snack itself, and it can create harmony with many other ingredients.
For instance, red shrimp cooked slowly over charcoal served with celeriac puree. It is finished with light bisque foam and celery oil. The celeriac puree is gently paired with the charcoal-flamed, sweet taste of shrimp and bisque to create a good balance.
You and your wife are running a restaurant together, what are the pros and cons?
The fact that couples run the same restaurant together is an advantage and disadvantage at the same time. We can talk about Chez Simon anytime, anywhere, and we're actually doing so. It's productive to be able to discuss our work right away when you have a good idea even when you're on vacation, but sometimes it's tiring because we can’t take a full rest without thinking about this place. We can't separate life from work!
Describe the hospitality of Chez Simon.
Comfort and warmth are two important things. Of course, cleanliness, service and delicious food are the basics of a restaurant, but this is not enough. It's our job to deliver our sincerity to guests. I hope our diners recall our careful consideration and kindness when remembering Chez Simon. We're not an extravagant and fancy fine dining restaurant, but we prepare good food from our hearts and greet customers with sincere smiles.
What inspires your cooking?
I usually enjoy various foods and ingredients through travelling and come up with new ideas. Nowadays, traveling has become difficult due to Covid-19, so I read a lot of cookbooks and consume Youtube and various multimedia platforms. Also, my wife gives me many ideas. Eunkyo enjoys food with an open mind, including strange combinations that I wouldn't do and which fails a lot, but in the process, creative and fresh menus are created.
The most important feature a chef should have is...
Experience. Cooking in the kitchen is of course important, but you should enjoy restaurant services and experience various ingredients and recipes across culinary genres outside of the kitchen! That will help you choose what kind of chef you want to be and what kind of restaurant you want to run.
And you have to learn constantly. Although Chez Simon is a 16-year-old restaurant, we still have a lot to improve. Dining culture in Korea is developing day by day, and gourmet trends change rapidly. You should keep your own traits but try to be better than yesterday.