Paul Chung has worked a series of impressive jobs in the culinary industry; his resume is decorated with three Michelin-starred restaurants in his 13-year postgraduate career. Though Chung refers to his early days in the kitchen as cliché, from an outsider’s perspective, they appear anything but. After his family immigrated to the United States from Busan, Korea, he spent time in the kitchen with his mother, formulating their own pantry due to the lack of Asian supermarkets and supplies in Northern Virginia, where he grew up.
His love of food, he says, “came from my mother and her ability to make delicious meals out of anything.” Days spent fishing together to whip up homemade fish sauce and sourcing fresh soybeans for miso, for example, helped cultivate Chung’s interest in cooking. “Also,” he adds, “I just really love to eat.”
When Chung came on as culinary director at San Francisco-based restaurant group Saison Hospitality in 2016, it was a match made in food heaven. The process behind Saison’s cuisine is not dissimilar to the hands-on methods he and his mother used in his youth. Rather than conceptualizing menus and foraging the ingredients to create them, Saison builds meal options around the best products available.
“We like to stay within the California coastal range and stay as local as possible,” he says of the method. “In doing so, we always find that sourcing the right product is the most difficult part… we always go the extra step.” Working exclusively with trusted farmers—one for pork, one for duck and one for abalone—and contacting fishermen directly for frequent fish updates, the menu is constantly evolving based on accessibility rather than demand. “By working in this manner,” Chung explains, “it allows us to stay really connected to the product and we can have a sustainable budget.”
For Saison, a successful future means applying exceptional practices to all aspects of the restaurant. “As we’re expanding, we want it to have this ethos… not only sustainability with ingredients, but sustainability within our staff. We try to find people who have a great passion for what they do and put them in positions for them to succeed,” says the culinary director. “The restaurant industry can be pretty toxic at times. And so, within the last few years, we’ve had this great initiative to maintain a sustainable work life culture. That’s something really important to us.”
Though many strides have been made, there is still work to be done, he says. His quantifiable goals for Saison include achieving a place on the world’s top 50 list and becoming a 100 percent self-reliant property. However, the legacy he’d like it to leave is one beyond solely high-quality food: spreading the restaurant’s personal belief to propagate more charity and kindness, something really important in communities during the pandemic. “We don’t ever want to stay stagnant,” he adds. “We want to make sure that we’re always on the forefront of what’s happening culturally within our industry and make sure that we are part of the community of movers and shakers of what we do.”
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