Suragan: Jongmoon Choi

On a culinary journey: preserving Korean heritage through rediscovery and reinterpretation


Photos: Henry Wu @hello.henry

San Francisco's vibrant culinary scene has plenty of Korean restaurants, but Suragan, led by Chef Jongmoon Choi, offers a unique dining experience that sets it apart. Drawing inspiration from recipes during the Joseon Dynasty, the last dynastic kingdom of Korea that lasted over 500 years, Suragan's tasting menu takes diners on a culinary journey through history, highlighting different periods in chronological order. The menu this season is based on Eumsik Dimibang by Jang Gye-hyang. Written in the 17th century, it is one of the oldest Korean cookbooks written by a woman.

Recently, Timid Magazine had the distinct pleasure of dining at Suragan and speaking with Chef Choi about his culinary endeavor. His passion for Korean history and cuisine was evident in our conversation, as well as in the meticulously designed menu that he has crafted. His innovative approach to his culinary creations creates a dining experience that is both enjoyable and educational, offering diners a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the cultural heritage of Korea while indulging in delicious flavors.

Timid Magazine: What's the story behind the name “Suragan”?

Jongmoon Choi: During the Joseon dynasty, it was the kitchen for the king—Sura means the king’s meal and Gan refers to a specific space. All around the world, there are restaurants that serve Korean barbecue and it is getting diluted into an image of casual dining when historically, it was a lot more grand. I wanted to bring back that experience.

The king was always the first person who experienced new things including foreign ingredients or foods. In that sense, people can experience what the king used to experience through these recipes from that time period but with modern techniques.

TM: How did you come to open the restaurant?

JC: When I was in high school, I was pretty good at studying. My parents expected me to get into one of the top 3 universities in Korea, but I wasn't particularly interested in academics. I didn't want to live my life without a dream and I had a vague desire to find a career that I could pursue for a lifetime. Eventually, I chose to study cooking, and while my parents were disappointed, they encouraged me to follow my passion. They recommended that I major in Culinary Arts at Kyung Hee University, the most renowned culinary school in Korea.

Then around 6 years ago, I had a chance to attend classes about old Korean cookbooks at Sempio Company when I worked there as a freelance chef for 6 months. I started creating the concept for Suragan around that time. I wanted to learn more about fine dining, so I went to The Culinary Institute of America in New York and graduated from there in 2014. Afterwards, I had an opportunity to go back to Korea and actually study these old recipe books. My career throughout the years has been building up to this concept.

TM: What motivates you to cook?

Cooking is a means of expressing myself, and as a Korean, I wanted to cook Korean cuisine that was not only the familiar type everyone knows, but also unique to Koreans. It's rewarding when guests understand my cooking and say that mine is distinctive and creative. Taste is subjective and there is no definitive answer. Some may find my cooking delicious, while others may not feel the same. However, I hope that dining at Suragan will be a unique experience for my guests. Through the concept of the old Korean recipes, I feel like I am having a conversation with my ancestors while creating modern Korean dishes, which is fascinating and enjoyable.

Furthermore, ever since my time at the Culinary Institute of America, I have translated approximately 30 fine-dining cookbooks from English to Korean, including renowned titles such as Modernist Cuisine, French Laundry, Alinea, elBulli, El Celler de Can Roca, Atelier Crenn, Manresa, and Benu. The reason I started translating these cookbooks was that I hated the feeling of forgetting the techniques the chef explained after reading the cookbook. By translating them into Korean, I could have the recipes easily accessible and searchable whenever I needed them. It also made me feel connected to the chefs who wrote the books.

TM: Who or what has been the greatest influence on your culinary journey?

JC: One of my greatest influences is British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. He, as a chef, explains how dishes can become perfect by using scientific methods, not just cooking techniques. There was a restaurant called Dinner by Heston Blumenthal where he actually translated old English recipes. That was a big influence because it showed that you can take the amazing books that were written by our ancestors and bring them forward to the modern world.

TM: What dish on your current menu do you feel represents you the most?

JC: I would say the smoked edible oyster shell. I created it myself through experimentation, and it's probably the first time that anyone has done it—where someone has created this type of a shell to complement the oyster itself. It represents me because I have always wanted to go on a journey where I could create something new instead of just following the status quo.

TM: What do you think is people's impression of Korean food, and how do you reimagine it in what you create?

JC: The thing about Korean cuisine is that, compared to everywhere else in the world, Korean people have a central perception into what Korean food should be. Then when you add Western ingredients, it often gets perceived as something that is not Korean, and they call it fusion. A lot of Korean chefs learn Western cuisine or Japanese cuisine first. Because of this, there’s a perception that they are straying away from their heritage even though they're doing Korean cuisine.

I’m basing my cuisine behind these old books because I want to preserve our identity and showcase our culture—even if other people in Korea might not see this as Korean food. I would love for people to think, “Hey, this is Korean food because you're creating Korean experiences and Korean food in general.” I do not want to be viewed as French-Korean or Japanese-Korean fusion or something else. I want to make sure that we are rooted in Korea, but through using our techniques to elevate and actually bring forward an amazing Korean meal.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity.