Ara Ahn

10.05 2015 INTERVIEW DATE

ara homeground owner, Cook

Hwigyeong-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul

Ara Ahn was once a graphic designer. A work so demanding that delivery meals were a routine, she got fed up and one day started to cook for herself—which apparantly led her to a new world. She used to be one of the crew members of Chang Jinwoo restaurant. The self-learned cook decided she'd walk her own way of cooking and quit the job, spent some time of her own and later founded 'Ara Homeground', a home&office to study and show a variety of her independant menus in many forms—from catering to pop-up restaurants, workshops and invited meals at home. As usual, she was occupied with her work when we knocked on her door for our interview last fall. And as of now, in 2016, in a rather remote neighborhood, Hwigyeong-dong, she opened her 'Ara Homeground' studio. Amid the endless sound and scent of roasting and frying, she often finds herself surrounded by people.

Yoojin Jung

Your house is full of greens, impressively.

It's been about 3 or 4 years since I began to grow plants in a serious mode. A friend of mine is almost obsessed with them and I got curious and wanted to understand what it felt to be attached to them. Also my mom is a plant-lover—she wakes up in the morning, heads straight to her plants and talks to them while she wipes and waters them. I asked her once why she liked them so much and  she replied "They all reply to you". And I think I get a little bit of what she meant.

 

You were originally a graphic designer and now a cook. That's some interesting background.

I was searching for a job online and noticed that Chang Jinwoo was hiring a part-time washer-up so I thought 'why not?' and applied. It was harsh labor but it was bearable. Later on I went into an art magazine's design team, only to find out design for a living was an unhappy job for me. I quit and went back to Chang Jinwoo, this time as a cook. For 2 years I learned and studied cooking all on my own through day and nights. I also got used to dealing with customers and tidying up menus. In January 2015, I became desperate to open my own restaurant so I walked out, eventhough I hadn't actual plans made ahead or anything. I did plan to open my own place but doing so in Seoul wasn't an easy task. As a matter of fact I got a little bummed about the reality and then Gallery Factory asked me to do a catering for an event. I've been on the job since.

 

Cooking used to be a hobby and is now your profession. Is it still as fun?

I've always loved cooking for someone—it's almost my nature—and I think that's what gives me great satisfaction in what I do. I admit the fact that when I see people committed to a company, having their own houses and cars make me a little nervous, but I believe that kind of life doesn't go well with a person like myself.

To you, what's the difference between cooking and design?

My favorite part in cooking is preparation of ingredients. I find myself calm and my disturbed mind at peace while I get my hands on them—in a way, I even feel comforted. And out of all the jobs I took, it was the first to feel such emotions and I figured I was meant to cook. On the other hand, graphic design is the kind of job with my hands on the keyboard, countless hours staring at the monitor while accompanying a number of people. And there's this great deal of stress caused from the relationship between you and the client. Whereas in cooking, it starts off from a positive impression from everyone. When I asked people what their favorite dish were, many replied 'meals made from someone I care about'. The emotions I feel when I cook are not what you get as a designer everyday. Cooking basically requires a more physical and active behavior compared to design, and for me, blasting my energy(in cooking) seems just right.

Gwangju(Jeolla Province) is your hometown. When did you first come to Seoul?

I moved to Seoul for college, so that's way back in 2004. I lived in an apartment building complex in Gwangju, then I found myself living on my own in a tiniest flat of a multiplex near college in Seoul, which was pretty much a shock at a young age. Besides, the place wasn't worth the rent at all. Then I moved from crappy flats to friend's loft, the school's dormitary, and apparantly I couldn't endure the poor conditions so I convinced my parents to help me get a studio flat. And later on I wanted to move to a bigger space that had a separate bedroom—which got me here. It feels like a real home now that it has an actual living room.  

How did it feel to find your first home in Seoul?

Well I was this middle-class kid that lived in a pretty nice apartment in the southern part of the country but when I came to Seoul it felt like I was down-graded to the poor(laugh). I had no money, my parents hadn't much, and oh how many rich kids there were in college...I felt some sort of a separation from everyone. Then by the time my parents helped me get a decent flat, they were worried for me after hearing news about all those crimes in Seoul and wanted me to find a full-optioned apartment but I didn't like the fact that it was already full of everything—there were no choices for me to make at my own house. So I chose an empty one at a multiplex unit and filled it one by one, making changes at times, which I pretty much enjoy.

Please share us the meaning of 'Ara Homeground'.

A friend of mine had a dream about me coming to see her telling her that I was going to open a restaurant and that the name was 'ground'. I liked the meaning and it was easy to pronounce—I liked everything about it, especially because I was about to startup my thing at home since finding a place in this city was far from reality. So I named it 'Homeground'. I usually take lots of photos of farm products due to my affection for their shapes and colors and it seemed quite the fit too. And the meaning of 'base' fascinated me. People started to call it along with my name so it became 'Ara Homeground.'

 

You used the phrase 'home work'. A home as your office could differ from a normal house. 

My house equals my studio. In the beginning working at home was good. But after a few months it got me questioning what I was doing. It didn't feel like a proper way to work and what was worse was that I got lazy—not to mention the days that totally turned upside down. I became more desperate to find a studio as I realized I should be cooking in the right kind of space. Until now friends and acquaintances offered me projects to work on but it seems the time has come for me to actually get myself an independent work space. And I plan to do it with a friend of mine so that we could also sort of help one another. Working alone continuously was an incredible waste of energy.

Is there a reason for opening a studio instead of a restaurant?

I don't like to fix myself into doing the same thing everyday. I want to work in many different ways—like pop-up restaurants, food styling, and scattering my recipes to people. Majority of my current works are catering for art&culture-related parties and events. And working at a restaurant keeps you tied-up, not being able to step outside at all. And importantly, for a restaurant to succeed, it has to be located in a populated area but as you can tell this neighborhood is isolated from downtown, which is not a favorable place to visit. So my plan is to open a studio that hosts a provisional restaurant that opens only on weekends. I want to make the most of my capabilities.

So your work must have made you visit many areas of Seoul. How different is this neighborhood from other parts of the city?

Seoul changes so quickly but it barely does here. The few other places that hardly change are Seokgwan-dong, Imun-dong, Hoegi-dong and Cheongnyangni. There's a saying that Seokgwan-dong is like the 70s, Imun-dong the 80s, Hoegi-dong and Cheongnyangni the 90s. So there's this sense of security that comes from the unchanging places. Right next to my house there's the University of Seoul and it's a quite neighborhood, almost traffic-free. And there are lots of trees. It's safe enough for me to take effortless walks around the area with my two cats Ian and Amon. I didn't have a chance to live in other parts of the city but I'm pretty much comfortable living here.

RECOMMENDED PLACE

Gallery Factory

15 Jahamullo 10-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
3 Gyeongbokgung
02-733-4883
11:00-18:00 (Tue-Sun)

"It's a place with a relaxed air from its inattentiveness towards guests."

 

Gallery Factory first opened its doors in 2002 in Samcheong-dong and then in the fall of 2005, it moved to Changseong-dong. Focused on contemporary art, it aims to show variety of works of local and international artists. It sets aside the boundaries of the art genres and creates new attempts and constant developments on workshops and audience participation programs. Also, it occasionally publishes 'Versus', a culture&art magazine, while producing and selling beautiful yet useful products under the name 'Factory Edition'. Moreover, it hosts 'Owl School'—a small-sized workshop and lecture program. And for Ara Ahn, this was the place that triggered the first project that eventually gave birth to Ara Homeground. She describes it as 'a place with a relaxed air from its inattentiveness towards guests'.