Saehoon Park

06.16 2016 INTERVIEW DATE

131 Studio, Food Stylist & Food Service Consultant

Cheongun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Saehoon Park spent his early childhood in Paris, school years in Seoul and the shining youth of his 20’s in New York. Now reaching his mid 30’s, he is back in Seoul and to his family. He roamed about the territories of design and fine art and today he is working intimately with food. Sitting right by the main road of Cheongun-dong, a mysterious stainless steel door opened and led us inside his unworldly-like place in a worldly neighborhood—131 Studio.

Yoojin Jung

A name which goes by the address, could you tell us what 131 Studio does?

In the beginning I ran this studio as a place where people would gather and hang out while enjoying cooking and dining altogether. So it was usually magazine shoots or food stylings but now I expanded to art direction of dining spaces while doubling as a food service consultant. What I focus most on is the entire process of eating. It shouldn’t simply be about pretty plates and style but more about creating a fun environment around or together with the cook, eyeing everything objectively, and I think that’s more interesting.

 

We were surprised to find the studio attached so close to the main road. Was there a reason you settled yourself here?

My house is located behind Chungwoon Elementary School so it was easy for me to settle in this neighborhood. If I was to look for a more quiet place I could’ve chosen to go a block further inside but I didn’t want to seclude myself nor did I want to look like someone living a retired life in some remote place. Cheongun-dong itself is a still neighborhood and if I went deeper along the alley everything would’ve been too far from all the liveliness.

What triggered you to switch to a food-related field from your original studies of fine art?

During my long studies abroad, I pretty much went around on my own to find decent meals for myself. I’d go looking for savory food or hot eatouts and I realized the more I did, the more I became obsessed with eating. I don’t stay in the kitchen all day like a professional chef so I can’t say that I have profound experience or anything. Rather than the cooking itself, I’m more interested in realizing and bringing to life the space around cooking, the atmosphere and the experiences.

 

We were told you spent part of your childhood in Paris and your 20’s in New York.

I was born in Seoul but soon my father was transferred to Paris as a sojourning employee so my whole family went to live for about 4 ½ years and came back right before I entered elementary school. And I attended all my education courses in Seoul, including college.

 

You studied business administration here and then went abroad to study fine art. What was the reason for such change of studies?

I enrolled M.B.A. all because of my parents and soon after my discharge from the army I took time to think about my future and decided that I do something related to art. So I took off and went into School of Visual Arts in New York and attended courses corresponding to graphic design until the second semester of my Junior year and transferred to the fine arts department. It was suffocating to be sitting in front of the computer and staring into images behind the small screen. I think I hankered for artworks on large canvases and sculptures.

Did you ever think seriously of staying abroad permanently?

I spent most of my 20’s in New York so it’s like a second home to me. After switching to fine art from business, it felt as if a new stage of life had opened before me. The ways of thinking, the places that I’d go to changed dramatically. The change was like a formatted hard disk. Looking back, there was barely a moment when I felt any excitement during my school years. It was just me simply ‘living’ in Seoul and that was it. Whilst in New York I lived by a whole different, more exciting rhythm and I did seriously think of staying longer. But I had to return because of my father’s health issues.

 

So was it your family that made you return to Seoul?

Yes and I had no choice. And my family is the reason I’m now in Seoul and why I set up my studio nearby.

 

Your mother also has deep knowledge of cooking, considering the fact that she once ran her own restaurant.

When I was young I didn’t appreciate my mom’s cooking. Her cooking was all about healthy food so she barely used salt. Being a lunchbox generation(today lunch is served at schools) and a little kid, I wanted my mom to make me fun and cute, kid-like meals instead of brown rice, which I ate without a clue of why I was spooning such bowl of stiff grain. But as time went by I came to realize and finally appreciate the value of her cooking.

What was the main focus when you arranged the space of your studio?

I had my mom in mind when I was preparing for the open. I looked for a common ground where the older and the younger generation could mix and mingle with ease. If a place is focused only on the young taste the elderly would mostly feel uncomfortable. So I took into consideration the look & feel that embraced a wide range of generations.

 

It gave a very strong impression as soon as we stepped inside the studio and faced the kitchen straight on. Not to mention how the dominant stainless steel makes the kitchen somewhat resemble a machinery room.

I intended the dining space to give a cozy feeling, taking note that it’s sitting in a studio instead of a usual home, but as for the kitchen, I wanted to make it look professional. The durable stainless steel is one of the most safest material for cooking, since it requires use of heat most of the time. Being a food-related person, my passion for stainless steel has grown large. I think it’s a great material, it’s calm within its remarkable strength.

We notice a big collection of dishware—is there a particular style you prefer?

I don’t necessarily focus on brands. Actually, I prefer dishware that are less revealing its brand or even none brands. I’m not comfortable using ones that are obvious of where they’re from. I try not to make the surrounding stand out more than the food itself.

Is there something you feel a special attachment to?

The speakers hanging above the ceiling and sitting by the stairs are ones that I kept since my days in New York. I bought the two for only 25 dollars at a flea market. I got them fixed and they work well ever since. It was worth all the trouble carrying each of them on my shoulders when I returned from New York.

 

We’re curious to hear about the furnitures. Most of the time the brand or designers are predictable but that doesn’t seem like the case here.

These are the same old table and chairs that my family used in Paris. The sofa is from a select shop in Japan which I bought right away as it felt really nice to be seated. And its price was pretty reasonable compared to the high-priced leather sofas in Korea. I’m not so much into furniture brands or designer furnitures.

This place has a strong overall feeling of the East.

While in New York, I witnessed a lot of the trends around the world quickly being reproduced in the city but it all seemed to me like scenes nothing but just imitations of the foreign culture. I think I realized the limits of those at an early age. Living in the heart of the western culture, I do admit that I was too influenced by it but paradoxically, I think I was able to dig an oriental touch because I was living far away from those. People tend to see the eastern style as properties of the older generations here but I had this desire to show it in a so-called ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ manner.

 

What are the things you enjoy besides food related activities?

I love to eat out. If I hear about an opening of a new restaurant I take my mom with me. I exchange large amount of thoughts on food with her. We go for tastings together and each criticise over what we ate and find ourselves points to learn or study, which are the most exciting part.

Could you recommend us a restaurant in Seoul you recently thought most impressive?

I would recommend the Dining in SPACE at the new annex building of the former Head Office of SPACE (now ARARIO MUSEUM in SPACE—Head Office of SPACE used to be the office building of an architectural firm called SPACE, founded and led by a pioneering architect of Korea’s modern architecture, Swoogeun Kim, which is now absorbed by ARARIO MUSEUM and used as a branch ‘in SPACE’ today). It’s a restaurant run by chef Jinseong Noh and his calm and stable dish, standing firm against the trend, was very impressive. I tend to doubt a little when it comes to an Asian chef majoring western cuisine. It’s like a chef of a western origin at an Asian restaurant in New York. For instance, sushi should be made to its exact, neat form and measures but when a person from the West makes them, you can always sense a certain toughness and freedom of their own. On the other hand, when an Asian makes a western dish, especially pasta, it becomes too neat. I’d look for something that breaks that over-neatness but I understand it’s not an easy task. However, Dining in SPACE serves you with just enough amount of the orient and the will to show originality. The place is covered with glass so even on a cloudy day you can tell clear colors of your food so it’s a great place to enjoy food visually as well as its taste.

What are the things you’d like to further try?

I’m about to work on a renewal project of a mega-sized food corner. I want to spread out to a full range of consulting food service. Also, sometime in the distant future, I’d like to run a restaurant with good music and food and be able to care less about its sales.

RECOMMENDED PLACE

Inwangsan

Muak-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
3 Gyeongbokgung
02-731-1458

“Once you get to the top of the mountain just in time for the sunrise, you will be standing before an amazing panoramic view of Seoul.”

 


It is a 338 meter-high mountain sitting between Jongno-gu and Seodaemun-gu of Seoul. It is composed of granite and its grey bedrock is exposed. There are a number of mineral water drinking spots throughout its hiking trails and offers beautiful landscapes for the citizens to devour all throughout the year. It was once closed to the public for military reasons and later re-opened in 1993. Trails may vary; there are ones that start from the Sajik Park or the Dongnimmun Station that reach out to Buam-dong, or the one that starts near the Gyeongbokgung Station which leads along the castle wall and finally up to the top of the mountain. The summit will allow you to spot Gyeongbokgung and the Blue House below and panoramically view as far as Yeouido or Jamsil. If you start climbing before sunrise, you’ll get to see an incredible cityscape of Seoul once you reach the top, which normally takes about 2 hours to do so, depending on the trail.