'I Didn't Change My Mom's Recipes'
Dumplings, and mothers who know best. Both, Eunjung Kim has learned, are universal.
The 30-year-old grew up in Korea, where her mother has owned a chain of restaurants for nearly 15 years. Today, Eunjung uses many of the same recipes at Zannchi—the restaurant she opened one year ago on Wisconsin Avenue.
Dumplings, it turns out, need no translation. Zannchi’s variety are made from scratch and no different from what you’d find in Korea. The rice bowls were more involved; seven emerging after Eunjung tirelessly experimented with ingredient combinations—everything from avocado to spicy pork—before landing on the perfect pairings.
‘I didn’t change my mom’s recipes, I just selected the menu I thought would work here,’ Eunjung says. ‘Too much soy bean stuff might be too smelly and a lot of Americans aren’t used to such a smell, so I didn’t do much of that. I also realized a lot of people here are allergic to fish oil or don’t like fermented things, so we make the kimchi from scratch here, every three or four days.’
Every aspect of Zannchi has been ‘from scratch’ for Eunjung, who didn’t know much about the restaurant business as a child. It wasn’t until she moved to Canada at 15 and returned to Korea each summer that she started to pay attention.
After moving to the states to attend NYU, Eunjung stayed in the city for two years working as a foreign exchange broker—and observing an increased demand for good Korean food. Back home, her cousin was becoming a seasoned chef. Over evolving phone calls, the two made plans to one day open their own Korean restaurant in the United States.
It all came together when Eunjung enrolled in Georgetown’s business school.
‘One day we had to do a final project where we presented our business model and one team had the idea of opening a Korean fast food chain restaurant. I assumed one of them would be Korean and then I saw this Chinese guy. He was really interested in bringing Korean food to DC.’
The two talked, realized they had the same model, and became partners. With plans underway, Eunjung’s cousin moved to DC to run the kitchen.
Timing, as they say, is everything. And while the DC demand for Korean food was on the rise, Eunjung’s school schedule was at its height, too. Zannchi opened in March 2016—two months before her graduation.
‘It was very difficult, but the school also really helped me get the word out and I was able to speak to a lot of alumni in the food scene,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t do as much marketing as most new restaurants would. I was nervous that this was my first venture; what if so many people come and I don’t deliver?’
Tom Sietsema did come, and Eunjung did deliver. His favorable Washington Post review that June put Zannchi on the map.
Today, Zannchi—Korean for ‘feast’—is a favorite with residents and nearby business owners alike. Eunjung says without any leverage to open in most prime locations, it took a year to land on the Wisconsin Avenue building—alternatively considering opening a ramen place downtown.
And yet a year into her business, Eunjung says the biggest challenge wasn’t about location. It was stepping up as on owner.
‘When I worked in New York, I never thought the boss’ job could be that hard. I thought I was doing all the work. I’ve learned a lot here. You have to be really careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I also can’t not say something. I can’t be here all the time, but the restaurant needs to be run just as well when I’m not here. And because I’m relatively young, it can be sensitive to manage people who are older than me.’
She may be the boss now, but Eunjung is still her mother’s daughter.
‘My mom came last May for my graduation and to visit the restaurant. She’s a mother, she’s much more experienced…she’ll say what I’m not doing right. When she doesn’t say anything, that means I’m doing alright.’
Eunjung recently framed the Tom Sietsema review, but is still looking for a place to hang it.
Already on the wall, a picture of her mom’s restaurant.