Portrait | Su-yeon Lee : The art of pairing Kimchi and Wine
From Seoul to Toronto
Su-yeon Lee is an entrepreneur who’s curiosity and passion led to many accomplishments. I met her on my last night in Seoul, when I was particularly craving wine and it was nowhere to be found.
My new found friend Pierre and I sat at her bar and she told us about her life while serving us delicious wines. What started with one drink ended up into a few bottles and a night to remember. I found her story so interesting that I decided it to share it with you.
Meet Su-yeon, a sommelier, wine writer, and wine bar owner who fell in love with wine in Toronto, wrote a book to introduce wine to the Korean public and quit her job to open her own wine bar. She is a true inspiration !
What was your first contact with wine. Do you remember the first encounter ? Did you instantly love it or did it take time to develop your appreciation of it ?
I first encountered wine in 2001 in Toronto where I was studying at the time. I was very curious and eager to discover all kinds of different things that I'd never gotten to try in Korea. The first time I walked into LCBO and saw all those bottles from every imaginable place in the world sitting on those shelves, I remember feeling as though I'd been cheated all that time: how was it possible that I'd never seen or known about any of this? It was quite a shock, and from that day, I kept going there every week. It felt like Wonderland to me.
How does one decide to become a sommelier in a country/city in which it is kind of rare to find wine? Is it actually hard to find or did I just go to the wrong places?
All I can talk about is my personal experience. I'd come back from Canada and was working at a PR company. After a few years, I grew tired of it and decided to quit. I started thinking about the things I enjoyed most in life and the best memories I had were of my time in Toronto, drinking wine with my friends. So I enrolled at the Seoul Wine School, which was then the only place to go, and then worked for a year as marketing manager for a major wine retailer. During that time, I wrote a book that aimed to be a better introduction to wine for the general Korean public than what was available at the time. After that, I quit that job and decided to open my own wine ba
To address the second part of your question, I think it's not that good wine is rare in Korea. It actually isn't. But the problem is that, on account of taxes, it is incredibly expensive. If you want to find a decent bottle, you have to be prepared to pay around three times as much as you would in Europe or America. So wine bars tend to cater to richer patrons and it's not surprising that most of them are to be found in the Gangnam/Apgujeong area.
Before opening your restaurant, were you a sommelier in Seoul ? Did you work as a sommelier in other countries ? I remember you talking about France…You even learned french there?
I did travel to France and Italy, which was a wonderful opportunity to discover new things and learn about their wine-making traditions, but I never actually worked there.
Tell me about the Kimchi experience you offer to your guests? What types of wine pair well with kimchi?
That's a project I'd had for quite some time. Over the years, I kept hearing that Korean food and wine didn't pair well, presumably because of the spiciness and the boldness of flavors. I never agreed, however, and wanted to show that it was perfectly possible. So I took kimchi, which is one of the strongest, most pungent, dishes in Korean cuisine and one I happen to have an addiction for. The idea is to find a wine that has enough acidity not to be overpowered by the sourness of kimchi, especially in the case of mukeunji (aged kimchi), which is more sour than regular kimchi. At the same time, it shouldn't be too heavy and should possess some sweetness and fruitiness to counter the heat and the saltiness. In my opinion, Sauvignon blanc ticks all the boxes. I especially like Marlborough and Sancerre. Or if you prefer to go for red wine, you could try a young Pinot noir with lots of fruit, fresh acidity and low tannin.
Would you say offering the Kimchi pairing experience on Airbnb significantly brought more business to you?
The impact hasn't been that huge so far, but it's been only ten months. Anyhow, I'm very happy with it as many people tell me they find it very interesting and unique.
What is your biggest challenge in your day-to-day. Last time I visited you, you cooked the food yourself, you were also waitressing and doing the bar service. You must be really passionate about what you do?
I would say the biggest challenge is to keep up with trends and people's ever-evolving tastes. My patrons nowadays are very different from the ones I had ten years ago. Wine is getting more accessible and people are also more knowledgeable, more demanding.
As to the second part of your question, I guess I just like working on my own. My place is fairly small so it's still manageable, although it does get pretty intense at times, on busy evenings. And of course, as you say, I'm passionate about wine and food, and I really think that cooking, and especially understanding how it works, the process, what goes into making a dish a certain way, all of that is complementary to being a sommelier. It helps me understand flavors better and, as a result, I can suggest better pairings and give better advice to my patrons.
The image below represent well the vibe of the evening : it ended with cigars, porto and cheese. I call this perfection. Make sure you go visit her place and have a chat with this boss lady if you’re ever in Seoul. It will definitely be worth it.