The Talented Mina Park
Just in time for her rather thrilling Sook x Toyo (Korean x Filipino) pop-up collaboration with Toyo Eatery’s chef husband and marketing wife team, Jordy and May Navarro, Korean but Hong Kong-based chef, Mina Park chats about her delicious project, Sook, that’s making foodie waves across the region.
The former legal eagle gets candid about food, experimentation, cooking and indulging in her recent self-discovery. Luckily for us all, it involves hosting outside of her closest circles.
Philippine Tatler: Mina, you are a lawyer by profession. What influenced you or lured into the culinary world? What is it that you love about food?
Mina Park: I actually left my corporate law position October of last year and I’m focusing on cooking and food-related projects full-time. The draw of the culinary realm was too strong apparently! I come from a long line of women who cook on my mother’s side. My grandmother, my aunts, my mother were or are all intuitive and soulful cooks and hostesses. I just love welcoming and feeding people and seeing them smile and be comforted by the food and have fun during the meal.
PT: Your speciality is Korean. What other cuisines do you like to cook up?
MP: I like to cook anything and everything. I’m particularly inspired by the food I discover when I travel or even where I live. For example, since I’ve been living in Hong Kong, I’ve been exploring the local cuisine and flavours and you’ll definitely see evidence of that in my dishes, whether it’s Chinese salted black beans or pickled mustard greens.
PT: Tell us about the Sook concept and how it came to be?
MP: I love hosting dinner parties, and a few of my friends encouraged me quite insistently that I consider doing a few public events. I was a practicing corporate lawyer so this seemed insane to me, but I couldn’t stop myself. I led a kimchi workshop and lunch with Plantation, a gorgeous Hong Kong tea company. And then thanks to friends encouraging me again, I was cooking hundreds of Korean tacos at a weekend night market and at an event during Art Basel Hong Kong. I have these incredible friends with whom I would sit up late at night after my day job brainstorming what I could do with my food, what I could name this venture, and how to prep for events.
PT: Why “food curate” and pop-ups instead of putting up your own amazing Korean (or other) restaurant?
MP: I’m looking for a space that feels like home, somewhere where I want to spend 24/7 since that’s what’s required when you’re running a restaurant. I’m very optimistic that I’ll find what I’m looking for soon.
PT: What restaurants insofar have you collaborated with in and out of Hong Kong?
MP: I’ve been extremely lucky to work with such talented and especially generous chefs and venues. A selection in Hong Kong include multiple pop-ups at Serge et le Phoque, the Pawn and Ping Pong. I have also done pop-ups in the past year outside of Hong Kong at Port Autonomy in Yangon and in Niseko, Japan.
PT: How did the Sook x Toyo collaboration come about? Are you looking to do more outside Hong Kong?
MP: I have been following Jordy [Navarra] and Toyo on social media for a while now because their approach to Filipino cuisine is something I aspire to with Korean cuisine. I wanted to do a pop-up in Manila during Art Fair Philippines so I could combine my two passions – cooking and contemporary art, and Toyo was my dream location. A mutual friend introduced us by e-mail, and Jordy was so warm and receptive to the idea. I was over the moon.
I am working on several other pop-ups outside of Hong Kong, including in Lisbon, Seoul, London and Singapore.
PT: What can we look forward to from this Korean x Filipino collaboration?
MP: I’m personally excited about using the fresh, local ingredients that are abundant in the Philippines with Korean spices and hopefully surprising people with how they elevate each other. Koreans in general love visiting and working in the Philippines and so there seems to me to be a palpable presence of Koreans here. I would love to showcase how the two cultures really complement each other.
PT: What was your basis or inspiration for creating the Sook x Toyo menu?
MP: I took Jordy’s well-crafted and thoughtful menu as the primary inspiration. The stories he tells through his dishes, such as the vegetable garden, are so compelling to me. So I wanted to see how I could marry Korean flavours and techniques with the level of dishes that his kitchen is so skilled at. I also take the foodie Filipinos in my life, like Seddie Beltran, James Acuña and Alexandra Seno, and all of our meals and cooking together as inspiration. They have been sharing with me the beauty of Filipino cuisine for years.
PT: What challenges have you encountered in the F&B industry that have made an impact on you?
MP: I think like many industries there are issues of gender discrimination that need to be addressed. A very small example, but I was at a food festival speaking on a large panel with a group of chefs and entrepreneurs, and at the end, they took a group picture just of the men. It was bizarre. Two other female participants and I were not invited to be in the photo, maybe because we didn’t have proper restaurants of our own, but then why invite us on the panel? Having talked to and observed some female chefs who have real restaurants in Asia, it’s not easy to run a restaurant in a very male-dominated, quite alpha environment. That makes their success so inspiring, and it’s wonderful to see how they support other women (like me!) who want to break into the industry. I’m actually sponsoring a dinner for an Amnesty International fundraiser on the 20th with the theme of Women’s Empowerment, which is another highlight for me this month.
PT: What foods or ingredients are always in your pantry?
MP: In my pantry, I always have jars of homemade kimchi and pickles. Whenever I have leftover vegetables in the fridge, they go into a jar with brine. I also have what must be the world’s largest collection of chilli powders, peppers and pastes. There are Korean, Sichuan, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Bhutanese and more taking up massive real estate in my cupboard. Recently, I have also been stockpiling various kinds of flours like rice flour, sweet flour, buckwheat flour, teff flour since I’ve been experimenting with different doughs for noodles, breads and dumplings and also trying my hand at banking. With all the bags of flour, it looks like I’m trying to build a dam to protect against a flood in my kitchen!
PT: What would you like to tell people when they are eating your food and experiencing your pop-ups?
MP: I love telling stories through my food and my events. Whether it’s a story about the woman who made the chili paste, a story about Korean traditions, I want people to come away with a sense of the depth of Korean cuisine and culture and my family’s traditions. But I don’t want it to feel didactic –I want people to be relaxed, meet new people and enjoy themselves.
PT: Do you have any other projects you are working on?
MP: I’ve been spending a lot of time researching Korean cuisine and traditional food producers in Korea. I would love to do a cookbook that showcases the beauty and depth of Korean ingredients and traditional methods of cooking for an international audience. I’m also researching Korean traditional medicine and Korean temple cuisine for a similar passion project. With ceramist friends Latitude 22n I’m developing a Korean-inspired ceramics line. I’m also developing menus for a few brick-and-mortar concepts in collaboration with other restaurateurs. And then of course, I’m trying to find an inspiring space for my own modern Korean restaurant.