Restaurants

Looking to the Past and Future of Korean Cuisine

JP and Ellia Park bring a global perspective to their restaurants Atomix, Atoboy, and Naro.

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THE BORDER BETWEEN NoMad and Koreatown in the eastern part of Midtown Manhattan is cacophonous on a Saturday evening in summer, with people moving between cars at stoplights, and diners queuing up outside their favorite spots as the sunlight wanes. K-pop and hip-hop compete for attention, blasting from bars and restaurants hoping to draw in undecided customers. Walking through this neighborhood, which is only a few city blocks, means entering a swirling mix of sounds and smells reminiscent of South Korea, thousands of miles away yet also distinctly New York.

If you head southeast from Herald Square on 30th Street, the scene becomes quieter, and you’ll eventually come to a black-iron gate outside a row of town houses. Look for the small sign, and you know you’ve arrived at Atomix, the Michelin-starred Korean fine-dining restaurant open since 2018.

Crossing the threshold into the cream, gray, and beige interior, diners are introduced to the world of Junghyun “JP” and Ellia Park, husband-and-wife restaurateurs and co-founders of Atomix, Atoboy, and Naro in Rockefeller Center. JP curates the culinary program at the restaurants, while Ellia manages the group’s front-of-house operations.

At Atomix, guests are guided through a two-hour-long tasting menu in the restaurant's lower level. They sit at the dark wood rectangle counter as Chef JP, along with his kitchen team, prepare and serve each course. Reservations are tough to come by and typically book out months in advance.

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At Atoboy, their more casual Korean restaurant two blocks away on East 28th Street, the menu is also prix fixe but more affordable and less experimental, featuring Park’s take on Korean fried chicken as an add-on. “Atoboy is our first baby,” JP says of the restaurant, which opened in 2016. “We try to keep the same idea we had when it opened: offering value and a warm expression. Atomix is more about collaboration and experimentation.”

Though defined as Korean restaurants, Atomix and Atoboy are both globally influenced, inspired by the Parks’ world travels and their love for New York City’s inclusivity. A meal at both places feels closer to the layered dynamism found in jazz than the regimentation of classical music; food and drinks showcasing ingredients and techniques fundamental to Korean cuisine intermingle with influences from parts of Europe, America, Japan, and Australia.

JP describes this style of cooking as “new Korean cuisine.” When I ask him what that means, Ellia interjects, asking me, “What is new American cuisine?” It’s a fair question. The answer to both changes as time goes on and cultures, countries, and cities shift, she says. “If you think about Atoboy and Atomix, we’re not serving barbecue or spicy stews, which people think are Korean cuisine. We’re doing what we define as Korean cuisine, and people accept it.”

Location also impacts how food is perceived, JP explains. “A lot of restaurants in Korea are doing their own new Korean cuisine, and everything is slightly different from one to the other,” he says. In the future, we’ll look back on what was going on now and have a clearer sense of where we were headed. For now, chefs are innovating by cooking what they want. “We don’t know what the answer is going to be — maybe the next generation will be able to point to one thing. Right now, there’s a lot happening.” Being in New York allows the Parks to play with the amalgamation of the city’s cultures and gain exposure to all kinds of restaurant goers. “We love the diversity in cuisine and how people are open to different things,” says JP.

The Parks moved to New York 10 years ago when JP became the head chef at Jungsik in Tribeca, a high-end Korean restaurant with locations in Seoul and Manhattan. While working there, Park says he realized “new Korean cooking had a lot of potential in the fine-dining scene of New York City.” So he and Ellia began thinking about how they’d want to bring their unique brand of Korean cooking to the city. “We opened Atoboy first because we thought a tasting menu might not be as easily approachable for everyone because of the price point, so we wanted to build something more casual and easy,” he explains. “I wanted it to be a place that I’d want to invite friends and family.” Two years later, the couple opened Atomix, a lab-like space to showcase their innovative contribution to Korean fine dining.

How do you add something new to a culture that has existed for hundreds of years? This is what Chef Park thinks about when creating menus for his restaurants. “It’s about going back and looking at history but also creating something that works for this generation.” Various types of Korean seaweed are used during a meal at Atomix, highlighting the versatility of this ingredient: saltier varieties are used as a garnish, while mellower ones are used for cooking. The uni (sea urchin) may come from Japan, and the duck from upstate New York, but they’re prepared at Atomix with Korean elements, highlighting how well the cuisine works with flavors from all over the world. The atmosphere is lab-like because each plate is an experiment.


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The team brings themselves to the dishes as well. In January 2022, Atomix began offering a bar-only tasting menu and optional beverage pairing in the upstairs lounge, showcasing experimental versions of the signature tasting menu’s dishes. Ruben Hernandez Mosquero, the lead chef of this new venture, has worked with the company for several years and incorporates his Spanish heritage. Scallops and snail caviar with yuba, or tofu skins, are served surrounded by a jamón ibérico broth, and a dessert of Spanish-style cake comes with caramel made from makgeolli, or milky Korean rice wine.

For most restaurants, keeping a beloved dish on the menu is the goal — but that’s not the case at Atomix. “We don’t have signature dishes [because] we’re very seasonal,” JP explains. Since opening, the team has created some 400 menu items that reflect the seasons and what’s inspiring Chef JP at the time. “It’s unique because everything changes at once,” he says.

Their new restaurant, Naro, is about “going back to the traditional banchan [small dish] culture, our first step to teaching and sharing culture,” Ellia says. She adds that it's a casual restaurant focused on introducing patrons to traditional Korean ingredients and their names — like ganjang, or Korean soy sauce. Consumers think they know this ingredient but may not appreciate it in its unique Korean form, as an aged artisanal product that adds depth and umami to dishes.

It’s also about bringing others into the story. “Naro isn’t about us; it’s not Ellia and JP’s story, it’s about our team,” JP says. But telling a story about the past and future of Korean food is still at the forefront. “I hope service-wise, we hold up the art of hospitality, build up that culture and transfer that to the next generation,” Ellia says.

The couple hopes to impart that intergenerational story and that it lasts well beyond the meal. At Atomix, each guest is given a menu card at the end of their experience, listing the evening’s courses and beverage pairing. “If you buy art, you can see it, you can listen to a song over and over again; but food is fleeting,” JP says. A menu card is a reminder of the story guests participated in and a memory to keep. “We want to bring that kind of memory and feel that can be part of a conversation. We want to bring a memorable restaurant experience.”

When I ask if exploring the past and future with their restaurants is challenging, the Parks look at one another, and Ellia answers. “It’s exciting,” she says with a smile. Naro has two meanings: the first is the name of South Korea’s first space vehicle to launch into Earth’ orbit, and the second meaning is the Korean phrase, “나로," which can be interpreted as “with me” or “through me.” It is the first restaurant in the Park’s hospitality group not to contain “Ato,” meaning “gift,” as the prefix. It was an intentional choice on their part to signify that this next phase is about bringing other people’s perspectives into the fold. “Atoboy and Atomix have been such gifts for both of us. It’s time to share that with others.”

Header image: Photography by Peter Ash Lee

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Korsha Wilson Writer

Korsha Wilson is a New Jersey–based food writer and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She is the host of A Hungry Society, a podcast that takes a more inclusive look at the food world. Her current obsessions include travel, Negronis, and authentic Maryland crab cakes.

Marta Zafra Illustrator

Marta Zafra currently works as a freelance illustrator and artist. Her work delicately covers a panorama of varied subject and content. Her interest in figuration lies in the detailed depiction of the quotidian through personalized notions of family and the familiar. Whether it be botanical illustrations or the portrayal of animals and people, her decisions for each composition are strangely unique and precise. The familiar is often transformed into the bizarre, the past is often revisited, and the real is made unreal.

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