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To make renowned San Francisco restaurant Saison his own, Chef Paul Chung incorporates lessons from his mother’s kitchen.
YOU DON’T GET to be the kind of chef Paul Chung is by arriving late to the party. Rather, like many who excel at the highest level of their craft, Chung, the culinary director of Saison Hospitality (which includes Saison and both Anglers), seems to have been born this way. For as long as he can remember, he’s been paying special attention to flavor, obsessing over new possible preparations, or presiding over a pantry full of kitchen “projects” in various stages of development. “Food has been really important to me my entire life,” he says. And while he may have sharpened his craft in culinary school and busy restaurant kitchens, it all started at home.
Chung’s parents emigrated from Busan, South Korea, to America almost 39 years ago, settling in Fairfax, Virginia. At that time, there wasn’t a big Korean population in the area, and Chung’s dad couldn’t get on board with American food. “He didn’t really understand burgers,” Chung laughs. So his mother actively created the pantry staples found in Korean dishes using American ingredients. He recalls her doing her own fermentations, as well as making fish sauces and doenjang (similar to miso). She even had a little plot where she grew Korean chilies in order to sun dry them for homemade gochujang. The family fished in the Chesapeake Bay, catching bluefish, croaker, and blue crabs. “My mom would come home and make soy fermented crab,” Chung recalls. “She’s an amazing, amazing cook,” he continues, shaking his head in awe. “I think if she was born in this era, she’d probably be one of the top chefs out there.”
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Chung didn’t know how good he had it growing up. “We just always ate Korean food,” he says. He wondered at the items in other kids’ lunchboxes. “What is this string cheese?” he remembers thinking. “Or Lunchables? It was delicious; it was just totally new to me.” He guesses that he first ate a slice of pizza around age 10.
Chung attributes a lot of his style, flavor profiles, and techniques to his mother’s cooking. Like her, he is especially dedicated to a focus on hyperseasonal ingredients. He can remember his mother gathering wild dandelion greens or chrysanthemum. “She would just be picking it while I was at the park playing,” he says. Fond memories of his mother building her pantry are reflected in both restaurants, and Chung was happy to find a welcome home for his habits and passions in a place where others understood.
Chef and owner Joshua Skenes, who brought Chung on at Saison, had a similar upbringing amid humble but inspired home cooking and lots of outdoor time. “For him, it was playing in the swamps of Florida. For me, it was the Appalachian Mountains,” says Chung. But the pair share a similar ethos: drawing joy from the natural world, working with and celebrating the bounty growing in their own backyards. Because of this overlap, “I found my home very quickly in this company,” Chung says.
Feeling at home has enabled him to introduce new flavors to the restaurant. At Saison, alongside Chef Richard Lee, his chef de cuisine, Chung has turned up the presence of Asian flavors. Dishes like amberjack sashimi with kohlrabi gelee or sea urchin on brown-butter-soaked sourdough represent the stunning marriage of West Coast classic and Asian delicacy. The meal is punctuated by similar touches, like a lightly floral herbal tisane, bread with red miso butter, or delicately pickled local radishes. “The menu is geared more toward my personal Korean influences,” he says. “Chef Richard’s Chinese upbringing in the Bay Area plays a big role too.” He points out that because of the state’s history of immigration, “you can’t say California cuisine without understanding the influence that Asian cuisine has had. We’ve narrowed it down even more,” he continues, fine-tuning flavors based on their own heritage and experiences. “I don’t know of another place in the city that serves roasted Sonoma duck and then preserved Korean bellflower roots,” says Chung. “It’s very different and unique.”
Before joining the Saison Hospitality group, Chung spent four years working as a corporate chef for Chef Michael Mina’s restaurant group. He was part of a task force for research and development and traveled almost nonstop, opening around a dozen concepts throughout the country with Mina. He remembers it as a busy but thrilling time — seeing new places and meeting people, and especially sampling local specialties like elk chili in Jackson Hole or alligator in Tampa Bay. He then worked for a food tech start-up in San Francisco before accepting the role at Saison, just as the company was moving in a new direction.
After years representing the pinnacle of so-called California cuisine within San Francisco’s exclusive fine-dining scene through Saison, Chef Skenes was looking to expand his offerings, opening the more approachable and accessible Angler, a seafood-forward restaurant on the Embarcadero near downtown San Francisco. Chung was hired to guide Angler all the way from the vision through to its execution — he had a hand in everything from securing city permits to meeting with architects to working on menu design. For this reason, he cites the restaurant as “kind of like my baby,” considering it his biggest contribution to the group.
The Los Angeles location opened shortly after San Francisco; it’s now in the middle of a full redesign, which Chung is overseeing. He moves between Angler LA, Angler SF, and Saison frequently, often in a directorial capacity, but still participating in day-to-day operations in San Francisco. “I do work a lot,” he says, “but I have an amazing team. I learned very quickly — and this is something my team members taught me — I can’t do everything.”
Chung attributes a lot of his style, flavor profiles, and techniques to his mother’s cooking. Like her, he is especially dedicated to a focus on hyperseasonal ingredients.
It’s been essential to learn to delegate — and to surround himself with dependable people. The pandemic was a growing experience in this regard. Chung refers to that time as “a refresh for the group.” The restaurant shut down and had to quickly make a new plan. Among other things, they ran a successful barbecue concept, Saison Smokehouse, out of the space for six months. They had to rebuild the team to be more agile. “It was a bit of a trust-building exercise,” says Chung.
When asked how he manages this whole ecosystem, Chung sounds like he could be reading from index cards at an awards ceremony. He mentions nearly every single team member, saying something heartfelt and wonderful about each one: the general managers, his chefs de cuisine, sous-chefs, sommeliers, director of operations, chief of staff, and servers. It’s important to Chung that any one of three chefs can run Saison on any given day, so they can all enjoy a degree of work-life balance. Taking this attitude keeps the restaurant from succumbing to some of the industry’s workaholic tendencies. Rather, his staff looks after one another so they don’t have to miss every family event or skip vacations.
Free time is important for creativity and inspiration. During his own, Chung remains an avid fisherman. He also admits, “I’ve developed new hobbies over Covid. Some are a little more normal than others.” He shares that he’s gotten very into growing and nurturing trees. “Caring for them is very relaxing,” he says. There are currently eight Asian peppercorn, four yuzu, and two makrut lime trees growing at his home. “It’s kind of gotten out of hand,” he laughs. “My girlfriend is very generous to let me keep all these trees in the apartment.” He’s particularly excited about the peppercorns, which he recently harvested to share with VIPs at the restaurant. He also served skipjack tuna with the leaf of the peppercorn plant.
Chung’s latest pastime is raising snails — also in his apartment. He tells me that during the Gold Rush, snails were brought from France to serve as escargot in California. The dish didn’t catch on, but the snails remained. “San Francisco is the perfect environment for these snails to thrive,” Chung says. “You can find them on hikes. They’re completely edible, safe, and delicious.” He created such ideal conditions at home for the snails that they began mating wildly; Chung now has more than 300 baby snails in a separate terrarium. He raises the snails and extracts caviar from them to eat, experiment with in dishes, and serve to friends. “The pearls are white and very firm,” he says, describing the snail eggs. He mentions his girlfriend’s incredible patience again, and smiles as if in apology for the way his enthusiasm gets the better of him when it comes to food. “It sounds a little crazy,” he concedes. “But — it’s delicious.”
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Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Sean Sullivan is a Los Angeles—based photographer, curator, and art director.
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