The duo behind Parnell eatery Simon & Lee talk Gochu, their latest venture in Auckland’s Commercial Bay, and the emerging mainstream popularity of Korean cuisine.
Three months ago, before alert levels were even a thing, a small group of guests was invited to have their first taste of Gochu’s menu. With everything from fresh Kaipara oysters served with kimchi consommé to chilli pork buns paired with beurre blanc dip, the menu was a multi-course feast full of freshness and flavour, giving diners a glimpse into what the restaurant had in store ahead of its opening in two weeks’ time.
Then lockdown happened and everything came to a sudden, grinding halt. Commercial Bay, where Gochu resides on the second floor, was scheduled to open that very week. Instead, it was forced to delay its opening – after a string of already delayed openings – one last time.
“We first signed the lease [for the space] in January 2018 for an April 2019 opening,” Gochu co-owners Oliver Simon and David Lee recall. “Then it got pushed back to September and then to March this year. Then lockdown happened so it got pushed back again.” But finally, on June 11, Commercial Bay managed to open its doors and, along with it, Auckland’s latest “New Korean” restaurant.
The idea for Gochu, which means both chilli pepper and a certain part of the male anatomy (“it’s an intentional double entendre!” they laugh) was first floated by Simon and Lee more than a year ago. In 2019, the duo sold their eponymous Parnell eatery – which helped bring bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) and mahnduguk (dumplings with broth) to Auckland’s crowded brunch scene – to focus on their Commercial Bay offerings, which also include hot dog joint Good Dog Bad Dog. Chefs Jason Kim and Nathan Lord also joined the team, with the former’s childhood and travels through Korea serving as the primary inspiration for the menu.
Kim, who’s originally from South Korea like Lee, has worked at a number of esteemed Auckland establishments like Sidart, Cassia and Clooney in recent years. But with Gochu, Kim embraces the full breadth and depth of a culture of food he knows and loves, showcasing the many sides of Korean cuisine with dishes like buttery smooth mulhwe (raw kingfish), smoky LA galbi (marinated barbecue short ribs), and spicy charred chicken smothered in gochujang (chilli paste).
Meanwhile, Lee is an experienced hospo figure in his own right, having formerly been at the helm of some of Auckland’s most popular cafes such as Little King, Dear Jervois, and Major Sprout, and still has a stake in Newmarket eatery The Candy Shop. But he didn’t start off in hospitality; when he came to New Zealand 17 years ago, he was working in the exporting business, helping to ship New Zealand-made products like mānuka honey and health supplements, which are popular in many Asian markets.
“But I fell in love with the cafe culture here,” says Lee. “I wanted to get involved but I couldn’t find work … eventually I worked [at a cafe] washing dishes. I learnt a lot there.” (Although he adds he was paid in food, not cash, for his work.)
Nevertheless, the experience gave Lee the impetus to jump into the industry headfirst where he eventually found success. In 2014, while he was at Dear Jervois, he met Simon, who was working at Coffee Supreme at the time. Simon had been introduced to Korean food while frequenting Queen Street’s Kang Nam Station – the shabby yet somewhat iconic trailer-restaurant – during a stint at Huffer, stopping by for noodles and rice bowls on a daily basis. Soon, the two bonded over their shared love of Korean food and, in 2017, launched Simon and Lee. They’ve collaborated with each other ever since.
While Auckland has long been home to a thriving Korean community whose tastebuds have been sated by a network of locally run grocery stores and restaurants, it’s only in recent years that Korean cuisine has managed to find a footing amid the city’s wider culinary landscape. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find supermarket shelves stocked with jars of kimchi and snack-size packs of gim (roasted seaweed), while eateries like Simon & Lee, as well as Lorne Street’s The Kimchi Project and Grey Lynn’s Tiger Burger, have helped further democratise Korean flavours to Auckland’s middle-class masses.
“I definitely think it’s becoming more mainstream,” says Lee on Korean food’s emerging popularity. “People didn’t really know about it like 10 years ago. I think if we’d done something like this back then people would’ve been like ‘oh, it’s too spicy!’ but I think now is the right time.”
“People used to think bibimbap was weird when it’s literally just like rice and vegetables!” Simon adds. “[With Gochu] we definitely want to show people that Korean food is more than just kimchi, gochujang, and Korean barbecue. There are so many more flavours out there to try.”
The restaurant-style setting of Gochu is a natural next step, and it’s not the only Korean-inspired eatery that’s opened in recent weeks to much excitement. In Ponsonby, Paulee (who previously worked at Simon & Lee) and Lisa Lee (former chef at Honey Bones) have launched Ockhee, a new casual contemporary dining option with plenty of vegetarian and vegan-friendly options like gamjajeon (potato fritter), makguksoo (buckwheat noodles in chilled broth), and the somewhat unconventional persimmon kimchi.
While the concept behind Gochu is in many ways is an extension of what was started with Simon and Lee, the pair point out there are some notable differences. “Simon & Lee was more cafe food, more brunch oriented, whereas Gochu is a bit more elevated,” says Simon. “It’s not fine dining, but it’s also more than just introductory flavours, and a lot of the dishes are designed to be shared rather than just having one dish.”
In that sense, Gochu embodies an important part of Korean food culture as sharing and communal spirit often underpin the dining experience: Korean barbecue involves guests cooking meat around a grill together, banchan (small side dishes) are set out for everyone to enjoy, and jjigaes (stews) are often left to sizzle away at the centre of the table. It’s a collective experience, not an atomised one, and that’s not exactly a bad thing in times like these.
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