Picture this. Sitting on the floor, in traditional Korean fashion, with a small wooden table, furnished only by two metal cups of water. Outside the sun is beating down on the emerald lake, Ao Phủ and the traffic of Dong Da is raging incessantly, but inside Kimchi Mr Kwon, it barely even feels like Vietnam anymore.
“I’d been dreaming of opening a small diner like this for many years, but my mum didn’t like the idea of me opening a restaurant – she wanted me to get a ‘good’ office job and become a salary-man,” sighs Petrus Kwon as he recalls his office days. Following a stint in the Korean military – one of the 32 remaining countries where a minimum two years of national service is still mandatory – Kwon worked with a friend in a fried chicken shop. “I got a really good energy from serving people and I remember thinking, maybe this is my calling.” This idea would continue to haunt Kwon for some time, but it was through a serendipitous set of circumstances that Kwon would later become Kimchi Mr Kwon.
Kwon had done as so many had done before him when unsure of the direction of their lives. He fled to Australia for a working holiday visa. Ensnared by the natural beauty of Australia, he applied for a second year, which required a mandatory three month period of farm work. “I was picking avocados mostly, but I ended up doing some manual labour as well which I quite enjoyed.”
But it was in Australia that Kwon found a love of cooking. “I’d always liked cooking, but where I lived in Western Australia had limited options for kimchi and I’d been living with an Australian family, so I wanted to make something special for them.” And so it came to pass that Kwon’s national dish of kimchi gave him his first steps on the path to his dream of owning a small restaurant, but beyond the kimchi, there was also a romance that would steer that path in directions he could never have foreseen.
“I met my now-wife in the Philippines nearly three years ago,” Kwon blushes a little as he recounts the tale. “I was heading back to Korea for a break with a layover in Manila. I had a pretty bad hangover from a party I’d been to in Malaysia, so I just wanted to walk around a little, but then I saw this pretty lady. She was sparkling and I didn’t know she would be my wife later, I was too shy to talk really.”
It was only through meeting one of his now-wife’s friends who was studying in Perth, Australia, that Kwon was able to meet her again. “I met her and her friends, they asked me to travel with them around Manila, so there were maybe five of us going around the city together, it was a lot of fun – I felt like I’d known my wife for years, even though it was only a short break.” The two kept in contact even after Kwon finished his second year in Australia and returned to Korea, but it was only through sublime chance that Kwon found the courage to visit Hanoi.
“I had no idea about Vietnam – my wife had actually asked me to come but I’d said no, I was too nervous,” he remembers. “But then my mum announced she was coming here to do some voluntary work and two days before she flew, I booked a ticket to go with her.”
When the two were finally reunited, they fell in love and it was through their romance that Kimchi Mr Kwon was born. “I don’t like the kimchi in the supermarkets here. It’s not bad, but it makes me uncomfortable – most of it comes from China and it’s missing some vital ingredients,” so Kwon decided to start making his national dish himself. “My wife loves Korean food and I like serving the people I love, but it was when my sister-in-law tried it, she told me she wanted to sell it online.”
Both Vietnamese and Korean cultures have shared a lot in recent times, with both cuisines from both nations taking off in a big way in Seoul and Hanoi. “We have a lot of similar meals, bánh xèo and pajeon for example, but we appreciate the unique parts of each other’s culture and that was my reason for opening the restaurant.” It takes the right kind of eyes to see the gap in the market, but Kwon’s earnest authenticity allowed him to slot right in. “Most of the big Korean franchises here change the recipes to suit Vietnamese tastes and you can get really good, authentic Korean food in the My Dinh area.”
Serving as both the chef, the owner and – in his own words – “the friendly neighbourhood kimchi guy” Kwon isn’t content to rest on his laurels. “I haven’t really done much advertising yet, I don’t want the restaurant to get too busy because we’re still new – we’re going to make a hundred mistakes before we get things just perfect, I want people to be able to taste my soul in the food.”
What started from just kimchi has evolved since Kwon has been studying Korean cooking during his time here in Hanoi, but despite his soft opening approach, the nine options on his menu are already a fine display of his talents. “I want to get each item absolutely perfect first, then we can expand – that’s my philosophy.”
You can meet the man himself at Kimchi Mr Kwon, 151 Ngo 136 Chua Lang, Dong Da, Hanoi.