Chae is just an hour’s drive from the centre of Melbourne, but its location in the scenic town of Cockatoo – deep in the Dandenong Ranges – makes it feel like a world away. As each round of new guests pull into the restaurant’s steep driveway, the cheerful Yoora Yoon greets them like old friends. He and his partner, chef Jung Eun Chae, also live in the house their restaurant is in.
Chae (the restaurant) originally made waves as a tiny six-seat Korean diner in the couple’s one-bedroom Brunswick apartment. Guests sat at the bench while Chae (the chef) cooked, served, entertained and cleaned in the compact kitchen. Stints at fine diners like Lume and Cutler & Co have helped her with organisation, tidiness, multitasking and presentation.
In 2021 the couple traded Melbourne’s inner north for a house up in the mountains, surrounded by lush trees, diverse wildlife and clean air. The bigger space gives them more room for Chae’s homemade ferments, a budding garden for fresh produce and a possible spot for raising chickens. It also meant they could have a dog, Haru, who waits for pats on the expansive balcony.
Guests sit around one L-shaped table, getting a close-up view of each dish being prepared before Chae serves it. Six people per seating, four seatings a week means only 24 people get to dine at the restaurant weekly, making it one of Melbourne’s most coveted bookings. But if one thing’s for sure, it’s that the scramble to try and secure a slot online (at 7pm on the first of every month) is worth every single heart palpitation.
Any stress that comes from the booking experience will be eased by the dining experience, which is wholesome, truly serene and unlike any other in the state. Chae changes the set menu each month, depending on what’s in season.
In the past, meals have started with homemade barley tea and a chicken skewer covered in gochujang, or red-chilli paste. Nex, a cold noodle soup with soy milk, called kongguksu, followed by steamed scotch fillet with bean sprouts, mushroom, ganjang (Korean soy sauce) and rice wine. Then, a palate cleanser of sparkling lemon-ginger enzyme before the main course: sundubu, a spicy soft tofu stew served with grilled fish, steamed rice and banchan (side dishes) of jangajji (pickled vegetables) and mugeunji-muchim (aged kimchi with sesame oil and enzymes).
Inspired by her mother, Chae makes many of her condiments and traditional Korean ingredients from scratch, including gochujang; soy sauce aged for more than a year; doenjang, a soybean paste similar to miso; and different kinds of vinegars, including plum, nectarine, orange, persimmon and pear.
Chae also makes her own drinks – both boozy and not – which are included as part of the set menu, from barley tea and lemon-ginger enzyme tea to a milky makgeolli (sparkling rice wine liquor) and chungju, a clear rice wine similar to sake. The servings are neccessarily small, so don’t expect to drink three or four glasses of wine the way you might at a big city restaurant with an extensive cellar.
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