The freeway and roaring cars give way to winding roads and gum trees as Melbourne fades away behind us. Chae is just an hour’s drive from the CBD, but its location in the scenic town of Cockatoo – deep in the Dandenong Ranges – makes it feel like a world away.
Pulling into the restaurant’s steep driveway, we’re greeted by Yoora Yoon, who steps out of the building like you’d greet a friend coming to visit your home – a reminder that Yoon and his partner, chef Jung Eun Chae, also live in the house their restaurant is in.
“When Chae first talked to me about this home-based concept restaurant, I was actually opposed to the idea because I wasn’t very comfortable with people coming in and out of our apartment back then,” he tells Broadsheet. “Now I don’t really mind because we have a bigger space. It’s a good feeling to be able to welcome people into our home, so we can provide that cosy, homely atmosphere that’s different to conventional restaurants in Melbourne.”
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Chae (the restaurant) made waves as a tiny six-seat Korean restaurant 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.
More than a year ago, 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 greets us as we step out onto the balcony.
There’s a brief tour, with Yoon pointing out what they’re currently growing (spring onion, shiso, cabbage) before we step back inside the house, where the fire warms us up as we take our seats – still only six per seating, just like the smaller original.
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. And recently the couple discovered that some bookings were being made by scalpers who were selling them on at a higher price. 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.
But 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 menu each month, depending on what’s in season. November’s meal starts with homemade barley tea and a chicken skewer covered in gochujang, or red-chilli paste. Next comes 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.
There’s 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).
For dessert: gaesung juak, a traditional, round, fried rice cake (similar to a doughnut) that’s glazed with syrup, as well as sujeonggwa, a ginger and cinnamon punch served partially frozen with dried petals.
Inspired by her mother, Chae makes many of her condiments and traditional Korean ingredients from scratch. “She is [from] the last generation that is doing everything from scratch in Korea,” she says. While Chae makes 40 kilograms of her famous gochujang twice a year, her mum would make 100 kilos at once.
Other condiments she makes in her home include soy sauce, which is 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 opening of Chae in Cockatoo has been a long time coming, with the couple waiting months for council approval before they finally opened the restaurant in September. But it’s also the fulfilment of an idea Chae first had nearly 20 years ago.
“I watched this documentary about this lady who was running a small, one-table restaurant in Hong Kong,” she says, although she can no longer remember the chef or restaurant’s name. “I think I got inspiration from her when I was young. And from that time, it was my dream to start Chae.”
It’s dark by the time we finish dessert, but there’s no rush to leave. We linger, asking Chae questions, browsing her condiments for sale (five jars of gochujang and one bag of kimchi, please), absorbing the whole experience. The drive home is long, but we feel appropriately fueled for it. More than that – content and satisfied. I set an alarm for when bookings open again.
January bookings open on Thursday December 1 at 7pm.
Sat 1pm and 6pm