When South Korean chef Jung Eun Chae opened diminutive restaurant Chae in 2019, it had all the traits of a cult-hit. Out of her one-bedroom Brunswick apartment, chef Chae served just a handful of diners each night, offering a menu of traditionally-fermented Korean dishes, condiments and drinks - what she calls ‘the hidden aspects of Korean food’. When word got around, bookings for the six-seat sittings evaporated and Chae quickly became a destination. “I was very surprised,” says Chae. “Looking back, Chae was the right concept at the right time. I opened Chae during the pandemic. People avoid large crowds and interest around healthy eating and fermentation has never been higher.”
In 2021, Chae and her partner Yoora Yoon split for the hills. With a Square reader in hand, they relocated Chae to Cockatoo in the Dandenong Ranges. “My small business outgrew my even smaller apartment and, as the business became bigger, I needed more space to store my ferments,” Chae says. “We started looking for a house in the mountains because it offered the space we needed and we believed we could create a unique dining experience for our guests.”
That dining experience builds on what Chae started in Brunswick - an intimate sitting of four to five courses and four drinks that rotates every two months. Dishes follow the seasons, like a dessert of frozen winter persimmon with shaved milk, but each menu might draw as much inspiration from literature as Korean tradition. “For an entree, I’m serving pine nut porridge which was inspired by reading a memoir called Crying in H. Mart by Michelle Zauner,” Chae says. “The main is usually structured as a typical Korean dining table with a bowl of rice, main protein, soup and various side dishes.”
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Each menu is led by fermentation techniques Chae learned from her mother in South Korea with dishes built around ingredients that, in some cases, are more than a year in the making. Doenjang, a heavily-umami soybean paste similar to miso, is inoculated with wild yeast, brined for 45 days and further aged. ”You can use that doenjang to create your soup or dipping sauce or other seasoning ingredients,” says Yoora. “The salt water later becomes your ganjang which is soy sauce.” Gochujang - a chilli-spiked fermented soybean paste - is aged for a year before adding its funky spice to Chae’s dishes. House-made drinks include a sweet-and-sour lemon, ginger and enzyme tea, and the milk-coloured rice wine makgeolli. Like much of the menu, the process of making makgeolli begets other ingredients in Chae’s circular system. “When you make a makgeolli, there’s lots of leftover rice pulp and yeast,” Chae says. “You don’t need to throw them away, you just keep them and make a pickle with radish or any vegetable leftover.”
Although Chae and Yura have left the bustle of Brunswick behind, their approach hasn’t wavered. Sittings are still for just six diners, now decided by monthly lotteries to secure reservations. There’s more room to play, of course - Yoora has planted a vegetable garden from which much of the menu is made - but, for Chae, the biggest changes have come in the form of gratitude. “I learned I must have a genuine appreciation for everyone visiting my venue, especially when they are patient enough to wait two to three years,” she says. “When you are really thankful, it shows through your service. I may well have repeated my service hundreds of times but it’s my guests' first experience at Chae and it could be their last.”
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