<Bar Cham> aims to make bars more popular in Seochon and get thumbs-up from the folks around. Starting with the creators and joined by the community, the whole story is woven in, making <Bar Cham> now a top-notch village bar. That's probably why you can feel the time that went into making today's <Bar Cham> all around the place. Decked out with sturdy and cool oak, the name <Bar Cham> is actually taken from the Korean word for oak. The wood gives off a comfy and snug feeling, and there's a unique scent in <Bar Cham> that you won't find anywhere else. In this interview, we talk about everything from how it was built to what's on the menu, capturing the journey of <BarCham> from start to finish. Hope you get charmed by the warm and solid vibe of this space through our laid-back chat.
Hello, Thanks for joining the interview. We appreciate your time. Since its opening in 2018, Bar Cham has become a real standout in Seochon. For those new to the spot, could you give a quick intro about what Bar Cham is all about?
Hi. Cham is a bar created by renovating a traditional Korean house. We used oak wood to craft the bar, and we named it Bar Cham to reflect that—taking the Korean word for oak, Cham, as our inspiration. Sometimes names have hidden meanings, but we wanted something easy to understand and direct.
So, is all the wood inside the bar oak? And while various woods are used in construction and furniture, was there something special about oak that led to its selection for Bar Cham?
Exactly. Except for the foundational wooden structure of the traditional Korean house, everything from the chairs and tables you're sitting at to the bar counter, entrance doors, and even the picture frames is made from oak. To be honest, we didn't set out with the specific idea of using oak. If we had chosen a different wood, the name would have turned out quite different. If we went with chestnut wood, we might have been Chestnut, and if zelkova wood, maybe Zelkova Bar (laughs).
When people first heard about a bar named Cham opening in Seochon, they might have wondered if it meant "truth" or "charm." What's the deal with Cham?
I get that question a lot. "Cham" actually stands for "charming," but there were folks who thought it was a typo. The name "Cham" came about because of the materials used in the bar, which have a certain charm. In English, oak is called "oak." While we considered naming the bar "Oak Bar" in English, it just didn't capture the special feel we wanted. So, given that we were setting up shop in Seochon, we thought <Cham>, the Korean term for oak, would be a great fit.
You know, come to think of it, oak itself emits a cozy and comfortable vibe. When you step into the bar, that aroma is just wonderful.
Absolutely. Oak is not only robust but also exudes an inherent elegance that stands out in furniture. Even though I said there wasn't a specific reason for choosing oak, I believe it aligns with our pursuit of a straightforward, honest ambiance. After spending so much time in the bar, it's become so familiar that it's hard to pinpoint the exact feeling. But I reckon that scent you catch while making the "Hamyang" cocktail might be part of it.
It's awesome that the plaque at the entrance carries such a strong presence. Did you intentionally simplify the logo for Cham? And is there a dual meaning in the wood character 木 and the dot 占?
The dual meaning wasn't intentional, but yes, we did want to emphasize the wood character 木 within Cham after breaking it down. We wanted to encapsulate the meaning of oak within the logo. Designer Kang Hyung-shin, who I collaborated with, came up with this idea and it turned out great.
It seems you've captured the essence of Cham. Impressive. Before coming to Seochon, I understand you had various experiences, including at the diverse Speakeasy bars in Hannam-dong. What prompted you to settle in Seochon, leaving behind your experiences at various Speakeasy bars in Hannam-dong?
The first bar I started working at was a small one underground around Nakseongdae. Sales were a constant concern there. My experiences there made me grow as an individual. It shaped my attitude towards daily life. Later on, I wanted to work at trendier places, so I worked at lounge bars in Hongdae and Itaewon. The pace was fast, cocktails had to be made quickly, and with many foreign customers, it demanded a lot of energy. The connections I made during my time at those lounge bars continue till today. Both customers and bartender friends. Afterward, I worked at Moitar in Hannam-dong. While there are now many bars in Hannam-dong, Moltar was one of the pioneers. It was tucked away in a back alley with air conditioning units sticking out and old apartments around. Working there for four years, I started to think about opening my own place. Hannam-dong's atmosphere significantly changes depending on whether it's to the left or right of the main road. Unlike the UN Village area, I was drawn to the area near Soonchunhyang University Hospital, and that's where I opened "Miners."
Does the name <Miners> relate to the plus (+) and minus (-) symbols?
No, it doesn't. In English, it's "Miners," referring to the workers in mines. At that time, bartenders were expected to be solemn and formal, always suited up. It seemed natural to follow that flow. But I didn't think I could quite fit into that mold. That's why I went for a name with a dual meaning, aiming for something not mainstream, something "minor." I'm a bit of a comic enthusiast (laughs), so I merged the concept of mines and steampunk aesthetics for the bar's interior. As it was my first venture, I designed everything from scratch. I still visit there whenever I have spare time. It's like a hometown for me. Taking that experience, I established Bar Cham.
Could you give a brief introduction to your newly opened place, "Pomme"? (Also located in Seochon) Although Pomme opened last year, the preparation period was quite long. It's not a traditional Korean house like Bar Cham, and it seems quite distinct in terms of both the ambiance and the menu. It carries a refreshing vibe unlike the more serious feel of Cham.
At Miners, I wanted to delve into the culture of non-mainstream drinks, while at Cham, I wanted to focus on our own spirits. I aim to give each place its distinct features, and somehow, I tend to go in a slightly different direction from the mainstream (laughs). Most bars focus on mainstream whisky, so I wanted to create a bar without whisky. Idealistically, I thought about doing something like Kyoto's KALBADOOR, which offers over 400 types of Calvados, or Tokyo's Sherry Club, where they present around 200 types of sherry. While some parts were difficult to implement practically, I wanted to move away from the center and delve into Madeira, sherry, fortified wines, Calvados, Pisco, and other fruit-based spirits. Hence, the name of the bar, Pomme, which represents the fruit apple in French.
In your interview with the magazine (noblesse), you mentioned, "Like an apple eaten in the morning, I hope to be a bar you can easily drop by from daytime."
Absolutely. Apples are typically eaten in the morning. Through the name of the bar, I wanted to convey the message that it's a place you can easily visit from early hours. To be honest, I had a lot of deliberations while naming the bar. Pomme is the name that emerged after two changes. It was more challenging than naming Bar Cham.
Running two bars in Seochon must mean you find the area quite appealing. Lately, there's been a growing interest in remodeling old hanok houses. Many building owners have shared that they felt overwhelmed but certain that "this is the place" after they completed the renovation. Did you have a similar feeling when you encountered this building in Seochon?
I simply thought Seochon would be a good fit. I didn't particularly aim for a hanok-style space. It was quite challenging to find a space that was square-shaped and suitable for a bar in Seochon. The current space has a reasonable size and layout for a straight bar, so I chose it.
Was there a significant change in the structure of the existing space?
We completely reorganized the layout of the existing structure. We stripped everything away except for the foundation. As you can probably see, even the ceiling beams were changed. People often thought I was the building owner while observing the construction process. Also, they might think I'm making a lot of money, but that's not the case. I'm working hard to pay off my debts (laughs).
The ambiance that patrons experience now likely didn't exist before. I visited during the day once, and the natural light surprised me. I had thought it would have a dark, weighty atmosphere associated with Cham, but if you maintain the opening hours, many will appreciate the appealing daytime atmosphere of Bar Cham.
When we were preparing to open during the daytime, I enjoyed the sunlight and the view of bamboo through the windows. Even though I'm working, the quality of my life improved because of these scenes. I liked the feeling, so I tried opening during the day. However, since Bar Cham provides dedicated service to each guest, maintaining the opening hours became challenging due to staff schedules. Someday, I'd like to operate like Pomme, open during the day if possible.
In that case, were there challenging aspects while creating Bar Cham?
This is the easiest and yet the toughest question to answer, I believe. Everything was challenging, and it's hard to pick just one aspect. Firstly, there were numerous processes for the entire space. The construction took over three months. We completely restructured the space from how it was before Bar Cham. There were about six pillars throughout the bar, and the friend in charge of interior design suggested replacing these with three large wooden pillars instead of removing them. Also, the entrance door in the center of the building had to be moved slightly to the side since it would hit the chairs when opened due to the bar's placement. During this process, the restroom area became too narrow, so we moved the restroom inside. There was a moment when a mini forklift came in to dig the ground for plumbing, and one of the pillars almost collapsed.
During construction, it's quite rare for the initial plan to match 100%. You must still feel a bit dizzy when thinking about it.
Absolutely. I'd like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my friend. They did the interior design without expecting anything in return. They're like a big benefactor. If you look closely at the wall, it says 'Im Byungjin is a fool' (laughs). My friend, like a benefactor, left it there personally. The meaning behind it was special, so I decided to keep it as is.
As the interview progresses, it seems clear why Bar Cham has firmly established itself as a representative bar in Seochon. Personally, whenever friends visited Seochon, we often directed them to Bar Cham. Recently, I've also visited Pomme multiple times. Although it's a bit unfamiliar, I confidently led my friends there, saying, "This is where the owner of Bar Cham operates." Looking at it that way, you seem to have become a genre of your own. You have a sense of guaranteed success.
Thank you. I've always received help from wonderful people. The most recent addition, Pomme, was created in collaboration with talented individuals who shared their insights, resulting in a space that reflects my vision.
Bartending is a form of art. Cocktails are like artworks. Given your demeanor, you seem like someone who fits well in the field of arts. What prompted you to pursue the path of a bartender?
Actually, I used to work in the field of visual arts. I majored in comics and worked mainly in drama illustration. It wasn't like I had extraordinary talent, so I started working part-time in the service industry to make a living. While there are various options, I wanted to find a field that I could immerse myself in for a long time. Although I had an interest in managing restaurants and becoming a sommelier, I eventually decided to enter the world of bartending. To begin, I enrolled in an international cocktail academy to obtain a bartender's qualification. At that time, the trend in bars focused heavily on performance, so I practiced the technical aspects diligently at an underground practice center. Initially, it was unfamiliar to me, but as I practiced, my skills improved, and I began to enjoy the process of self-improvement. It was a period when my confidence and self-satisfaction were high. However, I started preparing around the age of 26, so there were aspects that were avoided by other bars. I submitted my resume to various places, and a bar in Nakseongdae gave me a chance, which eventually led me to where I am today.
You seem to possess both artistic talents and an artistic sense.
I wouldn't say I have a sense (laughs), but I developed an interest in expressing cocktails and pouring my passion into it. Through this, I ended up learning a lot.
You mentioned in another interview that you graduated from the Gayaengju Research Institute. What aspects of our traditional liquor attracted you?
I started with a vague desire to learn about Korean liquor. As I delved into it, I was drawn to the various facets, profound flavors, and cultural aspects inherent in our traditional liquor. I felt a strong desire to share these charms. This is why I created the Regional Cocktails, combining local ingredients and regional liquors.
Is the Gayaengju Research Institute an academy?
You could think of it as an educational institution. After a 3-month program, you can choose from various advanced courses such as distillation and instructor courses.
It seems like your experience at the institute significantly influenced the menus at Bar Cham.
Yes, that's correct. Although my knowledge is limited compared to those who have been studying Korean liquor for a long time, I still feel a strong sense of responsibility to contribute to the popularization of our traditional liquors.
Are there any specific areas you're currently interested in and keeping an eye on? Or do you have any hobbies like enjoying music or traveling?
Actually, I don't have many hobbies at the moment. I'm currently pondering the quality of life. After completing a tea sommelier course, I'm studying about tea, but ultimately, it's connected to my work, so it feels like an extension of my duties. It's true that I'm fully immersed in work right now. I'm trying to take a step back. I believe that if I'm personally at ease, I can provide better service to our guests.
Previously, you incorporated a lot of steampunk elements into Bar Miners. Is there any personal interest of yours that you've integrated into Bar Cham?
While planning Bar Cham, I tried to exclude personal interests. However, music, for example, is something I pay attention to. I tend to play a lot of Korean songs, which is a bit different from typical bars. In American bars, they play pop music, but I thought it would be okay to play Korean songs in Korea. Foreign guests can experience the true essence of Korea through the music selection. I also incorporated a lot of Korean elements in the menu names. All these factors come together to create the essence of Bar Cham. Rather than intentionally promoting Korea, I wanted these elements to naturally blend in.
Whenever I've found myself at Bar Cham, I've sensed that the bartenders there have a certain firmness about them, yet they also seem approachable. Many of them come from diverse backgrounds, adding to the richness of the experience. When you're looking for potential staff to join your team, what do you prioritize the most?
I'd love to work with people who are sociable. Usually, those who are socially active tend to have a range of experiences and open-minded perspectives. In fact, there are quite a few people working at the bar who come from different fields.
Since the owner also ventured into bartending in their late twenties, it seems they might not place too much importance on age or prior experience.
You're right. As long as someone, even if they're older than me, can communicate well and exude charm, that's enough. Experience does matter, though.
I came across an Instagram post where you bid farewell to a staff member who had been with you for a long time. The fact that you even had t-shirts made and celebrated with the customers left a strong impression. Considering you've been in Seochon since 2018, you must have a lot of regulars. Can you remember any memorable customers?
Every single customer is important to me, and I hold each one in high regard. It's a bit hard to pick just one or two stories, but I remember a couple who visited on our opening day and gave us their wedding invitation because they were getting married. That memory has stuck with me. Seeing the dynamics of relationships change and evolve here is fascinating and rewarding. Witnessing how connections are made and nurtured is one of the things that brings us a lot of satisfaction.
Because of the traditional Korean house setting, it seems like a great place to bring parents on special occasions. I'm curious if there are people who come, hand in hand with their parents, just as I imagined. What's the typical age range of the customers who frequent your bar?
The age range of the customers who visit our bar is really diverse. Actually, I hope older individuals would come too. Sometimes, we do have customers who come with their parents, and every time, I feel thankful and touched. Since my father passed away before he could see the bar open, and my mother doesn't drink, it's heartwarming to see customers with their parents, and it brings up sentimental and affectionate feelings.
You must feel that your place is loved by many.
It's truly something to be grateful for. Nowadays, due to the increased presence on social media, we're seeing a somewhat younger crowd, but we hope that people of all ages will feel comfortable visiting. We'll do our best.
The menu at Bar Cham is quite intriguing to read. It's captivating enough to spark curiosity even in people who don't drink. With items like 'Chungju Kimbap' and 'Fig Leaf,' I'm always amazed whenever you unveil a new cocktail. Where do you draw inspiration for cocktail names and ingredients?
When creating the menu, the most important thing for me is empathy. Elements that customers might not be interested in or find overly complex can make them uncomfortable when visiting the bar. So, I focus on crafting stories that resonate with everyone. I've brought along menus that I've created in the past. Just like how musicians release albums with different concepts, I wanted the Bar Cham menu to be special. The first and second menus both followed the concept of a postcard book, where the front featured postcard images and the back included explanations of the cocktails. However, the second menu took a more classic approach and showcased a wider variety of cocktails. The third menu centered on ‘empathy’ as its main theme. Since customers often ask for recommendations based on their mood when they visit the bar, I thought it would be fun to translate that into menu items with visual representations. I designed it primarily using song and movie titles. For example, the cocktail "Lover Boy" was inspired by a song by Thai artist Phum Viphurit. The music video portrays a lighthearted and enjoyable interaction between a couple on Pattaya Beach, and I wanted to capture that essence. The cocktail is made using ingredients and spirits from that region.
Looking at the past menus, it seems that the fourth menu has quite a unique concept. Could you share more about the concept behind the fourth menu?
The fourth menu was directed by Donghwan, our main bartender at Bar Cham. We wanted to showcase his accumulated experience and expertise, which is why we came up with the concept of ‘Naitte’ (which means "age" in Korea). The outermost section, ‘Mokpi’ (bark), focuses on lighter cocktails, while the inner ‘Chunjae’ (middle age) section contains more lively and refreshing cocktails. We wanted to dedicate the innermost section, ‘Chujae’ (old age), to a collection of cocktails that are solely about the spirits themselves. The menu is quite extensive, and we included a lot of newly imported spirits. Unlike my preference for intuitive menus, Donghwan has an artistic inclination, so he added subtle nuances to the menu design.
Among the numerous cocktails you've created, is there a particular menu that you hold close to your heart?
It would be ‘Spring Day is Leaving.’ The reason behind its creation is quite special. Before being listed in Asia's 50 Best Bars, we were invited to guest bartend in Singapore. The invitation came from a renowned bar, which was both intriguing and exciting. Donghwan and I discussed what kind of cocktail to prepare with a mixture of curiosity and happiness. Since Singapore has a perpetual summer, we thought it would be nice to present a cocktail that embodies Korean seasons. We pondered what scent might represent Korean spring. That's when we thought of Korean strawberry tree (deodeok) and Korean angelica root (danggui). Both ingredients are rarely used in cocktails despite their unique Korean characteristics. While they aren't traditional spirits, we considered them essential to represent Korea. It was a creative way to infuse the essence of Korea into the cocktail.
We briefly touched upon traditional spirits earlier, but it seems that they are an essential part of Bar Cham. Could you recommend a traditional spirit and its ideal food pairing?
A fantastic spirit, which was already great to begin with and has been getting even better, is Chusa. It's produced in Yesan, Chungcheongnam-do, using distilled Yesan apples. Yesan is also the hometown of Chusa Kim Jeong-hee. Aside from Chusa itself being quite charming, they released a new spirit called Chusa Baek earlier this year. Even though it wasn't aged, it retains the aroma of apples, providing a stable and smooth experience. It has a creamy and mellow profile with fruity notes and quality distillation, typical of fruit spirits. While it's delightful to enjoy on its own, due to its higher alcohol content and rounded brandy-like touch, it pairs nicely with Tongin Sweet's egg tart. It's a wonderful match for a light, late-night snack.
With so many customers frequenting your bar, have you ever been inspired by them to create a menu item?
Actually, there are quite a few cocktails on the menu named after customers. Some cocktails were originally created to match the tastes of particular guests, and there are cocktails with intense ingredients designed to reflect the unique character of certain customers. For instance, I've combined funky rum, lime, ginger, and mint all in one cocktail to cater to a guest with a discerning palate.
Cocktail enthusiasts must have been really fascinated by the menu.
They certainly are. Due to considerations of fairness, we can't feature guest-inspired cocktails on the menu frequently. However, if the opportunity arises, I would like to create a menu with cocktails inspired by guests, incorporating storytelling elements.
Bar Cham has gained a lot of love, and it seems that Bar Pomme is also getting a lot of attention. Do you have any plans for a third location?
There aren't any immediate plans for a third location. Right now, I need to work hard to pay off debts (laughs). However, a few years from now, I'd like to open a bar where I can try out some experimental ideas we've tested at Cham and Form. It would be a place I run on my own, focusing on a clean concept. It might sound fancy to call it a role model, but there's a bar in Japan called Gen Yamamoto. It's a simple place, run neatly by a single person, and interestingly, they serve cocktails omakase-style. That means you have to choose from their set menu for the day. It's quite intriguing, isn't it? While I won't copy that exact style, I want to incorporate the ambiance and skills that person showcases. I have a lot of room for improvement with my current abilities, but within the next 3 to 5 years, I'd like to open a bar on my own that has a well-organized atmosphere.
Your current establishments have different vibes.
That's right. Bar Cham has a friendly and polite feel, while Pomme has a fancier and more energetic atmosphere. If I were to picture the future third location, I'd want it to be a space where people feel at ease and comfortable. That will largely depend on my own skills. It's something I aim to tackle eventually.
How would you like Bar Cham to be remembered by people in the future?
Currently, there are titles like "Asia's 50 Best Bars" and others. While many people are recognizing Cham now, the ultimate goal for Bar Cham is to become a place that the local community is proud of. As the years go by, Cham will naturally move away from the center of attention, but my hope is that it will remain a beloved spot in the neighborhood for a long time. When people think of the Seochon area, I hope they think, "There's a nice and great bar there." I want it to be a place where people can visit and feel comfortable.
Having Bar Cham in Seochon is something to be proud of.
Thank you. In truth, I've always wanted to gain recognition from the people in Seochon. In the beginning, when I mentioned opening a bar, there were skeptical looks at times. It's important to work hard to become a bar that these individuals are proud of and respect.
The strong connection with customers as a ‘neighborhood bar’ is crucial.
I've been advocating for making bars more accessible for a long time, even when Cham and Miners were being established. Normally, bars are located in basements or dimly lit places, but I wanted to open a neighborhood bar on the ground floor with windows. That's still the direction I'm striving for. Going forward, I want to keep making bars more approachable.
Thank you once again for taking the time for this extensive interview.
Thank you for having me.
Edited by | SEOCHONYOOHEE Photo by | SEOCHONYOOHEE
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