Walking through the Tongin market crowded with the visitors, there is a quiet Hanok road. After passing all the attractive market food, you can smell the curry from the silence at last. At a small achromatic-color restaurant, there is only one sign ‘Gonggi Restaurant’ in Chinese with clumsy hand writing. I stood for a while to feel the sunshine of Seochon with Cori, the street cat that couldn’t just pass the food smell, and then walked into the restaurant. Beyond the plain noren, I could see the interior of the restaurant which looked as simple as the outside. The owner seemed busy preparing food to serve the customers but still at the same time. I sat on a chair and checked today’s menu. Air Restaurant changes its menu everyday and we can see the daily menu and daily life of the owner as well as his thoughts. (interestingly, the SNS idea is lonley_table.) Today’s menu, ‘Chicken Tandoori Katsu Curry, had a half-cooked egg on the top, and the egg came on the side in a separate dish with ‘Cream Cheese Kima Curry’. It looks like every curry contains certain flavor and method that the owner pursues. After having delicious curry and busy lunch time passed, ‘Of Onebook’ had time to have conversations with him.
*Gonggi means ‘air’*
Q1. Hello, the name ‘Gonggi Restaurant’ sounds quite special, I would like to ask where it is originated from.
“There is a Japanese band called ‘KukiKodan’. Their music is so quiet, and I felt relaxed listening their songs. I wanted to have a quiet space and suddenly an idea came up in my head. a bowl of rice bowl is Gonggi, the air we breathe is gonggi, that’s how Gonggi restaurant got its name.”
Q2. When and how Gonggi restaurant was started?
“When I was working at a company, I went to cooking classes in weekends or on holiday because I just like cooking. Since I enjoy cooking and baking, I personally practice and take lessons. In the meantime, I got too much stresses from the company. I even couldn’t go for summer vacation two years before I quit, and I realized that it would be better for me to do what I like. That’s how I started.”
Q3. You said you like bread and other cuisines but I wonder why you chose ‘curry’ as the main menu.
“There was a lesson called ‘Japanese Western cuisine’. The topic was the western cuisine created in Japan, and one of the menus was ‘Hotel Curry’. ‘Hotel Curry’ is called Gupoong Curry in Japan which is a sort of European style curry. It is made of roux which is mixture of flour and spices, and beef stock with shoulder blades. It doesn’t seem like there is nowhere that sells this curry in Korea. Sometimes I make it as ‘Gurapa Curry’*, just few times a year because it takes too much energy. When I first started this restaurant, there were not many curry places using spices. Most of them use Japanese solid roux, right? Since the only places dealing with the spices were the ones operated by local Indian people, so thought it could be a great niche market, but it looks like the spices are not familiar with Korean people yet.”
(*Koreans used to call Europe as ‘Gurapa’)
Q4. It is impressive that you change the menu everyday. I would like to ask why.
“If the restaurant is on the main street and can attract many people, then I probably can go with one menu, but since it’s in an alley and not many people pass by, it is limited to attract customers only with one menu. So I build a system to change the menu everyday and also I would get bored to make the same thing all the time, as well as the customers. I can’t prepare many menus because I prepare almost by myself. Instead, I make 2 to 3 menus a day and change them everyday.
Q5. I wonder the criteria of selecting menus.
“In case of curry, if we assume that there are two menus per day, one is creamy, then the other one is not. Or one with tomato which gives acidity, and the other would be brown curry without tomato. Like the menus counter each other. Otherwise, if there is one type of curry, then there would be set menu. I used to give notice of a whole week’s menu before, but it was hard. So I see my condition of the day and make something easier to prepare if I’m tired.”
Q6. What is the most popular menu among the customers?
“People like ‘Butter Chicken Curry’ and ‘Katsu Curry’. However, what I personally like is ‘Gurapa Curry’ and there is a menu called ‘Mountain after Mountain Port Curry’. This is quite a western style curry I like, but I can’t do it often as it takes lots of efforts to make. Personally I like those curries which requires lots of hands to make but then I have not enough time.
Q7. What is the reason you run a restaurant by yourself? I see the SNS account is ‘lonely_table’ as well.
“The revenue itself is not fixed. Because the floating population is low in this area and the restaurant is inside the alley. In addition, curry is not kind of menu that people eat that often. Well if I have a lot of customers, then I would hire employees, but it’s not like that. So I run it on my own only with part-timers during lunch and dinner time. I can’t predict how many customers will come. Someday, there are a lot, someday there are not.”
Q8. Please tell me if you have the details, considerate cares or strategies that are small but strong.
“I take care of, that (정숙: Please Be Quiet). Many of the customers come to eat alone. However, sometimes during the lunch time, there are some businessmen, a group of 3 or 4, make really loud noise. I even can hear what they say in the kitchen. It can really bother the people next to them. So I always put the notice ‘It is a small space. Please lower your voice’, in red pen but it’s often ignored. There are people almost yelling, and one time, I had a quarrel because I politely asked a noisy customer to be quiet a little bit. Other thing that I keep in mind is that I try to provide curries which are difficult to have in other places. People who enjoy curry like this, but people who don’t, sometimes do not really like it.”
Q9. What do you care the most in the process of cooking?
“Only using the spices. So I don’t have any solid curry roux in my restaurant. Only spices. It is based on Indian curry, but in some cases I put Japanese rice or soy sauce. The base is Indian style, but it’s little bit different. Since I think if It’s too Indian, then it doesn’t match the people’s taste, I give a touch of Japanese style, I make this kind of curry. There is a kind of a seed called ‘Cardamom’ which is put in curry sometimes. If you bite it, it pops in your mouth with the flavor that might be weird to the people who don’t like, and they just need to put it aside, but sometimes people ask what it is. It’s still edible but it’s more for giving flavor to the curry. I care this kind of thing as well.
Q10. I can see many interesting items. What made you display the curry collection cards?
“I have a friend who works at a company and he’s been my customer. A loyal customer. He didn’t eat curry that much before, but he started to get addicted with it since he had my curry, and he made an independent publication. These are what he made, also displayed at the restaurant. It’s called ‘Curry Collection Card’, there is a space to write down the taste of curry you have as well. That drawing of a cat is also made by a customer. They all came as a customer at first.
Q11. By the way, I can find the traces of cats in your SNS as well as the restaurant here. I wonder if you have a story related to the cats.
“Many street cats come out during the night, because there are no people around. If I leave the door open, sometimes they come inside, so it was in spring about 2 years ago, a cat named ‘Haru’ dropped by and since he started to come to have meals here, more and more cats came as well. And one day, there was a cat named ‘Miro’, he was like a house cat, he stayed still even if I touched him. I almost raised him at the restaurant and suddenly he’s gone last February. I haven’t seen him since that. Now, ‘Cori’ keeps coming. I named her after the spice, coriander.”
Q12. There are a lot of small shops in Seochon apart from ‘Air Restaurant’. What would be the direction that you want those shops to pursue?
“There is not much interaction among the shops around. I guess they are all focusing on their own businesses as there is no group or association of the vendors to open a flea market in weekend or set up a space where each shop can bring their special items and sell. Moreover, there is a physical distance among the places as well.
Q13. In conclusion.
“I hope more people come to this area. There are a lot in weekends but during the weekdays, there are only few outside visitors. They are the ones who keep the shops to stay longer, but they are not enough now.”
The places are gone if there are no people visiting the area. Looking from the outside, ‘Air Restaurant’ is far from fancy techniques that attract attentions. It’s small and quiet. Anyone can focus on curry quietly like the music of ‘Gonggi Gongdan’ thanks to the considerate owner. And the efforts to provide different kinds of curry every day. All of these are the small but strong details that ‘Air Restaurant’ has pursued over 4 years. One day, if I have a chance, I have to try ‘Gurapa Curry’ that the owner is proud of, listening to the songs of ‘Gonggi Gongdan’.
INTERVIEW DATE / 2019. 06. 04
INTERVIEWEE / @lonely_table
INTERVIEWER / Won, Wan
Edited by | SEOCHONYOOHEE Photo by | SEOCHONYOOHEE
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