Korean cuisine has been on the rise in Sydney for several years now, but the recent emergence of Korean pop culture has only added fuel to the fire. With the growing popularity of K-pop music and Korean movies, more and more Sydneysiders are seeking out Korean cuisine to get a taste of the culture they’re falling in love with.
For David Bae, leader of Sydney’s new Korean focussed hospitality group, Kolture, this couldn’t ring more true. Having brought Kogi, an artisan KBBQ experience and Tokki, a modern Korean Anju Bar (snacks suited for drinks) to Sydney already, Bae has witnessed the city fall in love with the sizzling flavours and vibrant culture of Korean cuisine.
“Post-pandemic, Korean culture shot through the roof, and that has a lot to do with Netflix and Kpop, but for me, I think it’s more about the art and creativity Koreans are bringing out to the world,” said Bae.
“Being Korean myself, I’ve wanted to educate Western culture, but Korea has been shut out from the rest of the world for so long. They’ve been in survival mode for so long, but now they have the freedom to express themselves, and it’s infecting the world. Just look at Blackpink and BTS or Squid Games. All eyes are on Korean culture right now.”
Sydney Restaurants have noticed this trend and started catering to K-pop and Korean movie fans. Many Korean restaurants offer special menus featuring dishes inspired by popular K-pop groups or Korean dramas.
Take, for instance, Honey, a new Korean Fried Chicken restaurant inspired by the nightlife of Seoul. It serves Pocha-style (drinking and feasting) shareable dishes and Korean-style cocktails and plays K-pop music videos all night, along with a head-height recording of a walking tour of Seoul. Bornga, another popular Korean BBQ restaurant in Sydney, offers a BTS-themed menu with dishes named after the group members.
This trend has influenced the way Korean cuisine is presented in Sydney. Korean restaurants are now focused on creating visually stunning dishes that are Instagram-worthy and can appeal to fans of K-pop and Korean dramas.
According to Bae, the restaurant’s add bars under the Kolture banner focus on providing authentic and sometimes fusion Korean flavours and the Korean experience.
“Koreans are the number one drinkers in the world,” said Bae reluctantly. After a quick fact check, it was discovered that the biggest hard alcohol drinkers on the globe are sipping Soju in South Korea. Koreans drink 13.7 shots of liquor per week. That’s twice as much liquor as Russians, and more than four times as much as Americans drink.
“People don’t realise, but Koreans have Soju for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’ve been pairing alcohol with food since before it was trendy,” he said.
Bae explains whether it’s banchan or a fine dining format, the food usually pairs well with a cocktail or drink. This is why Kolture is focused on creating dining concepts that complement a drinking experience.
SOOT, a premium and modern Korean BBQ meets Australian steakhouse venue that is set to open Thursday, May 11, will be the first venue in the Kolture portfolio to meld Eastern and Western styles, focusing on quality drinking and dining.
“We wanted to marry the two cultures together, so expect the fast-paced humm of a KBBQ joint, but with a premium fit-out and lineup of steakhouse cuts—and let’s not forget the incredible cocktails,” said Bae. “Think of the stuff you’ve probably never seen at a KBBQ joint in Sydney before.”
This is quite a leap from Bae’s family roots, which are steeped in Korean BBQ history. His father, Donald Bae was the first person to bring the concept of Korean BBQ to Australia in 1992 and has owned one of Sydney’s most popular KBBQ joints, Kogi, since 2018. Yet, David continually seeks to break the boundaries of Australia’s dining scene, and no doubt SOOT will do just that.
“I know Korean BBQ like the back of my hand and learnt from the masters. I want to take the experience up a notch for Sydneysiders. SOOT will be more refined and not as fast-paced as your usual KBBQ. We want to take the time to educate and guide our guests on how to have the ultimate experience, showing them aspects of our cultural heritage and Korean BBQ and drinking etiquette,” said Bae.
Although, Kolture is not stopping at KBBQ. Bae explains they want to educate diners, presenting a diverse range of Korean dining concepts. “We’re launching a venue called Leemix, helmed by our Executive Chef Jacob Lee, who runs the intimate eight-seater omakase bar, KOBO. Leemix will be the Korean version, where traditional Korean fine dining meets authentic flavours and creative techniques,” he says.
Part of the mission to educate dinners involves the service. Bae was the first to admit most traditional KBBQ joints in Sydney are staffed with non-English speaking waiters, which puts a barrier between customer and service.
“I think a lot of Korean places are behind on the times. They don’t cater to dietary needs, they don’t have English-speaking staff, and they don’t stop to explain the cuisine or techniques to diners. This is understandable given until recently; they only catered to a certain demographic.”
“All we want to do is put Korean food on the map and explain how to enjoy the experience the right way.”