L'Espoir on mission to spread French bistro tradition
By Kwaak Je-yup
The familiar myth that nine out of 10 restaurants go out of business within a year may not be accurate, yet it is no surprise that selling food, drinks and providing related services is not an easy affair.
Government statistics say that at least half do close down three years after opening in Korea. So by that standard, L’Espoir, the tiny four-year-old French bistro on an unsuspecting corner of Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, seems to have secured success.
Its enduring popularity has patrons coming back “too often” and weekend dinner reservations are as impossible to score as at the hottest restaurants in New York.
“There are no-shows, obviously,” said Im Ki-hak, head chef and owner, shrugging his shoulders during a recent interview. “But I’d say on any given night 30 percent of our customers are regulars.”
With a four-course prix fixe starting at 58,000 won and lunch menu costing 36,000 nowadays — they used to be more piggybank-friendly — Im’s cuisine may no longer be in everyone’s range. But his clientele have remained faithful as he is always seasonally updating his menu while staying true to authentic French recipes.
Since L’Espoir’s founding in 2008, it has introduced dishes like duck confit to his Korean customers, which some did not understand in the beginning.
“A group of eight ladies were sitting down and looking at it and said: ‘That’s it? You’re giving us one chicken leg?’”
He has brought lesser-known fare such as cassoulet, meat casserole in southern French style, and pot-au-feu, beef stew, to people’s attention, along with the bistro atmosphere. He is like a missionary spreading new food in a foreign land.
“I don’t think you can define what a bistro is in one neat sentence. One could put it as entry-level dining maybe, but there are a few necessary components: the color of the interior, the chairs, the food... I read through 15 different books about bistros to create the look. I want (L’Espoir) to be like a textbook example for bistros.”
Although he was a classically-trained voice student in high school and college, Im was no stranger to the kitchen. His parents operated restaurants in Seoul and Tokyo, and his grandfather, also a chef, invented the first Korean-style barbecue grill, introducing the dish now known as yakiniku to Japan.
One day he read an article about Daniel Boulud, one of the world’s most respected chefs, and was inspired to jump onto the bandwagon, too.
“I saw an overlap between Boulud and my grandfather, both of them being artisans.”
His parents were initially against the idea, knowing the line of work inside out, but they could not dissuade him.
After finishing his obligatory military service, in 2002, he went to the world-renowned culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and eventually landed an internship at his French hero’s restaurant Daniel in New York. After graduation, he worked at the affiliate DB Bistro for almost two years. Afterwards in Korea, he worked at the Paris Grill at the Grand Hyatt on Mt. Nam and at Cornerstone in the Park Hyatt in southern Seoul. He went back to New York briefly but finally decided to strike out on his own in 2008.
“There were quite a few happenings when I first tried to start a business,” which he would not disclose, “And finally an investor — a really good man — signed up. I felt a sense of comfort, then, and that feel
ing reminded me of a street in Providence called Hope Street. That’s how the name L’Espoir came about.”
Im is the first one to admit that he is a young chef, with much to learn. Therefore, he looks forward to the future with a singular passion to introduce new foods and a fresh dining culture to his home country.
“I didn’t open it when I had a ton of experience. That’s why I looked to bistros. I thought the concept was not fully introduced yet at the time. I looked to my grandfather’s story, how he brought something new. I have that sense of mission.”