Ji Kang of Samar on What He Learned After Restaurant Ownership and Eating Live Octopus
The first thing you probably should know about chef Ji Kang is that once he ate squiggling octopus tentacles in Korea. That's hard-core dedication to local cuisine, even though he swears he'll never try it again.
Kang, who is the executive chef at Samar, began his culinary career before he even knew it. His grandmother owned a hostel in Korea where she cooked from scratch and was a gracious host to travelers from around the world. Kang was exposed to these traits early life and since has learned just how valuable they are to him now.
Here's our chat about his upbringing and career, including what he learned after a stint in restaurant ownership:
Where are you from?
I grew up mainly in Austin, but lived in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tampa Bay and in Richardson for awhile too. After high school, I went to culinary school at the Dallas Art Institute.
Do you think Austin has changed much since you moved away in 2006?
It's incredible how much it's change. I went there this weekend, and I honestly didn't recognize a thing.
Tell me about your grandma.
My grandmother had a hostel in South Korea, she was really big into presentation and making people feel warm and welcome. She's the kind of person that people meet and they instantly love her.
You opened your own restaurant in Houston a couple of years ago [which is now closed]. What did you learn from owning a restaurant?
The one thing I took the most from opening a restaurant was that it takes a ton of dedication and customer service is just so important. Honestly, before I opened the restaurant, as a chef, I thought the food would be the main attraction. But after that experience, I learned that the front of the house managers do a lot of work in keeping the customers happy and making sure they build relationships and make sure the people that came in left happy.
I suppose as a chef you think you can control everything with good food, but maybe it's not the case if customers are upset about this or that.
Exactly. That was the biggest challenge. I was stuck in the back cooking away and I never experienced what the customers were saying about service or atmosphere.
Do you now have a different philosophy on how the back of the house works with the front of the house?
Definitely. Especially at Samar. I diligently work with the front of the house to make sure all the servers are OK and they know what we're producing. Plus we have to make sure they're talking to the customers about what we're doing. I communicate with the GM constantly now.
Do you interact with Stephan Pyles much (who owns Samar)?
Yes, all the time.