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Hoon in the kitchen.
Hailing from South Korea, Havana Bar head chef Eom Jae Hoon has always been obsessed with food. “I’ve always loved food – like lots of people – but I was curious and wanted to make the dishes I was having out and about at home, so I decided I would become a chef.”
When he was 16 he went into the kitchen of his favourite restaurant and asked whether he could have a job as a chef – he was told no, he couldn’t, he laughs.
But he approached kitchen after kitchen until he was given a job. He soon realised that for him, the best experience would be to work in as many different kitchens as possible rather than going to culinary school.
After making a career working in 10 fine-dining restaurants in Korea, Hoon decided several years ago to come to New Zealand to learn English.
“It was completely random. I wasn’t fussy as to where I went, but the more I looked into it I liked the sound of New Zealand. The melting pot of cultures appealed to me and I wanted somewhere that treated Korean people well.”
He had to choose between Auckland and Wellington, but with the big Asian population in Auckland, thought he would probably find himself hanging out with Koreans there. “I knew that to get my English up to scratch I should make as many non-Korean friends as possible. I jumped into the deep end.” So, Wellington.
He didn’t think he’d ever land a job as a chef again, but if he did, he wanted to ditch the fine dining in favour of a more casual set-up, he says.
“The experience was incredible, but making up to 10-course meals could be quite intense, and the work was really detail-oriented. I learned a lot, but I wanted more face-to-face interactions with customers.”
Put it this way, he says, while his favourite place to eat in Wellington is “hands down” the 10-course set menu from Jano Bistro on Willis Street, he equally loves the beef brisket at K C Cafe & Takeaway on Courtenay Place. In fact, if he had to choose a last meal he’d go for KFC, Korean barbeque, or traditional Korean noodles.
Contrary to popular belief, traditional Korean cuisine isn’t all about chicken, Hoon says. Take a Bibimbap, for example, where the six ingredients in the dish might be bland on their own, but when they’re mixed together the result is “amazing”.
“It’s like New Zealand, in a way. There are so many different ethnicities living here and the result is awesome.”
Now, a typical weekend for Hoon involves finishing in his head-chef role at Havana Bar at about 11pm on Friday. He’ll then wake up at 3am to make donuts with Porno Donuts co-owner Nikos Otis, before heading to the Lower Hutt markets. He might work the dinner service at Havana that night, and then he’ll wake up at 4am on Sunday to get the market donut set-up running again.
He works seven days a week but he wouldn’t change a thing, he says. He’s worked for Wellington’s Ascot and Amok eateries, and last year he was a finalist at the 2021 emerging chef awards in Wellington On A Plate.
This year, he’s got two pop-ups at Havana Bar as part of the food festival and he’s in the throes of setting up a Porno Donuts cafe on Willis Street. The plan is to open in mid-August, he says.
While he hopes to visit his family in Korea in the next two years, he’s content with being in New Zealand for good. He lives with his two favourite things – his girlfriend, and his set of knives, he jokes.
“I always tell my staff that you must treat your knives as if they’re your babies. Don’t ever drop them, and care for them like they’re your kids. I’d save them from a burning house, for sure.”