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Why Deuki Hong Left NYC to Grow as a Chef

He wants to open a restaurant group unlike any other

Lucy Beaugard

As the search for 2017’s class of Eater Young Guns ramps up, we’re taking a look at back at past winners. First up: Deuki Hong.

After living, breathing, and eating beef and pork in New York for several years, Deuki Hong, former executive chef of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, author of Koreatown, and 2015 Eater Young Gun, was ready for a change of both protein and scenery. So he decided to start serving fried chicken — his favorite dish — out of a hallway in the back of a Boba Guys shop in San Francisco.

Hong prefers the crispy Southern version to the sauce-coated Korean-style kind, so that’s what he serves. “It's funny because I just wanted to do a good fried chicken and when I opened the doors, people were expecting Korean fried chicken.” Customers who come in to eat his chicken can’t help but ask when he’ll open a Korean barbecue restaurant. (The answer is soon. The investors are ready and he is looking at spaces.) For now, Sunday Bird is the perfect place for him.

Lucy Beaugard

Opening Sunday Bird was his way of integrating — as seamlessly as he could — into San Francisco. It is a place for him to learn and mess up, “an appropriate, low-key way to enter a city.” Hong is involved in every aspect of this concept and says even hanging up his own decorations felt good. “If it's a success or a fail, I know I gave it everything, everything, like all of it, all of me.”

He left New York because he was starting to feel complacent and lazy. (In 2015, he did say he didn’t expect to be in New York forever.) “At my age, I was getting a little bit too ahead of myself, and I didn't like that, so one thing at a time, one chicken at a time.” Sunday Bird gave him the perfect opportunity to go back to square one. He’s rebuilding his foundation: He spends the bulk of his time washing dishes and being elbow deep in raw chicken with only one other employee, his prep cook, Sergio.

Lucy Beaugard
Lucy Beaugard

Hong has gotten a great amount of support from specific individuals — like the co-owners of Boba Guys, Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, who “gain nothing from [him] being back there — they’re just gracious guys” as well as the community as a whole. Chau and Chen, too, had experience working out of the back of a shop — in their case, it was a ramen shop — and, according to Hong, it’s personal for the duo. “They want to help out the next generation of kids that are just trying to do something,” he says. Hong calls San Francisco supportive and forgiving, even when he messes up. And he messed up quite a bit. “I served raw chicken — there’s been, like, all this stupid, culinary 101 fundamental stuff that I've messed up on and people still support.” Whereas in New York, he feels that chefs need to “prove themselves” in order to be accepted, San Francisco welcomed him with open arms. “When news broke out that I was coming out here, people were like, ‘Hey, I'm this guy from this place. Let me know if you need anything.’”

Despite all the positive reinforcement, Hong has a bone to pick with San Francisco’s Korean food scene. Even when he was New York, he constantly heard about how the Korean food in San Francisco sucks. “As a Korean, you kind of get sick of hearing that, and there's a certain point when you're just annoyed.” He wants to set up something that could change the reputation of San Francisco’s Korean food. Hong said it might take him three years or 30 years, but he’s eager to fill the void.

Lucy Beaugard

Unlike Sunday Bird, his next few projects will not be undertaken alone. Expect a fermentation lab, as well as a soon-to-come restaurant group. He plans for the lab to produce food for the group’s restaurants. Though he wants to start with Korean basics, like gochujang and doenjang, he is not opposed to using products that aren’t Korean. Hong wants experimental fermentation “to be the nucleus of every concept that [they] do.” And as with his experience at Sunday Bird, Hong is not looking for absolute perfection. “Sometimes you're gonna create really awesome stuff and sometimes you're going to create absolute crap, but I think having the luxury to do that, or having a group dedicated to doing that, is going to be super important for us.”

Hong’s restaurant group isn’t a traditional restaurant group, formed around a big-name culinary genius or hotel. The group is comprised of talented chefs, bar people, and service folks from across the nation who may not have had the exposure he’s gotten from his time at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. He refers to it as a “collective,” compares it to a talent or sports agency, and wants to treat it as a platform for some of his most talented friends in the industry. Hong says its structure is inevitably different, because it’s “just a bunch of kids that want to provide really cool concepts. That's it.” Although they may not be household names, these chefs believe they have the drive and desire to “last longer than anybody else.”

Hong says his friends in his collective are better than him, point blank. “They cook a lot better than I do, and that's not even an exaggeration. They just need something — whether it's resources or network — they just need that and they're gonna crush it and I'm excited just to be a part of it.” Hong says the collective doesn’t have a goal, just big dreams. “We know that we're one step in the right direction, and if we do it right, if we execute the way we know how to execute, we should have a couple of things open.”

When the concepts do launch, Hong and his collective plan to use “Sunday” in the names of all their projects. While at Jean-Georges, Hong says his life revolved around cooking, and he sacrificed his only day off — Sunday — to “beat everyone out and prove myself.” He was “super competitive, arrogant, and miserable.” Using Sunday in the projects’ names reflects the group’s desire to reflect a “convivial, family-oriented hospitality style.” He wants the group to be a “people-first hospitality group,” which not only includes looking out for its guests, but also its team members — its family — who serve as the foundation of it all.