When Dave Park and Jennifer Tran opened Hanbun in a nondescript Asian food court in the Chicago suburbs in December 2015, hardly anyone knew about it. And even if someone did know about the Korean food counter out in Westmont, they probably weren’t able to find it.
“I remember I used to have to tell people how to get here even with Google Maps because they'd be driving around for 50 minutes looking for the place,” Park says. “They didn't think that we would be in a plaza in a food court behind an elevator. Getting our name out there in the beginning was kind of hard.”
Fourteen months and a seemingly endless stream of exalting reviews later and every food obsessive in the Chicago area knows Hanbun’s name. Because in April, Park became a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, a moment that continues to astonish the Korean-born chef to this day. It won’t be astonishing, however, if there are more awards in his future.
Park, a 27-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate who moved from Korea to New Jersey with his family when he was eight, nearly gave up on cooking forever following a one-day stage at Chicago’s world-renowned Alinea. "Wow, I don't think I'm good enough,” he remembers thinking after that one day working in Grant Achatz’s kitchen. “I don't think I can make this. This is not for me. These people are way better than I will ever be." He moved back to Jersey and didn’t cook again for almost six months.
But the internal drive Park felt to cook, and the buzz he felt when he nourished others, never left him. After moving back to Chicagoland to be with his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée Tran (who grew up in Westmont), he started working at a parade of great Chicago restaurants, gaining skills and confidence in each kitchen. He started off as line cook at the now-shuttered Michelin-starred Takashi, moved on to Achatz’s The Aviary in the same role, and then finally rose to sous chef at the now-closed Storefront Company.
Park had never cooked Korean food at any of his professional stops, but along the way he’d started feeling the tug of his childhood memories. He wanted to use the techniques he learned under Michelin-starred chefs to reimagine the food he grew up eating, and decided to do so in his own restaurant. Park chose to open in a location that many people he’d cooked for professionally in the past — and, certainly, many Chicagoans — may not have even known existed: the food court of the International Mall in suburban Westmont. Surrounded by mom-and-pop Taiwanese and Chinese food stands, the stall he found had been vacant for 10 years.
Although romantic and personal — Tran’s family had been visiting the mall for lunch since her childhood, and it’s in the food court that he proposed to her — the decision to open Hanbun here was risky because of the extreme lack of exposure, yet safe in the sense that opening and operating costs were relatively low. Park thought it was best to start slow. “We didn't have to invest too much financially,” he says, “and at the same time, if we did suffer and if it did go kind of astray, it wouldn't affect us as much as it would if it were in the city.”
Hanbun started out slow in its service too — it served only lunch for months, a menu where Park reimagined Americanized Korean food staples with a chef’s touch, including bibimbap, ramyun, bulgogi, and toasted rice cake skewers. But the accolades and crowds started flooding in when he made an even more unexpected move a few months later — reservations-only, tasting-menu dinners he terms Juhnyuk, meaning the evening meal. Serving only six to 10 people three to four nights a week, Park and Tran serve seven courses of Michelin-level “Korean food through a modern lens” to a table in Hanbun’s kitchen. Those dinners, which Park has even served versions of to delegates of the United Nations, are now completely booked until the middle of next year. That’s also when Hanbun’s lease ends, and the team has yet to decide the restaurant’s “next steps.”
But now, 17 months into business, it’s safe to say that the decision has paid off so far — and that Hanbun is outgrowing its stall in the food court. Although Park says he and Tran still run the restaurant 99 percent of the time, the business — especially following the James Beard nomination — “literally took off” and is necessitating more staff and space. Enter Park’s next goal to open a standalone restaurant.
“The next step is to take this idea of our restaurant farther, in our own space, so we can create our own ambiance and do a little bit more with the food,” he says. “Certain things are kind of out of our power [in the food court], like the air conditioning or cleanliness or things of that nature. I would like to kind of own it all in a sense.” He says he’s considering opening the new spot in the suburbs or the city, and that it would be small-scale, cozy, and affordable.
If Park can gain a James Beard Award nomination and sell out tasting- menu dinners for months from a stall inside a suburban food court, imagine what he could do at a standalone restaurant.