Woongchul Park

Woongchul Park

Woongchul Park

After learning his trade at restaurants and hotels in South Korea, America and London, chef Woongchul Park returned to the capital to train at Le Cordon Bleu. Today, he blends Korean ingredients with his modern European style at his one Michelin star restaurant Sollip.

We have bread to thank for many of our simplest food joys, from towering sandwiches and buttery toast to sweet and spiced bread and butter pudding. Few of us can resist the smell of freshly-baked bread, including chef Woongchul Park, whose path to the kitchen was actually inspired by a childhood love of bread, beginning when a bakery opened near his home in South Korea. ‘My mother used to put money for bread out and after school I’d go home, grab the money and go there to buy bread every day,’ he says. ‘I loved it.’

Though he considered a career as a pastry chef, he found he lacked the patience for baking, instead turning his focus to cooking. After leaving school, he studied a culinary arts major at university, a foundation that served him well when he then moved to Boston, to work at a Hyatt hotel, and, later, London. He looks back on those times with mixed memories; though he loved learning and feeling at home in the kitchen, he also faced the often daunting experience of upping sticks and moving to a new place. ‘I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,’ he nods. ‘I didn’t speak English properly, culturally it’s totally different and my personality is specific, I like what I like and don’t like what I don’t like. I used to go to the bookstore and sometimes shopping but apart from that I just worked. I have good memories, especially in London.’

It was while in the US that his eyes were first opened to the world of French and Michelin star cooking; he quickly felt a natural affinity with its precision and a hunger to learn more. ‘Before that time, my dream, my goal as a chef, was to become executive chef of a hotel,’ he says. ‘That’s what I knew, but then I learnt about the Michelin style and I wanted to learn from the bottom and start again.’ After a spell at home in South Korea figuring out his next steps, he returned to London to study at Le Cordon Bleu, enticed by the capital's vibrant restaurant scene. He was in his element (‘it wasn’t like high school or secondary school where you have to go, even though you don’t want to,’ he laughs), his college training and kitchen experience giving him an initial edge on his peers.

After graduating in 2010, Woongchul spent another year in the States before returning to Korea, where he accepted a job at a French restaurant and began looking for a pastry chef to join the team. One name sprang to mind – Bomee Ki. The pair had met while studying in London (Bomee was a Diplôme de Pâtisserie student), but didn't know each other well and had no idea they would, years later, be married with a family. ‘A Korean friend had introduced us and we just said hi and that was it,’ he smiles. Luckily, Bomee accepted the job offer and the pair reconnected in Korea, before marrying in 2013 and moving to London that year, with Woongchul working at the likes of The Ledbury, Koffmann’s and The Arts Club. Though they spent a few years back in Korea when they started a family, their minds soon turned to the next challenge.

It was in 2019 that Woongchul moved to London alone, on a mission to find both a family home and a restaurant. Having settled on a Bermondsey site for what would become their restaurant Sollip, Bomee and their family joined him, but their resolve in what was an already bold move must have been tested when, just a few months later, the pandemic derailed their opening plans and threw them into lockdown in their new home. In August 2020, Sollip finally opened, though it had to weather the subsequent lockdowns (during which Woongchul and Bomee briefly transformed it into a Korean grocery store). Though it has been mistaken for one, Sollip – meaning 'pine needle' in Korean – is not a Korean restaurant. Its tasting menu is one of delicate European technique with flecks of Korean flavour. ‘Sollip is, we always say, a modern European restaurant influenced by Korean ingredients,’ Woongchul nods, ‘managed by Korean chefs.' As eating out returned to normal, the restaurant found a stable footing, its momentum accelerated by glowing reviews on social media and from critics, which were joined in 2022 by praise from Michelin inspectors, who awarded Sollip its first star.

Though we have no doubt Sollip would have earned its acclaim sooner or later, its inclusion in the hallowed red book certainly helped it make its mark. 'The star was early and I’m very thankful,’ Woongchul says. ‘I was just very happy, and thankful to our guests, London and the UK government, because they made it possible for us to be here. I feel really lucky.’ For the time being, Woongchul is focused on Sollip, though he has one eye on the future. He talks about one day becoming something of a ‘Korean culture spreader’, teaching Londoners about Korea, from its food and drink to wider culture. Those plans might, down the line, involve another Korean grocery store. ‘I’m very proud as a Korean and I love our country, and I want to show our character,’ he smiles. ‘For me, China has its Chinese character and Japan has its Japanese character, and I want to show Korea’s character.’