He practically begged to work for Tetsuya Wakuda. But when Sun Kim opened his own restaurant, his background became a double-edged sword. Some press wondered if this was yet another opportunistic celebrity protégé who flew the coup too early. The diners came in droves — and few returned.
“It all happened too fast,” Kim recalls. He had already quit from Waku Ghin to return to his hometown in South Korea when the offer to helm a restaurant presented itself. Young and ambitious, he seized the opportunity and dove into the deep. Meta opened its doors within a week.
Struggling to find his footing amidst the opening stage frenzy, Kim cobbled together something that he felt was befitting of his background. Yet, he was so hung up about playing up his pedigree that he unconsciously mimicked the style of his mentor.
All it took was three months – business dwindled, and Kim realised he could no longer let his background define him.
He looked first at his skills and strengths: a decent mastery of French haute cuisine techniques, a good knowledge of premium Japanese produce, and an understanding of Korean flavours. Most would probably leverage on the Korean factor to create a unique identity. But Kim wasn’t about to take the easy way out this time.
“I don’t let what people say bother me so much anymore.”
– Sun Kim, chef-owner of Meta
“I sat down with my opening team and we all shared ideas. We decided that we weren’t going to box ourselves up by calling our cuisine ‘modern Korean’. It is too limiting. Rather, we decided to give ourselves the freedom to do anything we felt like doing.”
Taking the free-styling route also allowed Kim to fully tap into his other culinary experiences. “Prior to Tetsuya’s (in Sydney) and Waku Ghin, I worked in Italian, French, Japanese restaurants. These all form my background and make me the chef I am today. So I tried to tap into whatever I learnt at each of the restaurants.”
The result was a brand new menu — more toned down, not trying too hard to be different, yet deliciously distinct. Gone were the over-thought dishes with too many components.
Take the Hamachi sashimi from the second menu. Dressed simply in a yuzu vinaigrette and topped with a spring salad, the dish sounds plain on its own. “But it is what I serve to showcase Meta wherever I go in the world,” shares Kim.
It was a gamble that paid off. Spotlighting robust-flavoured ingredients through carefully calibrated creations with just the right balance of acidity and lightness became a style associated with Kim, and the diners loved it.
“The food at Meta now is completely different from when we just opened. The restaurant is an extension of myself and my team, and we are constantly evolving through our work experience and dining experiences,” shares Kim.
“This might sound like over-confidence, but after receiving a Michelin star (for Meta), I feel validated. I don’t let what people say bother me so much anymore,” says Kim, almost grim-faced – perhaps recalling early days of negative press.
Coming from a 34-year-old, these words can easily be mistaken for arrogance. But what Kim doesn’t publicise is the struggle he went through to find himself and the occasional self-doubt that still grips him with every menu change. Humility grounds him, and we know that for a fact: Kim still keeps his opening menu as a reminder of how wrong he once got things.
He is in a happy place now. “I must be doing something right for my customers to return, and they always seem to look forward and enjoy the new dishes that I put out. This gives me the confidence to create freely. It also gives me the confidence to hold my own ground and do what I believe in.”
Ask him what he would like to do if he could do absolutely anything in the world, and he will tell you this is it. That, is the mark of somebody perfectly comfortable in his own skin.