If you’re in the mood for Korean food with a certain je ne sais quois, look no further than Joule, a restaurant in Wallingford specializing in French/Korean fusion cuisine. Owned and managed by husband and wife team Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang, the restaurant features a diverse and eclectic menu that merges Korean flavors with French techniques. I had a chance to interview Yang after eating a meal there one Saturday evening. She was both hospitable and knowledgeable of her craft, resulting in an insightful conversation about life, food, and approaches to cooking.
Yang and Chirchi met while training with Alaine Ducasse, a well-known chef in New York City. It was in NYC that they refined their cooking technique, working at such restaurants as DB Bistro Moderne and Per Se. As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Yang felt pressure to become a doctor or lawyer, but instead she followed her heart and enrolled in cooking school at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. “I wanted to do something starting at the bottom, not knowing anything about it. Growing up in a big family, food and gatherings were a major part of life,” says Yang about her beginnings as a cook. After working in NYC for several years, the couple decided to open their restaurant in Wallingford, not too far from the UW campus.
The first thing people notice when dining at their restaurant is the diversity of the menu. There are enough entrees and side dishes to please just about any palate. From bison hanger to pickled beef tongue, the menu includes dishes that might not appear on more traditional restaurants’ menus. “The ingredients are fun. People don’t want to see the same thing all the time,” Yang says. “They want to experience new, interesting items that can expand their palate. They don’t want to be challenged too much, but chefs want to be inspired by what they cook.”
For Yang, balance is an important factor to consider when cooking a dish. She elaborates, “Everything we put out needs to have a good balance. In terms of flavor, the dish needs to have sweet, spicy, and tart tastes. Multiple flavors and different textures add to the experience”. True to her approach to cooking, the lamb sirloin, with castelvetrano olives and tamarind yogurt, perfectly blends the soft, delicate feel of the lamb with a smoky finish. The mackerel is cooked whole with a slightly crisped texture and garnished with lemon. The side dishes, however, are what make the dining experience distinctive. The softness of Korean mochi (dokbukki in Korean) is accented by a sweet flavor that offsets the neutral qualities of the rice cake. The result is a tour-de-force of a side dish, combining the best of East and West to create a hybrid work of art.
Regarding their philosophy on cooking, Rachel states that it’s important to have fun with food. “We are not trying to intimidate people with our dishes. We want people to have a great time. People oftentimes come in and say they have never had food like this before. We always try to keep it interesting with different combinations.” With such eclectic dishes as marinated sardines and octopus with roasted lemon, the menu is all about unexpected combinations. I asked Yang what qualities she considers important about French and Korean food. “Korean cuisine is really amazing because not too many people have been introduced to it,” says Yang. “When they come into the restaurant they want to experience new flavors, like yukgaechang. The use of different fermented products gives the food different layers of flavors, like French cuisine has different layers of food.”
The ambience of the restaurant is pleasant and inviting. The walls are painted in creamy, earthy tones to provide warmth to an otherwise minimalist setting. The open kitchen, cozily situated to the right of the room, allows diners to see firsthand the artistry of the cooks. When asked the reason for locating the restaurant in Wallingford, Yang replies: “The Wallingford neighborhood is really amazing. There are lots of small restaurants, which give the neighborhood a small town atmosphere. There is a strong community feel. We feel continuous support from the neighborhood.” Indeed, it is this sense of strong community that keeps customers coming back for more. One gets the impression that the two chefs really care for their guests, taking the time to get to know them as individuals rather than just customers.
Perhaps what keeps the guests returning to the restaurant is the fact that the two chefs are always there. Yang states, “We see our customers and know them. It’s like a family atmosphere. We want to feed them like our friends and family. They know they can count on the same quality of food.” The open kitchen also creates an intimate atmosphere that allows guests to witness the chefs at work. Knowing that the chefs are watching the whole scene also ensures that the service is top-notch. Our waiter is prompt, attentive, and friendly. Although we have to wait a fairly long time to get our entrees, we are treated to side dishes to whet our appetite before the main meal. The zucchini basil pancake, with shrimp and soy mustard sauce, makes a perfect prelude to the mackerel and succulent lamb that follow.
Regarding the future of Joule, Yang responds,“We would love to expand. We never expected to open a restaurant at such an early age. So we learn a lot from the experience. There are so many different aspects of Korean food that we want to bring. People are interested in Korea, which has a lot to offer.” Indeed, with the recent Hallyu wave of Korean film and culture sweeping through the world, we can expect more people to be curious about Korean food. As Korea aggressively modernizes in the twenty-first century, the food becomes increasingly eclectic, with influences from such regions as India and Vietnam. The cuisine at Joule reflects this cosmopolitan influence.
“Our food is not Korean or French but modern American. There is no definition of American food.”
To conclude the interview, I ask Yang how she came up with the name of the restaurant. “The name was given to us by our mother-in-law. Joule has a lot of different meanings, including the fact that it has the pronunciation of jewel. We wanted the place to inspire energy.”
To contact Paul Kim,
e-mail [email protected].