It was summer and the busy pre-heatwave rush was coming to an end when I got the email from an editor I’d worked with several times in the past. He was working with Cathay Pacific’s Discovery Magazine now and asked if I wanted to put together a package for a story on North Korean Cuisine they’d be running in Cathay Dragon’s Silkroad in October. It’s always a pleasure to work with editors multiple times as you get to know how they like things done, so I agreed right away and we got the process started.
The author had focused on several North Korean restaurants in Seoul (you’d be surprised how much food varies on this little peninsula) and they would need shots of the food, chefs, and interiors. On top of that, I was asked to find a few grittier outdoor eateries and some fancy rooftop spots to round out the visual set for the article. From my years working with local magazines, I had a few ideas that came to mind immediately for the supporting images I would need while we waited for the author to wrap up her final edit and send over a restaurant list.
The sky was clear and the weather was warm the day this assignment came in, so I headed out to make some cityscapes with rooftop bars to warm up in preparation for the main shooting days. There is a strip of fancy rooftops the trendy young locals frequent at the north end of the Haebangchon road, so I headed right there and got almost everything I’d need as the sun went down that evening. We don’t get many days like this in Seoul, so I was glad I made the most of it.
A couple of days later, it was time to head out and catch the post-work rush of people in Euljiro’s Nogari Alley and Jongno’s Pojangmacha Street for the grittier side of the city. Plastic tables and makeshift tents were what I’d been asked for and there’s nowhere quite like Euljiro for the former or Jongno for the latter. During the week, these two areas are absolutely packed with after-work drinking groups. It’s a great mix of trendy youngsters and seasoned old-timers that can’t be found elsewhere in the city. After a few shots of the crowds in the alleys of Euljiro, I headed over to the street that follows Jongno-3-ga’s Line 5 for its pojangmacha and barbecue houses. On warmer days, both of these types of venue take over the streets and become raucous drinking houses until the wee hours. It would be the perfect place to showcase the city’s other side.
While I’d been out working on these additional supporting images, I’d also been making calls to the various restaurants we’d be covering in this feature. There was a mix of dishes to cover and some very different restaurants to visit. Woo Lae Oak’s spacious interior, large serving staff, and simple menu were in start contrast to the cramped and homey Ban Ryong San. At Ban Ryong San, I was able to get a portrait of the owner with the picture of his mother (a North Korean and the inspiration for his food) he keeps in the restaurant as well as their signature Hamheung Naengmyeon. Woo Lae Oak, by contrast, would provide a quick few moments to photograph their interior and the requested dishes.
In a completely different style again, Jaha Son Mandu offered a clean and modern interior with a beautiful view of the mountains that border Seoul to the north. Working with the chef and owner here was wonderful as she simply wanted her food to look as good as possible. Despite being asked to keep the shots quite raw and not stage food that wouldn’t normally be served that way at the restaurants, how can you pass up hand-sewn table cloths the owner insists on ironing for the shoot?
Neungra Table offered to shake things up for me and cover one of their simple tables in various supporting dishes. The spread she set ended up running as the main double-spread for the magazine. The owner here follows her motto of “Reunification Starts at the Table” and not only runs the restaurant but is also involved with defectors and reunification efforts. She proudly showed me a photo of herself with Michelle Obama and insisted I try everything she put out on the table for me.
As always, it was a pleasure to discover another facet of the city I’ve lived in so long. These are some fantastic examples of Korean food at its best and I’d whole-heartedly recommend any of these places on your next visit to Seoul.
For editorial enquiries in Seoul or anywhere around the peninsula, please get in touch. I’d love to work with you!