People & Culture

From Jeju to Tofino: Korean chef adds new flavours to Vancouver Island — with a little help from his mother

A mother-son duo’s culinary journey from Korea to Canada’s West Coast

  • Published May 10, 2024
  • Updated May 11
  • 1,103 words
  • 5 minutes
"Mama Julie" and Chef Dylan Kim. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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With a pair of chopsticks poised like a pen, I manoeuvre a morsel of marbled meat and moan as it melts in my mouth. This is my first taste of Galbi, a Korean barbecue dish consisting of charcoal-grilled certified angus beef short ribs aged for 35 days. It’s served with a series of side dishes: arugula salad, ssamjang lettuce, pickled radish, kimchi and rice. I’m meant to use the meat as the centrepiece for a handmade lettuce wrap using the ingredients that take over the table, but as a self-confessed carnivore I need to taste the meat on its own first.

I’m at Jeju Restaurant, a destination dining option in Tofino that serves up modern Korean cuisine — the only restaurant of its kind in the region. Taking a break between bites, I glance up and lock eyes with a woman standing shyly behind the bar. She returns my smile of approval with a wide grin and an enthusiastic wave before disappearing behind the curtain to the kitchen. This is “Mama Julie,” the matriarch behind the brand, and mother to chef Dylan Kim, who co-owns the eatery with his wife, Sung.

Tofino’s first and only Korean restaurant landed on the longlist of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2022 shortly after opening, but I’m not just here for their gastronomic gems: I’ve come to hear the beautiful story behind the restaurant’s beginnings. It centres around Dylan and Sung, Dylan’s parents, and how they all came together to call Tofino home.

Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables and seafood, which can be found in many of Jeju's dishes. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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Beachside epiphany

It took just 30 minutes for Dylan and Sung to decide to make the move to the tiny town of Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast. It was their first visit to the area and, as they stood at the water’s edge on South Chesterman Beach breathing in the gentle breeze and watching the waves crash against the rugged rocks, they knew this would be their new home.

The young couple, both born and raised in Seoul, Korea, felt a familiarity here, as the beach reminded them of Jeju Island back home. “Both of our parents honeymooned there, and the island had been a top vacation spot for both our families growing up,” Dylan says, describing the couple’s personal connection to the restaurant’s namesake. “The air here, and the water, and the landscape — it’s just like Jeju.”

Sung and Dylan, who met in 2018 while working at a French-Japanese fusion restaurant in Vancouver, often spoke about opening their own restaurant. They had been searching for a space in the city when they spotted a lease in a small town called Tofino. Curious, they decided to check it out.

Connecting with mom in the kitchen

Dylan’s mom, lovingly referred to as “Mama Julie” by both her family and regular restaurant guests, was a professional chef for more than 40 years in Korea before joining her son and his wife in their new venture. “Growing up, I helped her in the kitchen, from as young as four years old,” Dylan reminisces as he elaborates on their shared love for food. “We loved to make mandu (Korean dumplings), kkul tteok (Korean sweet rice cake) and kimbap (Korean seaweed rice rolls) — time-consuming dishes that would have our whole family sitting around the table cooking together.”

Massaging cabbage with Mama Julie's special chilli pepper paste. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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On a favourite memory of cooking with his mother, Dylan talks about being 11 and making kimbap with his mom. They got up early and went to a traditional farmers’ market to buy fresh produce — spinach, carrots, radish, cucumber — as well as fish cakes and seasonal herbs. “It was so exciting for me to shop with her, and when we got home, she taught me how to prepare the dish, step by step. It’s a process I haven’t forgotten.”

To this day, Dylan and his mother still make kimjang together, the traditional process of preparing and preserving large quantities of kimchi. The two-day endeavor involves chopping cabbage, and then soaking it in a salty brine for 12 to 24 hours, mixing it with his mom’s special chilli pepper paste, and massaging the mixture together. The kimchi is then stored in a cooling fridge and fermented for two or three weeks. It’s a favourite amongst diners.  

Looking back, he realizes that being raised by a chef has definitely shaped his career choice. “Growing up, I didn’t think it was anything special, being raised by a chef, but I soon realized that my experience with her in the kitchen set me apart from my peers. I gained knowledge at an young age about certain cooking methods such as fermenting and seasoning Korean dishes.” But he jokes that, while Mama Julie has certainly been a culinary guide for him, there are some secrets in the kitchen that she still won’t share.

Jeju's kimchi is stored in a cooling fridge and fermented for two or three weeks before it is served. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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Mama Julie and Chef Dylan Kim preparing kimchi. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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Bringing the flavours of Korea to Tofino

While his parents joined the couple in Tofino, Dylan’s grandparents still live on a farm in Haenam at the southernmost end of the Korean Peninsula. Surrounded by ocean and mountains — just like Tofino —the area boasts soil that is rich and packed with minerals. As a result, the family farm produces high-quality produce (golden cabbage, radish, chilis, and different kinds of grains and vegetables) that are fresher tasting an sweeter than what Canadians are used to.

It wouldn’t be feasible to ship fresh produce from the family farm, but Dylan does source certain ingredients directly from his grandma’s land back in Korea for the restaurant. “The Korean chili, sesame seeds and oil, and perilla oil that we use here comes directly from our family farm,” Dylan boasts. “We are truly blessed to have all of our family involved, even our grandparents.”

Jeju is well-known for its modern Korean cuisine, with dishes like bibimbap, bulgogi and K.F.C lettuce wraps. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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Jeju and the power of “jeong”

Beyond the lovely landscape, there’s another tie that binds the two cities for the Kim family. “The Korean language has a term “jeong,” a word that loosely translates to ‘a mother’s love, the way they love us, like a deep connection that goes beyond etiquette or reciprocation,’” explains Dylan. “It’s like an unconditional, sacrificial love that lasts. That type of bond connects us to Tofino now, just as it does to Jeju.”

As I finish my meal, I watch as regular restaurant guests arrive, cheerfully greeting Dylan and Sung and showering them with hugs and praise. I can tell that the love is reciprocated here in their new community, too. The power of connection is strong here, as culture, cuisine and community come together to create an infectious sort of “jeong” that has me feeling as though I’m part of the family, too. 

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