Portrait

Morning in the Shik restaurant kitchen with Peter Jo. By Elizabeth Flux.

Korean chef Peter Jo

We both arrive early, even though it’s a Sunday morning and the restaurant won’t be open today. “I’d have been here anyway,” he says with a small laugh as he strides towards the door. Peter Jo is so familiar with this place, it’s like seeing him arrive home. I watch him put the key in the lock, slide the door across, and follow him up the stairs. Everything is dim, just for a moment, before the lights flick on. “Water?” he asks, heading behind the bar. I select a table and look around.

Tucked down Melbourne CBD’s Niagara Lane, Shik isn’t a place you’d likely stumble across by accident – you need to seek it out. The restaurant opened just shy of a year ago and the food is Korean, definitely, though not in the way customers have come to expect. There’s no bibimbap and this isn’t a barbecue. Instead, on a menu where ingredients constantly shift and change, you’ll see strange and exciting combinations dotted with the unexpected. Blue swimmer. Nashi pear. Wagyu. Dandelion. Every dish carefully thought out and developed by Jo.

“Just because of my background – my parents had a grocery store and Korean restaurants – I assumed I knew everything about Korean food,” says Jo, who is also known by the nickname “Kimchi Pete”. He pauses, then laughs. “But, yes, very quickly I realised I know nothing.”

To be clear, when he says he knew nothing, he is talking specifically about shaking free of his previously blinkered view of what Korean food is. When it comes to hospitality, however, Jo knows a lot. He has an impressive front-of-house résumé in popular Sydney and Melbourne restaurants, ran a series of pop-up venues and is an experienced sommelier – though, as he tells me, “I kind of don’t see myself as a sommelier because I don’t really pay attention to all the finer details of wines. Like the ‘wine wank’ – I’ve never been a fan of it.”

As a result, at Shik he has curated a wine list that won’t clash with the food, going for versatility over intricate matching. “I don’t believe in pairings: like white has to be fish and red has to be beef,” he says matter-of-factly. “I think it’s what you like to drink you drink.”

Just like in art where you have to know the rules before breaking them, in creating his menu Jo has gone out and done his research, then come back and repackaged it in a way that both makes sense to Australian diners while remaining true to Korean culinary ideals.

This isn’t fusion food; it’s a complex blend of his cultural background and research, filtered through the lens of his personal experience and individual taste. “I guess it’s my representation of Korean cuisine,” says Jo.

When I ask if this is the kind of restaurant you would find in Korea, Jo tells me it isn’t. Shik is its own beast. “From Koreans, there’s two ends of feedback,” he explains. “There’s the people who say that this isn’t really Korean – and then there’s people on the other side of the spectrum saying this is more Korean than Korea.”

I feel as though there are two different camps of motivation when it comes to opening a restaurant. The first is pure business, where decisions are driven by the bottom line and getting as many people through the door as possible. The second is food as artistic expression, where a core philosophy and ideals drive everything from the menu to the aesthetics.

While Jo works incredibly hard and would love for the restaurant to be a huge success – he’s not just the owner, he develops each recipe, selects the drinks, does the admin and is the only front-of-house team member – it’s clear that his driving force is a passion for unpicking the culinary history of Korean food and presenting it in new ways.

Taking me through the menu, he explains how the restaurant allows him to explore topics that interest him – subsistence, or eating out of necessity, is one he’s particularly fascinated by, and it has informed the types of cuts on offer and the range of greens. “I think I’ve got the most variety of vegetables in any restaurant,” he says with a smile.

His enthusiasm for what he’s doing is clear – it only dips occasionally, when the conversation comes around to the public’s reception. Shik is very quiet most nights – it is yet to find its people. The reason is hard to pinpoint – it could be because the food is difficult to define, occupying its own unique category. Maybe it’s the location. Perhaps it’s just that word of mouth is slow to spread.

Whatever the reason, Jo is still all in and still excited about what he’s doing. “Learning, discovering so many things in Korean cuisine is just exciting for me,” he says, “and then trying to apply it to the food.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "A new Korea path". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.