Interview with an Innovator

Korean restaurateur Linda Lee: ‘I am developing set menus, designed to enable guests to experience a taste of Korea'

The creator of On the Bab, Mee Market and Koba on the uptick in Korean cuisine and what inspires her restaurant concepts.

8 February 2019
asianchefsrestaurantssaucesstreet food

Lee on Paper – CV

  • Ran restaurants in Seoul before moving to London, opening fine dining BBQ eatery Koba in 2005
  • In 2013, launched street food brand On the Bab, which has since added three more sites
  • Is continually expanding her portfolio with new concepts, including Korean fried chicken joint On the Dak and rice bowl specialist Mee Market

Linda Lee has been pioneering Korean cuisine in the UK since 2005. Her first restaurant, Koba, introduced Londoners to the pleasures of do-it-yourself, at-table barbecue. Later, she launched street food spot On the Bab, offering classic flavours like beef bulgogi (thin slices of marinated meat) stuffed in buns.

Next, she opened Mee Market, a deli and retail space selling bibimbap, the traditional Korean rice bowl, alongside Korean ingredients and lifestyle goods.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Lee’s most recent hit, On the Dak, was a casual dining spot devoted to poultry dishes (‘dak’ being Korean for ‘chicken’) – in particular KFC (Korean fried chicken), which has been the focus for several restaurant openings in recent years. While On the Dak closed in November when the contract with the landlord expired, Lee is actively looking for new spaces where she can give the brand a new lease on life.

“Opening a larger On the Dak is still very much the plan,” she tells Food Spark. “There are a lot of sites available at the moment, but I’m watching the market carefully. With so much uncertainty in the air and rising costs, I need to be certain that a site is exactly the right fit before committing.”

We talk to Lee about everything from On the Bab’s best-selling dishes to Korean condiments that could do well in a supermarket, as well as what’s popular on the streets of Seoul.

Korean BBQ mini buns

I have always loved food; I cannot remember a time when it has not been an integral part of my life. Food, sharing it and enjoying it is so much a part of my ancestry and culture that really, it is not so much an interest as part of who I am! 

My career has been less one of landmarks as of gradual progress, with each step leading naturally to the next, but probably the single biggest step was opening On the Bab. It seemed to catch a mood at the time and really established Korean food, and particularly Korean street food, as being ‘of the moment.’

My biggest influence and inspiration is travel. I return frequently to Seoul and I’m always looking out for new trends which I think could translate well to London. I also try as many new restaurants, pop-ups and street-food stands as possible everywhere I travel, as well as watching trends more generally – fashion, music, culture – to get a feel for what’s hot, or about to be!

Chibab-style fried chicken in different flavours and Korean-style chicken noodle soup are both dishes which are very on-trend in Korea but still not easy to find in London.

Do I think the rest of the UK is ready for Korean cuisine to go mainstream? More than just the UK! I’m certain Korean food can be popular everywhere.

Mee Market has had a good first year. The concept of a rice-bowl deli and market is something that hasn’t really been tried here before and I think it has taken some customers a while to understand it, but we have built a good, regular clientele nonetheless!

Bulgogi beef dolsot bibimbap

In terms of the most popular menu items, the best answer I can give is to search for posts tagged @onthebab on Instagram and you’ll see three dishes which guests post very kind compliments about again and again: bao buns; Korean fried chicken; and classic bibimbab. It’s always been that way!

I’m not really proud of individual dishes as much as I am proud of how well Korean food generally is being received in London. It delights me that the food I love has been embraced so warmly and really, any Korean dish which is enjoyed by someone is a dish to be proud of.

I’ve been watching with very close interest the growing demand for vegan dishes; it seems to me that this is way more than a trend and more a genuine shift in how people eat. I’m also struck by the trend for very ambitious, innovative restaurants opening well outside central London.

I am always experimenting with new dishes so keep an eye on the menus at On the Bab and Koba particularly!

I am always tweaking and testing, to see if things can be done better. At Koba, I am developing set menus, designed to enable guests to experience a ‘Taste of Korea,’ as sometimes it can be confusing to know what to order when trying table BBQ for the first time.

Ssamjang is a really great condiment; it’s a spicy, quite thick sauce – gochujang [a spicy, fermented paste] is one of its ingredients. It also contains sesame oil and sugar. It’s mostly eaten with Korean BBQ, dabbed onto a lettuce leaf which is then used to wrap up the BBQ meat or vegetables. But it could be used in so many ways, and I think it would be great for retail.

My plan for 2019 is to keep developing my business, looking out for new opportunities and ideas but only growing organically. I would love to grow On the Bab, and try new brands and concepts, so I keep looking, travelling and exploring. You never know when inspiration will strike!

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