The chef-owner at Han Oak in Portland, OR shares what it's like to open the country’s most exciting Korean spot in his family home.
While dining at Han Oak in Portland, Oregon, don’t be surprised if you see a two-year-old whirling through the dining space. “Elliot throws the party,” says Peter Cho, chef-owner, of his son’s role at the restaurant. “I mean, he throws the best party.” Having a toddler around isn’t always a walk in the park, though—“Sometimes, he takes his pants off, which is a little frustrating. But that’s sort of part of the charm, I guess.”
These scenes come with the territory at Cho’s restaurant—opened in 2016—which also doubles as his family home. “With a two-year-old, I don’t think running a restaurant would have been possible had I not had this situation,” he says. “All credit is to my wife, who found the space and had this vision of what it could be.”
Born in Korea, Cho grew up in Oregon and attended the University of Oregon in Eugene before working in New York for over a decade. His attachment to New York City is due in part to his relationship with a world-class mentor. Of his early days in the city Cho says, “I was about to enroll in culinary school, and I happened to just a walk into The Spotted Pig. I asked for a job and April Bloomfield took me on, and I worked for her for almost 10 years.”
Family, a recurring theme in the Han Oak origin story, is what brought Cho back home. After his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, he returned to Oregon to care for her—looking to continue cooking while leaving precious family time intact. Creating a restaurant that doubled as a living space was a perfect compromise. Says Cho, “The biggest compliment for me in the guests that come to Han Oak isn’t about the food; it’s just that they feel at home. Because they are—they’re really coming into our home.”
The whole family is active at the restaurant. “It helps that my mom makes all the kimchis for us,” Cho says. “My mom has a lot of influence on the menu.” These traditional touches meet a decidedly innovative streak—says Jordana Rothman, Food & Wine Restaurant Editor, “He’s using Korean food as a sort of blueprint, and then very brilliantly finding his own lane.”
For more on our latest class of BNCs, check out the rest of the Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2017.