This month we caught up with the incredibly talented, multi-tasking, Mina Park! Mina is not only a counsel at a major international investment bank, but also the founder of one of Hong Kong’s favourite foodie brands, Sook. Sook has taken HK by storm with enticing flavours from its homemade modern Korean street food. You’ll catch Sook working with some of the best restaurants around town at various pop-ups and private kitchens, and trust us, you don’t want to miss out on the delicious offerings!
We chat to Mina about how she manages her time between her demanding banking job and Sook, what her favourite must-try Korean dishes are and what her plans are for Sook in the future.
Tell us about your background and where you’re from. How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I was born in a small southern town in the US, but my family always had international friends and we moved around quite a bit when I was young. Apparently my first words were in Portuguese because we had such close Brazilian friends when I was a baby! My brother and I joke that it’s because of our childhood that he and I have been pretty nomadic as adults. I left the US 10 years ago to move to the south of France, and then ended up in London.
Living in Europe was a dream for me, and I didn’t even mind the infamously dreary London weather at all. In 2010, my company offered me a job in Hong Kong. London was my home and I had never been to Hong Kong, so I actually said no initially. But then I thought, opportunities come to you for a reason, and I was sure I would regret not at least trying out living in Asia. Within a couple of months, I found myself in a serviced apartment in Central. I’m happy to say that was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
For the past few years, I have lived in a loft on the eastern end of Hong Kong island. I like my home to be a retreat from the city chaos, especially since life here can be kind of hectic. I grew up hunting for vintage furniture and homeware with my mother, and I’ve always liked the pieces in my home to have a story to them. I have midcentury furniture that’s been with me for a dozen years, coming with me from New York to Europe to Hong Kong.
I’m fortunate to have talented interior designer friends like Irene Capriz of Casa Capriz and Emilie Sutherland who have helped me find perfect vintage pieces to add to my flat. I also am slightly obsessed with ceramics and tableware. My last two trips to Korea, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time picking out handcrafted plates and dishes for the Sook table. I’ve lugged dishes from Russia, France, Italy, basically anywhere I’ve visited that has a tradition of making beautiful tableware.
How do you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
My friend, Thierry Chow, who’s a Chinese astrologist and Feng Shui master (and a former Sassy That Girl!) told me that I have to wear more metallics to balance the elements in my chart. I joke with her that she’ll see me in head-to-toe silver from now on. And I bought a few silver dresses and skirts to increase my luck! But really, I like to play with different styles depending on my mood.
At heart, I’m pretty girly. My closet is filled with mostly dresses. I also love artisanal handiwork like lace, embroidery, beading, metallic threading. Things made by hand are like kryptonite to me, whether it’s plates or clothing. I just bought an antique embroidered kimono dress from One Vintage Designs, which takes antique fabrics and reworks them into one-of-a-kind dresses. Lucia Tait Tolani of Pair organised a trunk show for them recently in Hong Kong (check out her Style Dilemma pieces on Sassy too!). The handiwork of the embroidered flowers on that dress is mesmerising.
Unfortunately, wearing an embroidered kimono or all silver doesn’t work well with being in a kitchen. Cooking much more has meant I have to be more practical, so my style has adapted slightly and become more casual. You’re likely to see me in black jeans more often these days… but with silver heels.
Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
I’ll be honest, these days I don’t really have time to shop unless it’s related to cooking. Shanghai Street for kitchen supplies or Wan Chai market for herbs and fruit are where you’ll find me shopping these days. Homeware stores are more fun to me than clothing stores anyway, so a few places I want to check out when I have more time are Ethos in Kennedy Town and Open House in Sheung Wan, both by the boys of Twins Kitchen.
What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
My skin changed a lot when I moved to Hong Kong, so I stick to Eve Lom’s facial cleanser to scrub off the pollution and dirt and Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentrate, since my skin tends to be dry here. For a treat, I like to get my nails done at The Nail Library where I can have a glass of wine with my manicure, but the pedicures at the Mandarin Salon are what save me in the summer.
Describe your perfect weekend in HK.
I would wake up without an alarm (that would be a dream!) and have a yoga session with Victor Chau, which is the best way to wake up and get the blood moving. Then I would be on a boat to Sai Kung where we can hike to a stunning beach with a well-packed picnic in our bags. In the evening, I would try a new restaurant with friends and then end up dancing until late. On Sunday, I would hike to Big Wave Bay and then walk to Shek O and have a light Thai lunch with grilled squid and green mango salad on the rooftop of Happy Garden. After some time at the beach, I would go to the Shau Kei Wan market and buy fresh octopus and vegetables and cook a big Sunday dinner with my neighbours and friends.
Where’s next on your travel hit list?
I always like to have my next trip planned, and the only thing I couldn’t live without is my passport. For a longer holiday, I’m hopefully going to a surf and yoga camp in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan food is one of my favourites, and I want to finally get good at surfing. Right now, I can get up on a board but am pretty useless otherwise. I’m also planning a trip to Europe, which will involve stops to see friends in Paris, London and Spain. Weekend trips from Hong Kong are such a treat and my friends and I are talking about going to Cambodia, Manila and Istanbul to explore food, the arts and architecture.
What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
I can’t keep up with all the new restaurants that are opening. I have been wanting to try Neighbourhood, Arcane and Tate Dining Room for ages and hopefully will get to go in the coming weeks. Right now, my favourite going out restaurants are 121 BC, Ho Lee Fook, Little Bao, Serge et Le Phoque, Chachawan and Yardbird. For more casual eats, I love Yau Yuen Siu Jui in Jordan for biang biang mian, Mian in Quarry Bay and Tung Po in North Point. For bars, I like beautiful, moody settings, so Salon 10, 001, The Pawn and Ping Pong 129 are my favourites these days, and I love the vibe at this new place, Neo.
Tell us about Sook – how did it begin and what inspired you to start it?
I have always loved to cook and have friends over for gigantic dinner parties with tables overflowing with food. That’s what I learned from my mother, and I can’t explain how happy it makes me to have people come over and enjoy an evening at my table. It’s just true contentment. It was at my dinner parties that a few friends in the food business suggested I do something more professional with my cooking, which I really didn’t take seriously at first. But then I taught a kimchi workshop and gave a lunch at one of Nana Chan’s spaces. Then my friends encouraged me to sign up for the PMQ Night Market to sell my kimchi tacos, and I did a trial run selling tacos at Chai Wan Mei last year during Art Basel. It was completely crazy to me to sell hundreds and hundreds of tacos in my spare time from work, but I was hooked.
Not only are you the founder of Sook, but you’re also a counsel at an investment bank. How do you balance your time between the two and what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced having two jobs?
It helps to be as organised as possible and I have to schedule out my days and evenings in advance and plan everything in ridiculous detail. Luckily, my training as a lawyer has come in handy. Also, I’ll be honest, I haven’t slept a lot in the past year! I do think that’s just part of starting any business. I am trying to create more work-life balance now though and am forcing myself to sleep more… as of today! I also want to make more time to catch up with my friends and do nothing at all even. A restaurant owner friend of mine and I are going to start meditation classes because it’s about time both of us chill out! I’m working on expanding Sook so I have some help to organise and handle the administration and event preparations.
What are your top tips for time management?
Every evening, I check my schedule for the next day so I can prepare in advance for what I need to do, whether it’s pack my gym gear or certain papers for special meetings. Every morning, I make a list of the things I want to accomplish that day, whether it’s for work, for Sook or just personally. I’ve had to learn how to be realistic with that list, so I don’t end up with a half-finished list that makes me feel more stressed out. I also set deadlines for myself during the day so I don’t get distracted by something else (like Instagram…) and I make sure I get things done. Also, the biggest thing I’ve learned is to ask for help and not try to do everything myself.
What would your last meal be?
I would want my aunt to come to my place from Seoul and we would cook a Korean feast together. I learn so much from her these days since she cooks in the same style as my mom did. We would make Korean pancakes, soups, noodles and a dozen kinds of vegetables and kimchi. The enjoyment of food is as much about the atmosphere and company as it is the ingredients and skill in preparing the food. So I would want my family and friends to be there of course.
For someone who isn’t that familiar with Korean food – what would be your Top 3 must-try Korean dishes?
That’s a hard question because there are so many dishes and Korean food is so varied. Assuming that this person is familiar enough to have had kimchi, bibimbap and Korean barbecue, I would recommend they try hoe doepbap, which is like bibimbap but with sashimi, fresh salad and cucumber, other garnishes, and the spicy red chili paste. This is my summer go-to dish and a nice twist on the Japanese chirashi with the Korean punchiness. I would also recommend soondae which is Korean blood sausage that is stuffed with noodles. You can get a mixed platter of soondae that also includes cooked liver and other inside bits that make some people squeamish. You dip them in a mixture of salt and chili pepper. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find decent soondae in Hong Kong, so Seoul is your best bet to find a good blood sausage. Another dish I always try to have when I’m in Seoul is raw marinated crab, either spicy or in a soy marinade, heavy with bright orange roe. You mix rice into the shell of the crab to soak up the juices and roe and eat it all with a spoon. It’s salty, fermented, spicy, a bit slimy honestly but so so delicious.
You’ve collaborated with a number of renowned restaurants in Hong Kong. Walk us through the collaboration process – how do you make sure you create dishes you love in someone else’s kitchen?
Every collaboration has been unique. Sometimes I’m cooking myself in a completely foreign space, so you have to do a lot of legwork to make sure you know what equipment is available in the kitchen, who’s going to be there to assist and what’s easier to prep beforehand. When other people are doing the bulk of the cooking then you of course have to be respectful of how they run their kitchen and their approach. It’s been fun to see how different kitchens and restaurants are managed. To make sure that I’m happy with the dishes, I have to make sure I’m clear to myself what I want to create in that particular context and that I’m able to communicate that. It’s a learning process but it’s also been a lot of fun because everyone I’ve worked with has been so open and friendly.
Any more exciting collaborations for the future? Who would be your dream chef/restaurant to work with?
I’m working on doing a few pop-ups abroad. I would love to do pop-ups in London, Paris, Singapore, Shanghai and Bangkok. I’ve been talking to a few people internationally so fingers crossed I’ll have time to pull some of these off. In my dreams, I would love to collaborate with David Chang of Momofuku. He really changed how so many people view Asian and Korean food globally and I love how he’s always trying to learn something new, even if there is an unhealthy obsession with all things pork. It would be fascinating to see him work.
What are your plans for Sook and where do you dream you’ll be in 5 years time?
I would like to open up my own place once I find the right chef to work with. I’m not a trained chef and want a professional to run my kitchen, and I would be the creative director. I also am working on some short cooking videos focused on Korean and Asian food and a line of ceramics for the Korean table. In the future, I would love to write a cookbook to share the recipes from my mother’s family.