It all started with cassoulet. Sung Park, chef and owner of Williamsburg’s tiny Café Petit, grew up in Seoul. He cultivated his cooking skills working as chef in one of his family’s restaurants. But he always harbored an itch to escape – to explore the world and its many hues of culture and food. He travelled when he could. One trip took him to southwestern France, where, while surfing a dopamine wave triggered by his first taste of the local specialty known as cassoulet, he glimpsed a distinct similarity to a Korean stew he’d grown up with. A seed was planted.
The next couple of decades found Sung in New York, serving as an acolyte to some of the city’s French culinary masters, discovering the high doctrine of uncompromising dedication to perfection in the preparation of food. He was hooked, but there was one thing he could never get out of his head – that echo of unexplored possibility, rung by the the common shadow cast by that cassoulet from one side of the planet and its Korean counterpart from the other – in marrying the flavors, ingredients and techniques of French and Korean cuisine. Last year, he opened Bistro Petit to do just that. Today, we stop to chat with Sung, and try his version of the dish that started it all.
OK Sung, what should we have today?
I think I will make my cassoulet for you. Do you know cassoulet? It’s a very classic, very traditional French dish. I think it’s the perfect wintertime dish. It’s a very hearty, very rich stew, made with a few different meats and with white beans. Cassoulet must always have white beans. White beans and meat. Cassoulet is a French word, you know? It means casserole. The dish is from the southwest part of France.
I remember the first time I had it. Back in 1993 I travelled all throughout the southwest, the southeast, almost all of the southern part of France. I grew up in Seoul, in South Korea, and I was still living there then. I always wanted to visit France, to see a different world, to experience the food. It was my first time there.
I had a cassoulet at one of the local restaurants in a town in southwest France. It had some sausage, some bacon, and a smoked pork shank – what we call here a ham hock – in a rich kind of stew with white French beans. It was served in a casserole pot. That’s how they almost always serve it in France. It was a really hearty, really delicious kind of homestyle of cooking. I had it with a Côtes du Rhône wine. It was excellent. Oh my, my – really nice. A really memorable meal.
While I was having that cassoulet, I thought about a dish we have in Korea in wintertime, called budae chigae. It’s very similar. I ate it a lot when I was growing up. It’s a kind of meat stew, also with pork shank and some sausage – a really spicy, hearty, rich and flavorful dish.
So, many years later, after I had learned a lot about cooking and French cuisine, when I finally opened my own place here, I still thought about those two dishes – how they were both very good, and how they were both similar in many ways, even though they are from opposite sides of the world, completely unrelated.
I always wanted to combine two different cuisines together. I’m a chef trained in French cuisine, but I’m also a Korean guy. When I opened my own place, I could finally for the first time start to combine some of the French flavors and ingredients and techniques that I was trained in when I came over here, with some of the Korean flavors and ingredients and techniques that I grew up with.
So that’s the approach I wanted to take with my restaurant and my menu, and you see that here in this cassoulet too. Those two different memories – of travelling in France and having cassoulet for the first time, and of growing up in South Korea, are both combined for me in this dish.
Can you take us through it? Tell us about the dish.
This cassoulet is not just French and Korean. It has a whole dimension of New York in it too. It features four different meats. It has ham hock, double-smoked bacon, kielbasa sausage, and duck leg. The ham hock, bacon and kielbasa all come from a butcher in Greenpoint. Duck is from Long Island. White beans from upstate.
It’s kind of a funny story with the butcher. Greenpoint is a very Polish neighborhood. I have one guy who works for me in the kitchen right now. He’s from Greenpoint – an American-born Polish guy. When he started here he had just graduated cooking school. He told me, “Hey chef, we have some excellent Polish butchers over there.” I said, “OK, let’s go see.” He took me there and I tasted their sausage and bacon and I was like, “Whoa. Pretty damn good!” I was like, “Wow.” Because he was just out of school, I was ready to not be impressed. I thought, “What does he know?” But he’s a local guy, a Polish guy. He knew. I tasted it and thought, “Whoa, damn, this is so good!”
So I spoke to the butcher. I told him, “Hey, I will order from you, but I want you to fix it the way I like.” Bacon was too salty. I don’t like salty, long-time-cured bacon. I wanted less-cured, fresher bacon. But this guy’s a stubborn guy, just like me. [laughter.] He doesn’t want to do it my way, he wants to do it his way. We started arguing.
I was like, “Hey, I like yours. I like it that way, but I want to adjust it a little bit to my way. I want fresher bacon. You cure and smoke it yourself. Why don’t you do less cure for me so it’s not so salty, and double smoke it to bring out more smoky flavor? Your sausage? I like it, but can you just do it my way, for my restaurant? Put a little more garlic, a little less black pepper?”
So finally we compromised. He did it my way, so I started buying from him. I’m very happy with their product, and I like to work with local guys who have a great product and are very good at what they do. So kielbasa, bacon and ham hock are all from that butcher in Greenpoint.
The duck leg comes from Long Island. It is called Crescent Duck. The actual breed of duck is Pekin duck, which was started a long time ago by Chinese people. So it’s the Long Island version of Pekin duck. People say that Pekin duck was brought from China to Long Island in the 1800s, and farmers there started to breed them, and then Long Island became famous for its Chinese duck. [laughter.]
The white beans are from a farm in upstate New York. I also use my kimchi in the stew. I make it here. This is French-Korean cuisine, so I like to use a little bit of kimchi in my cassoulet. It brings a sourness and spiciness – that real Korean flavor – to the dish. I think it works very well in the context of the cassoulet. It adds a lot of flavor without seeming out of place.
So my cassoulet is really a French-slash-Korean-slash-New York dish, like everything here, everything on my menu. I was born and lived half my life in South Korea. I worked in French restaurants for more than ten years. Now New York, Brooklyn, is my home. This is just a dish that came out of that.
To make the cassoulet, we start with the ham hock. We cook the ham hock very, very slowly, in a stew with tomato and white beans and garlic and onion and many spices, and my kimchi too. After simmering for four or five hours, when the ham hock is very, very tender, we take it out of the stew and we cool it down and take the meat off the bone. Then we shred the meat of the ham hock very, very fine, and we blend it back into the stew. It’s so tender that it almost just melts into the stew. So the ham hock is inside the stew. It’s the main flavor you get in my cassoulet. Everything else is built on that. It’s the base of the whole dish.
Then we add the duck and the bacon and the sausage to the stew. For the duck, first we confit the leg separately – we slowly cook the duck leg in its own fat for about four hours, so it’s really tender and juicy. But I like to serve duck with crispy skin. So after we confit the duck we crisp the skin in a pan and then we put it in the cassoulet. Then the bacon and the kielbasa also go into the stew, and we simmer everything again. Not too long. About thirty minutes, just to let the flavors blend together.
When you taste the cassoulet, you have a lot of richness and a little smokiness the ham hock base of the stew. Also sourness, tang, and a tiny bit of spice, of heat, from the kimchi. The white beans bring out kind of an earthiness of flavor. The thick cut of bacon is lightly cured but double smoked, so it brings out even more smokiness in the dish. The kielbasa has a real garlicky flavor, with a little black pepper that works with the kimchi to add some spice. The duck has a really rich, soft, gamey flavor. So you have rich, meaty flavors with a little spice, sourness, tang and smoke. It’s all about making it with great care, so you are sure to find harmony between all of those flavors in the dish.
It’s such a great dish, I think. Very top quality ingredients. Real local butchers. Combination of French, Korean, and New York flavors. Like this dish, every dish we do has a story behind it. Every dish should have a story behind it. That’s how I like to cook here. The cassoulet? It is really a perfect winter dish.
So Sung, how did you end up here in Williamsburg, doing this?
Like I said, I was born in Seoul. I grew up there. I’m from a restaurant family – I’m third generation. My grandma, my father, my mom – we had a restaurant in Seoul, we had a restaurant in Hong Kong, and for some time we had a restaurant in Japan. So we were operating Korean restaurants in three different cities.
For a while, I lived in Hong Kong, helping my mom there as the chef. I always wanted to see different places, try different lifestyles, different cuisines. But I didn’t know where to start. So I just started to travel. Every six months I would go someplace. I went to southeast Asia, England, Italy, Morocco, Algeria, France, Italy. Everywhere. I think Greece was my favorite place. The islands.
When my parents retired, I really didn’t want to take over their restaurants. I was tired of cooking Korean food. All my life, everything was Korean food. My clothes always smelled like Korean food. [laughter.] Honestly, I was just tired of it.
I had some family living in the United States, both on the west coast and here on the east coast, in New York. So I ended up coming to New York in 1996. I started to work cooking at this Italian restaurant in Bayside, Queens. The area was all Sicilians, Italians and Greeks at that time. I loved it there. I loved the neighborhood and the restaurants and the food. I was happy there.
The owner of the restaurant was an old Sicilian guy. He said to me, “Why don’t you go to culinary school?” I was like, “What do you mean? I like working here.” He said, “No, you don’t want to end up cooking your whole life in a sleepy, local place like this. You’re the kind of guy, you can go to culinary school, you can work your way up in the good restaurants in Manhattan. You can do better than this.”
I had never even thought about it. I was like, “I don’t know. I have no idea about that kind of thing.” He said, “Listen son, you gotta go to school. You gotta get out of here and do something more than this.” I really liked this guy, so I took his advice. I was like, “Alright, I will do it.” I went to culinary school and then I got a job in Manhattan.
I loved French cuisine back then. I worked for many chefs. I worked for Chef Jean-Georges, for Chef Laurent Tourondel, for Chef Didier Virot. I really got into the French cuisine thing. I really liked working for those guys. They were all holding Michelin stars. They’re just the best at what they do.
I was surprised when I first started working for those chefs. I didn’t understand what fine dining was all about. People say, “Oh, fine dining is all about white tablecloths, fancy restrooms.” That’s what I thought too, once. No. No, no. I learned that it’s about the standards. The people working in those kitchens, behind the burners? They’re working really, really hard. They’re passionate, and they’re crazy, with the attention to detail, the skill, the technique. They want to be perfect and they work very, very hard to be perfect.
Once I saw that, once I started to understand, I just held onto it. Those chefs gave me a passion that I didn’t know I could have for cooking. They showed me a different world that I did not even know existed – a while different ballgame. It was like, “Wow.” I’m just one very lucky guy that I met so many good chefs and was able to learn from them. It changed my life.
I started out at the bottom and worked hard and worked my way up. Someone gave me a job as a sous chef, then someone else gave me a job as a chef, and it was a pretty good life. It was a lot of hard work, but I was right where I wanted to be.
And then of course some day eventually you want to do something on your own. There’s no such thing as French-Korean cuisine. Not here, not in France, not in Korea, nowhere. All the time I was working in those French restaurants I was always thinking about marrying French and Korean flavors, but I could not do it. No, no, no. In that kind of French kitchen it is very, very disciplined. You are hired there to make your chef’s own food, and to do it perfectly. The menu is their own expression of who they are. It is about them, not you.
I knew what I wanted to do. I always wanted to combine those two different cuisines together, but I didn’t want to do it upscale and fancy. I wanted to do it in a comfortable way, because that’s the way that I eat. I wanted to have the right things, good ingredients, prepared the right way, and I wanted to do it in Williamsburg because this is where I live.
I’m not a rich guy, but I saved some money. Enough to open a very small corner restaurant. Last year I opened this place up, and now I can do whatever I want. Flavors. New flavors, always. My flavors. Seasonal cooking. Different seasons, different ingredients. It’s fun, you know? That’s what it’s all about. That’s what I tell the people who come work for me. They have to have a passion for cooking, they have to work hard, but also they have to want to have fun. That’s the main thing. When you work very hard, it’s important to have some fun.
Bistro Petit is located at 170 South 3rd Street, at Driggs, in Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.