It’s the small things that set aside Chanu Kim’s pizzeria when you first walk in. The on-point indie music; the low lit decor, which is trendy without being pretentious; the old-style drawings adorning the walls, blending in with the dark wood panelling and tables. It’s here, in this careful balance of stylistic choices where their saying, “we are not just a pizzeria,” rings true.
One and half years ago Mr. Kim didn’t know how to make a pizza, let alone run a pizzeria. As a teenager visiting New York, he discovered a world of pizza completely unlike that available in Korea at the time.
“I realized what authentic New York pizza is. After returning to Korea, I avidly searched for real, authentic NY pizza, but to no avail. Still remembering and missing that taste, I finally decided to launch my own pizzeria serving the authentic NY pizza I had sought in Korea for so long.”
It was this passion for authentic New York style pie that drove him to learn the skills required to create his own, and his desire to share this style of pizza with expats and locals alike that motivated him to open his own store.
After spending most of his life in Seoul, why open a pizzeria in Busan, a place not as well-known for embracing Western cuisine? The answer again lies in Mr. Kim’s passion – his love of his mother’s hometown and the place he always dreamed of living. When it came to starting his own business he didn’t hesitate to first open in Busan.
Since opening mid last year, SOL has gained a reputation for great pizza. I asked Mr. Kim what he thought of the response so far.
“The reaction is much better and quicker than I expected. Within a month, several good reviews were posted on the Busan Food Facebook group and a lot of good comments and reviews were posted to our Facebook page. Since then, personal compliments and SNS praise, especially from expats, has kept increasing.”
He admits that his kind of pizza is not very popular with Busan natives, however he finds this is changing as more and more Korean locals are frequenting the joint. Often Western style restaurants in Busan open to much fanfare, only for the quality to steadily degrade until they either close or the style of the food becomes “Koreanized” to fit more local tastes. Regardless of the attitude towards New York style pizza, Mr. Kim has made a promise to never change what he does best.
His willingness to listen to customers and to try out new things, keeps pizza-lovers coming back for more. Often a special is on the menu for a month or two, such as the Calzone, Brooklyn Sicilian Pizza and Chicken Pesto Pizza. The Calzone proved so popular it was added to the permanent menu. When a number of customers requested Hawaiian pizza, he added it to the menu and when the response was good, it was also added permanently.
When I ask if I can take a portrait of him, he politely declines. He says it isn’t about him, it’s about the place he has created, so we compromise and I take some shots of him in action in the kitchen.
But what does the future hold for his still young business? It’s all in the tagline: “A Slice of Pizza, A Slice of Life”. Mr. Kim’s hope is that SOL, “will be more than just a pizzeria, and that it will become a cultural spot, embracing a new eating and drinking culture and thus a new lifestyle.”
Future plans include the opening of another store in the Gwangan or Haeundae area, with the intention of having several locations delivering unique concepts to patrons. The introduction of more diverse, quality craft beers and exciting cultural events are also on the agenda. However Mr. Kim is adamant that expansion doesn’t equal lowered standards. He and his team are dedicated to maintaining the high quality hand-crafted pizza they have become known for.
“I’m happy because I have a feeling that my goal is being achieved and that I can share what I love with many people. I deeply and sincerely thank all the customers for their support.”
Before I leave he emphasises the most important thing he wants readers to know; his promise that SOL will never change and can always be relied on for an authentic New York pizza experience here in Busan. Before SOL opened, Mr. Kim’s goal was simply to share what he loved with everyone. In this respect, and in every other, SOL is everything he could have hoped for.