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A Restaurant—and Family—Grows in Portland

Peter Cho was a chef at an acclaimed restaurant in New York City at the epicenter of the culinary world. But he and his family needed out. They found salvation on the other side of the country, and in Han Oak, the restaurant inside their own home.

Alycea Tinoyan

Three years ago, in the middle of the night on a rainy Portland weekday in April, Sun Young Park reached her breaking point. She was up late caring for her 3-month-old baby, Elliott, waiting for her husband, chef Peter Cho, to come home from working late at a restaurant. The house’s light sensors were constantly going off. Tree branches were leaning onto the house and knocking on the windows. The dog wouldn’t stop barking. They’d only recently found a starter home in the city on northeast Alberta, but Sun was already desperately wishing for something else.

The life Peter and Sun were leading in Portland was a far cry from the life they’d led in New York City. Back then, they lived a block away from the Breslin, the Michelin-starred restaurant where Peter served as executive chef. They’d found a way to orient their lives around his grueling 15-hour days. Sun would spend most of her days working as an illustrator at home, but would pop in for lunch, sitting at the restaurant counter on one side of the pass and Peter, in the kitchen, on the other. They’d found happiness simply in knowing they were in close proximity to one another.

Having a child changed the calculus. The couple were looking for restaurant spaces in Portland, but culinary aspirations took a backseat to family. Sun’s postpartum depression and anxiety had made those long hours alone with Elliott untenable. “It just fueled this need to look for something more,” she told me. “I needed to be a better mom. I needed to pick something to make this work. This new life that I have that’s making me a complete mess inside —I needed to find something.”

“Family meal” is a preservice ritual at many restaurants, where the entire staff congregates to have lunch or dinner prepared by a rotating employee. There are bonds that form from the hours and hours spent together in the trenches of hospitality work; family meal reinforces that sense of togetherness. It can also feel like a stand-in for the loved ones waiting at home. There’s a difference between making family meal the first meal of service and actually putting family first.

Peter and Sun moved back to Portland to be closer to Peter’s parents after nearly 10 years of being absentees, but they were also looking for a way out of the soul-reaving grind of the classic upscale restaurant structure. “When we had kids it totally changed,” Peter told me. “I couldn’t imagine doing that again.” Yet, there he was, at a restaurant into the wee hours of the morning, away from his family. It was all he knew.

The traditional route to becoming a successful chef or opening a successful restaurant is still available, but as the dining landscape continues to look beyond the French paradigm, the terms of engagement are becoming less rigid. There is a comfort in being able to follow a blueprint; entering uncharted territory is dispiriting in its own way. It takes guts to follow through. And on that night in April, Sun was willing to do just about anything.

She fell down a rabbit hole, scouring Craigslist for hours, keeping an open mind and ignoring the budget on which she and Peter had settled. Sun had heard about living situations that narrowed the gap between restaurant and home; the idea sounded romantic, but unattainable. She hadn’t been looking for anything in particular, but as the clock struck 2 a.m., Sun had found it anyway: a listing for an open loft with a courtyard in a commercially zoned neighborhood.

“And I immediately saw what it is that we could potentially have,” she said.

There is archival footage of Portland’s busy intersections in the 1930s. The placid effect of warm, grainy images glosses over the sheer terror of imagining a modern driver staying alive on the roads in an era of less formalized traffic laws. Navigating the intersection of Sandy Boulevard and 33rd Avenue seemed like everyday hell; even the comparative calm at Sandy and 24th Avenue was under constant danger of being derailed by a zooming tailgater entering the frame all too suddenly. There is no time-lapse footage depicting how the intersection has changed in the ensuing decades, and even if there were, what would it leave out of the picture? There are always gaps in memory, always a need for imagination to fill the spaces between.

For more than 70 years, the parcel of land around Sandy and 24th had been synonymous with car services. Kevin Cavenaugh, an idealist real estate developer based in the city, once called the area “the corner time forgot.” After a handful of ownership changes, the longtime Dodge and Chrysler dealership that occupied that particular intersection was one of the 789 casualties of the automotive brand’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2009. The empty lots once reserved for a car company on the verge of liquidization were a stark daily reminder for residents of just how hard the recession had impacted the city.

Cavenaugh, who would purchase an adjacent auto-body shop owned by the dealership a year later, had an idea to flip the perception upside down. At a memorial site of an American failure felt nationwide, Cavenaugh would try to highlight one of the beacons of hope that helped Portland reaffirm its civic identity in the face of economic fallout: the small-scale business development model of the food cart. Cavenaugh would take the 5,000-square-foot building and fracture it into seven different units, most of which would become 400-to-600 square-foot “micro-restaurants,” businesses that would maintain the ethos of a humble food cart, but with the amenities that come with an actual storefront. It would bridge the divide between the restaurant and the food cart, which Cavenaugh saw as two opposite shores. He would call the building project the Ocean.

But to realize his vision for the future, he’d have to dismantle his present. “The economy was so bad that in the process of doing the Ocean project, it became apparent that I had to sell my home to pay debts,” Cavenaugh told me. “Which is really weird—like making something with your left hand but seeing something fall away or disintegrate in your right hand.” The seventh unit was 2,000 square feet, originally intended to be a mixed-use property in the back of a parking lot. A generic unit became a hyperpersonal project for one of Portland’s most creative developers. There would have to be four bedrooms to accommodate Cavenaugh’s three children; the kitchen and dining room area would be in what used to be an auto-body garage, which would look out to an open hacienda courtyard.

But in the meantime, there were only the buildings as they were: bleak fortresses caked with dirt. There was so much oil that had leaked through the floor that the ground itself was contaminated. Imagine the street where all the auto malls are in your city. Then imagine having to break the news to your significant other that you will be living in the middle of that street. There is no need to imagine the next step. “Your wife will be like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? Hell no,’” Cavenaugh said.

“Somehow it worked,” he continued. “That’s where the Ocean is. That’s where I put my house. That’s where I moved my kids. And it was a blast. It was so fun. It was great for us as a house, but that was a monolithic use.”

The four-bedroom apartment’s unique placement within a commercial zone meant it could be much more than what Cavenaugh envisioned for his own family. By 2015, the recession had passed and the family was ready to move on from the property. As with all of his projects, he’d find his new tenants on Craigslist.

Han Oak is what Peter and Sun have jokingly referred to as their middle child. (Elliott is now almost 4; baby Frankie recently turned 1.) It is an acclaimed restaurant touted by the likes of GQ, Esquire, and Food & Wine, bridging the wisdom Peter had gained rising through the ranks of regimented Western kitchens with the traditional Korean techniques he’d relearned after moving back to Portland to be close to his mother. Despite the accolades, Peter is hesitant to call it a restaurant. “We still don’t,” he said. “Because it’s only [open] four days a week.”

Open the door to Han Oak’s hidden parking-lot oasis and time stands still just long enough to lose one’s sense of place. My first memory of Han Oak will always be of what awaited me just beyond those doors: not a lobby, but Peter’s father kneeling before an outdoor fireplace, tossing reeds into the furnace that sits just outside a grassy courtyard. (“He’s a pyromaniac,” Peter says.) Han Oak—an alternate romanization of hanok, a traditional Korean house—is full of small, slice-of-life disarmaments. That sense of place is recalibrated as soon as the orders for cocktails from bartender Michelle Ruocco (who lords over a bar area that’d make a locksmith claustrophobic) are placed, or the artful saucers of banchan make it to the table, or Peter’s dad walks over to the kitchen area to tease the cooks on the line and steal a beer from the bar.

“It’s a home where they basically have dinner parties four nights a week for the city,” Cavenaugh said. “When you go there, you’re going to their house for dinner. And you get it. You don’t even have to know. Elliott doesn’t need to walk by in his diaper or stroll by in his big wheel by your table. When that happens, it’s magical, but that doesn’t even need to happen for you to know that you’re in their house.”

For many diners, Han Oak serves as an introduction to the daunting anthology of Korean cuisine, but it sheds the responsibility of a rigidly traditional experience. On the menu are stoner-friendly mapo tofu nachos, biang biang noodles that are Peter’s tribute to New York’s Xi’an Famous Foods, and okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake that Han Oak turns into a waffle. As full-time parents, the world beyond their front door can feel like vast wilderness. Peter’s odes to his own cravings are a way of bringing the world to their doorstep, of putting the scope of the family’s experiences back into perspective.

“For me, I felt very little pressure for [Han Oak’s menu] to be anything other than what made my wife happy and what my mom considered Korean,” Peter said. “I basically used the two of them as my guide.” Though the menu covers classics like bo ssam (pork belly and shoulder wraps), galbi jjim (braised short rib stew), soondae (blood sausage), and mandu (dumplings), it’s the flourishes between the margins that trace Peter’s circuitous route to rediscovering his Korean roots, while finding his voice on the opposite coast, cooking a completely different cuisine.

Han Oak’s corned beef soo yook
Han Oak’s corned beef soo yook
Danny Chau

Han Oak’s corned beef soo yook is a dish I think about often; it’s a Peter Cho autobiography on a plate: A classic Korean comfort dish of boiled beef in bone broth is tilted, incorporating the techniques internalized through working in meat-centric April Bloomfield restaurants in New York City. Han Oak’s soo yook, however, has perhaps a deeper connection to another Korean dish, jing-gee skhan, or Korean-style hot pot, inspired by Peter and Sun’s trips to Seoul Garden in Los Angeles. At Seoul Garden, gossamer shavings of raw beef are presented with a bevy of vegetables before a boiling pot of bone broth. Peter’s version is a reconstruction of the deconstructed cooking process: Thin slices of corned beef wade in a shallow pool of marrow-rich bone broth, with a lightly dressed radish and cabbage salad on top. The dish itself is a visual representation of the hot pot experience. The corning of brisket preserves the red hues of rare beef; each slice re-creates the sensation of watching raw beef transform into something more.

It’s also a dish that contributes to the ongoing dialogue of how cultures absorb and refract outside influences back upon themselves. Corned beef was a common C-ration available for American troops stationed in South Korea during wartime; canned foods like corn and Spam, which would go on to achieve unimaginable popularity in the country, were embraced in times of food scarcity, smuggled into restaurants and households from U.S. military bases. People adapt, and flavors meld and become familiar. Great cuisines are grounded in the bedrock of making the most of what you have; as cultures continue to cross-pollinate, pushing cuisines further will also require making the most of what you know.

“My approach with my food is that it’s a good introduction to Korean food for people who haven’t had it,” Peter told The Oregonian. “Also, interesting for people who have.” If Peter’s mom and Sun agree on a dish, Peter knows he has something that manages to fulfill both the creative impulses of a chef while keeping his flavors grounded in traditional technique. That’s part of Han Oak’s allure: It’s an environment where opposing concepts naturally seem to coalesce. It’s a place where lines are blurred.

At the TEDxPortland event in April, Peter gave a talk about his family business and the maxims that have driven him over the past few years. He discussed how his final years in New York would lead to Peter and Sun’s own year of magical thinking. He told the story of sitting in the audience at the James Beard Awards in the early 2010s, supporting his mentor April Bloomfield for her numerous nominations for best chef in New York City over the years. He sat and watched a procession of talented chefs from around the country step to the podium—and apologize. Apologize for putting work before family, for estranging themselves to their loved ones. “I started to hear the apologies more than the thanks and gratitude, but it was definitely my own guilt that made me hear it,” he said. “Because for 10 years I had worked through every holiday and missed most special occasions, and my only trips back here to Portland weren’t to see my parents, it was for work.”

But the true catalytic event that would change the course of their future wouldn’t come until 2013. It was just before Thanksgiving, in a rare moment off the kitchen line, when Peter received news that his mother had Stage IV breast cancer. Peter and Sun flew home immediately, accompanying Mrs. Cho to the first two weeks of treatment. In that span, Peter realized his career as he knew it was over; it was time to come home. They’d arrive, back in Oregon, just before Christmas.

Han Oak is closed for every holiday, and both Peter and Sun view it as the ultimate privilege. Growing up in Los Angeles, Sun was raised by her aunt until she was 5 or 6; her parents were hardworking, but largely absent: They ran a flower business that would become the biggest artificial flowers and flower accessories distributor in the country by the time she was 7. She’d gone from living in a tiny house with her aunt to living in the most affluent neighborhoods in the city. “My parents were never home. They were always working, and it was always with the best of intentions to provide for our family,” Sun said. “But, just thinking about the life that I can give my kids, I can see that I was truly happy when my parents were home for my birthday or we were all having a rare Thanksgiving meal together.”

Through Han Oak, Peter and Sun have established a modern exploration of filial piety without losing the sense of wonder and identity that the couple have imbued in every single aspect of operations. Han Oak isn’t just a restaurant spinning traditional Korean food forward, it’s a business model that recontextualizes traditional notions and value systems baked into Asian culture at large. Restaurants, within that paradigm, are often seen as a means to an end, a necessary drudgery for the good of the family. In the final year of Gourmet magazine’s existence, Francis Lam wrote about the sifu (master) of Ho Ho BBQ, a Chinese barbecue restaurant in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, and why his mastery of roasted pork wouldn’t be inherited by the next generation. In it is one of the most striking and economical encapsulations of the immigrant experience I’ve ever read: “You see how tired I am,” the sifu said. “This is not what my children go to school for.”

Han Oak may be only a four-day labor of love, but the workload is still considerable. “Our average day here, I feel like we work just as much as I used to,” Peter said. “In New York I’m managing a 50-person back-of-the-house kitchen staff, millions of dollars in food and beverage operations. Here it’s like a fraction of that, but because it’s just me, Sun, and a handful of people that work here, it’s still as much work, but it’s not. It’s not so all-encompassing. It’s different. We work just as much, but it’s for us, and it’s not for anybody else. We’re OK with that.”

For Peter and Sun, the good of the family entails creating an environment where their children never have to wonder when their parents are coming home. That comes with its own challenges. “When we hire servers or cooks, [we try to explain that] this is a very different working environment,” Peter said. “Yes, for the hours that you’re here, it operates as a restaurant. But you have to understand that most of the time throughout the week, it’s our home. And so our kids are gonna treat it like that. They are going to walk into the kitchen while they’re prepping to grab candy out of a hidden spot that my bartender keeps all her candy in. That’s gonna happen. So please realize that as much as you’re a cook here, you’re basically coming into our home and becoming part of the family. So, everybody has to keep one eye out for the kids, in the case that they start shuffling in the knife drawer, you know?”

But treating your restaurant like your middle child requires being attuned to the shifts in sibling dynamic over time. Both Elliott and Frankie will grow up with an acute understanding of restaurant flow by proxy. They aren’t the first children to grow up in a restaurant setting, and they won’t be the last. “I know some restaurant kids who really resent the life that they had to live before,” Sun said. “Not having a relationship with their parents. Not having [a childhood] because they grew up too quickly. So, I just guess keeping this situation as wholesome as possible is the least we can do.”

During a visit, renowned Chicago chef Rick Bayless regaled Peter and Sun with stories about the family room he’d built in the basement of one of his restaurants, where his daughter was practically raised. (Bayless himself worked at his family’s barbecue shop in Oklahoma by the time he was 5.) Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue recently brought his family in for dinner, and Peter was stunned by the fluency with which Franklin’s young daughter spoke about food, recommending dishes to other diners with front-of-house levels of courtesy.

There are mom-and-pop restaurants all across the country where children are forced to grow up quickly, taking orders from guests because their English is the best of anyone on staff. At Omar, a Chinese halal restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of San Gabriel, it isn’t uncommon to find a kid on his laptop at an unoccupied table. When a party is ready to order, he’ll pop up out of his seat and take the order, making recommendations and sassing customers for not ordering enough. There is an assuredness that comes with being around adults early in life. Peter is excited for what that means for Elliott, who already steals the show on most service nights at Han Oak. “I love the idea of Elliott going around and being like, ‘You need to order more.’ Like, ‘Get another cocktail,’” Peter said. “I can’t wait for that to happen.”

In the meantime, Han Oak is still figuring out what it can be. (Lately, it’s been a sometimes ceramics studio.) There have been discussions about potentially building on top of the garage where the restaurant is housed to add an extra room for the family. Eventually, Peter and Sun hope to own property and pay it forward, to build another live-work space in the city, either for a Han Oak expansion, or for another talented family just waiting for the right environment to present itself. It won’t quite capture the serendipity of the original oasis in the Ocean, but how could it? Its origin story is layered, bifurcated between two families who found a muse in an unexpected location, fueling the revelations that would redefine their respective business models and reprioritize the concept of family business.

“There will be big chapters in both the Cavenaugh family history and the Cho family history,” Cavenaugh said, “about this cute little address in the back of an auto-body shop.”

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