Bomee Ki’s day starts early, even in the context of most restaurant workers. The pastry chef, co-owner of Sollip and mother gets up at 5am most days to get a few hours of work in at the restaurant “before the kids go to school.” She then sees them off for the day, and goes back to the restaurant until collection at 3pm. Depending on the day, she may return for service in the evening. She will often head into the restaurant on her days off to get caught up with development and updating menus. “That’s how I can manage and balance being a mum and also being a chef,” she says.
Ki, and her husband Woongchul Park, met in passing while training at Le Cordon Bleu in London. They returned to Korea separately, and weren’t in touch until Park was working in a French restaurant in his hometown and found himself in need of a pastry chef. “He needed some help and it just came into his head, that, yes, there was a lady he met at Cordon Bleu,” Ki tells me. “So he contacted me, and I went there to help him and yeah. That’s the beginning of our story.”
After a series of roles back in Korea, the duo moved back to London – together – with Park working at Koffmann’s in the Berkeley Hotel. On Pierre Koffmann’s recommendation, Ki went to work with Claude Lamarche at the Arts Club in Mayfair. “Koffmann said, ‘OK Bomee, if you want to learn real pastry you must go to the Arts Club, find Claude and learn from him.” She describes her time there as “really, really tough,” with a sense of pure admiration in her voice. “He’s a machine,” she says about Lamarche. “I had an amazing time working with him.”
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After a few years back in London, they returned to Korea – to Jeju Island, to join its first French fine dining restaurant as sous chef and head pastry chef. “We worked together for a while, but then suddenly I had our second kid, so I had to quit,” she tells me. “I had a break, but I was constantly trying to find a chance to work more. I did some consulting for bakeries and dessert cafes, but I wanted more. The island is so peaceful and beautiful, and my husband worked nine hours a day and was off on the weekend which is unusual in a chef’s life. But we felt like something was missing, we wanted our own thing. We thought we needed to do it while we were still young.”
And so, off they went again, back to London. Park came a few months earlier to scout out restaurant sites, schools and apartments, before the family packed up their lives and joined him. After months of hard work, they managed to get everything aligned to open the restaurant in early 2020, just a few days before the first lockdown hit. “It was very tough,” Ki tells me. “It was our very first time trying to open up a restaurant, and in another country. Of course we were familiar with London and had a few friends, but opening a restaurant is totally different, and we had no one to ask about it.”
It was very tough. It was our very first time trying to open up a restaurant, and in another country. We had no one to ask about it
It’s safe to say that the subsequent months were a challenge. Overnight, their plans ground to a halt. They had no family nearby, neither of them had an income, and yet they had rent and bills to pay for both home and business. In desperate need to do something, anything, they opened the Sollip grocery, selling homemade pickles and kimchi and cookies alongside Korean groceries. “We only opened on the weekend, and we’d just bring the kids, distract them with the iPad and try to make something.”
It’s one of those stories that you can’t help but be impacted by. I was struck by how trying the ordeal must have been, and how resilient Ki and Park must have been throughout it all. She tells me how when they first opening they didn’t have the budget for any PR or marketing, so they just worked each day, hoping word would spread. Unsurprisingly, given the calibre of their cooking, it did. “A few of our friends, chefs and even customers, came and really supported us, even if we didn’t ask,” she tells me. “Then we had some media visiting us, and they had such great reviews, and surprisingly the guests just keep coming.” And then there was the Michelin star. “We didn’t expect it at all,” she says. “When the gentleman announced it to us, he said, ‘London is yours’. That sentence was so warming and generous, I was so moved.”
At the beginning of our conversation, she tells me that no one ever wants to interview her – only her husband. But this is a woman whose story deserves to be told. Part way through our conversation, her children wander in. It’s school holidays, and they’ve run off from their dad, hoping to get some attention from mum. Ki handles it unflappingly, quickly apologising before quietly asking the kids to please wait for her outside. They listen – but return on the occasion throughout our conversation, coming up to smile at the camera before running off again. Ki barely breaks her sentences.
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Ki is emphatic that, while being a woman hasn’t had an enormous impact on her career, it’s being a mother that has posed its difficulties. “As a mum, there are huge issues, especially for the chefs,” she tells me. “I’m a mum of two, and from the moment of pregnancy, being a mum and at the same time being a chef has never been easy. I had very heavy morning sickness for my first baby. It was super painful, I spent most of it lying in bed vomiting ever 20 minutes. I lost eight kilograms. So I had to take a break from my career, but it was my passion, and I felt powerless – I had to find a solution to make it work.”
She says that parenthood in her line of work comes with struggles around balance. “I always feel guilty for not being able to spend more time with my kids,” she says. “I want to be a great chef, but I want to be a great mum too. I want to show my kids the value of hard work, but at the same time I want to give my full love to them. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Her words stick with me for days after we talk, because in just a few sentences Ki seems to have summarised the problems of ambitious women around the world since the beginning of time. If the conversations I’ve had are anything to go off, everyone is just trying to figure it out, with as much love and empathy as they can. Although I would say that Ki – with her 5am wake-ups, Michelin-starred restaurant and happy, phone call-bombing kids – is doing a pretty good job of it.