LCHS Grads’ Restaurant Partnership Is Cooking

Photo by Sahale Greenwood / OUTLOOK Kobunga founder and CEO John Kim and chef and COO Stephen Cho
Photo by Sahale Greenwood / OUTLOOK
Kobunga founder and CEO John Kim and chef and COO Stephen Cho

John Kim and Stephen Cho are the well-matched business partners who together are making Korean barbecue accessible through a chef-driven, health-oriented approach at their restaurant, Kobunga, which opened at the USC Village five months ago.
Though the two went to Paradise Canyon Elementary, La Cañada High School 7/8 and LCHS only two years apart — Kim graduated from LCHS in 2007, Cho in 2011 — and both started vtheir careers in New York City, the partners did not meet until years later, when a mutual friend introduced them because of a shared dream: to open a restaurant.
After graduating from Yale University, Kim had been conquering the finance world — working at an investment bank and hedge fund — when he decided to make a career change.
“I felt on top of the world in Manhattan, with my own office and speaking daily with CEOs about their long-term plans, but something was missing. I was not creating something of value,” Kim said.
Kim’s desire to make something new and significant drove him to wonder what he could create that was unique to him. He was reminded of what he recalls as his “lunch box moment” at PCY where he opened his container filled with kimchi, pickles and meat that the other students thought was gross. Kim decided that in his next career move, he was going to use his culture to his advantage and share this food with others instead of being embarrassed by his difference.
To do so, Kim hatched an idea of a Korean barbecue restaurant that was accessible to Americans, unlike most such restaurants that take a while to serve diners, are expensive and do not cater to English speakers or American palates. Kim’s restaurant pitch included a menu that was easy to read and in English, did not have the more exotic Korean dishes and was more conscious of dairy, peanut and gluten sensitivities.
Although Kim had a solid restaurant pitch himself, he still needed a partner. “I wanted a partner who was first and foremost a stand-up guy, but that also had experience in hospitality and cooking,” Kim described.
Cho, who studied hotel management and hospitality at New York University and went on to work at high-end restaurants and hotels in the city, was that ideal partner for Kim.
“At first I wanted to work my way up in the hotel world, but then I decided if I was going to be working an 18-hour day, I wanted to explore my passion of cooking and working with my hands. Ever since I was young, I loved grilling with my friends and smoking barbecue,” Cho said.
So they complemented each other, as Kim brought his vision for Korean food and Cho supplied the experience in hospitality and cooking to make that pitch a reality. The coincidence that they shared the same hometown seemed to underscore the harmony of their new venture.
The two started their restaurant the way a tech startup would, doing pop-up shows to beta-test their food, constantly adjusting their dishes until they had gained enough investors and found the right location.
USC Village “is the perfect location because college students are trendsetters,” Kim said. Popularizing and spreading the word about Kobunga through this group of millennials fits nicely with the restaurant’s goal of offering Korean food that is accessible to Americans. “And we constantly get new clients with each new year of students,” Cho added.
Harking back to Kim’s “lunch box moment,” the plates at Kobunga are fast and casual and come in lunch box-like containers that have a base of rice, noodles or greens topped with a flavorful, slowly roasted and marinated meat or tofu, with two Korean-inspired side dishes. The food has all the taste of traditional Korean barbecue but lacks the hassle of unfamiliarity and discomfort that might come with more traditional restaurants.
In keeping with creating a restaurant that has a menu authentic to Kim and Cho, they named two of the signature dishes after their mothers — the Mama Kim and the Mama Cho — to honor the women who inspired their love of Korean food.
Customers during a recent lunch rush were happily eating their meals around the USC Village patio. Peter Wong, a Pasadena resident, was enjoying Kobunga for the first time and reported, “This is not ordinary campus food!”
Kim and Cho hope to open three more locations in the next year and a half and possibly start selling their popular sauces in retail stores.
They’re never satisfied with the status quo. From their willingness to leave steady jobs to gamble on a new restaurant, to the pitch of reinventing Korean barbecue, to their continual improvement of the menu and planning more locations, Kim and Cho have shown that nothing is going to stop them from pushing toward new goals.
For more information visit Kobunga at the USC Village or visit kobungagrill.com.

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