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  • Writer's pictureTina Brand

Three Questions: the creative duo of Sydney's Soul Dining, Illa Kim and Daero Lee

Soul Dining on Devonshire is a sleek and almost secret spot tucked in from the trams running to and fro on that busy street. But step into the dining space from the front terrace and into a quietly stylish and elegant world and feast on exciting contemporary Korean food. The spare but inviting design and contemporary food is the brainchild of Illa Kim and Daero Lee.

I talked to the couple who own and run this gem in the heart of Surry Hills. With busy lives running the restaurant and a young family at home, the lovely Illa and Daero still made time to tell me about the adventures that got them here.

From the seaside city of Pohang, Korea, Daero moved to Seoul as a teenager to attend the Korean Tourism and Hotel Management College. There he trained as a chef, specializing in Italian, French and Korean cuisine and further received a baker's certification. The young student found success at college, winning a scholarship to travel to Italy as an exchange student.

Upon his return, Daero worked in hotel kitchens, and also had a stint in a bakery.

Then with the mandatory military service under his belt, Daero continued his career in various fine dining restaurants in Seoul, cooking mainly Italian and French cuisine.

At the age of 25, wanderlust called Daero to Australia for a working holiday and he spent two years, mainly in Sydney.  Illa is from Seoul, but moved to Germany at the age of 11 for her mother’s studies. She grew up in Kiel, a city close to the Danish border, and went on to study design in Berlin. She then worked in PR and Marketing agencies in Berlin before moving back to Seoul for a new job as a Senior PR & Marketing Consultant at a creative agency called Platoon Kunsthalle. Platoon Kunsthalle also was an events venue of the same name, situated in the middle of bustling Gangnam, Seoul, with a restaurant where Daero was head chef. Illa and Daero met at Kunsthalle as co-workers and worked on many events together including for clients like Adidas, Nike, and Activision.

When Daero was offered a cooking stint from a former employer in Sydney, the couple found themselves at a crossroads: Daero proposed to Illa, and they began their Sydney adventure together. Some years down the track, Illa was pregnant and Daero found himself burnt out from restaurant work so the two decided to take some time off and concentrate on family and think about the future. It was during that time that they wrote a business plan for Soul Dining and opened the restaurant in December 2018. Illa says with a laugh: "The basic idea behind our food is whatever Daero wants to cook . Daero always wanted to recreate his soul food/dishes in his own way and much of the inspiration comes from his memories from Korea. "

She continues: "Being trained in ‘western cuisine’ we like to say it’s contemporary Korean made with modern Australian techniques. " The service at Soul dining is warm, efficient and unobtrusive. The range of clientele when one dines there is telling: hipster youngsters, well heeled business types and foodies of all demographics who understand they are here for a good evening. Daero oversees everything in the kitchen and the creative process, while Illa handles the business side of the restaurant with finance, marketing, and HR.

Dining at Soul is a pleasure. Social distancing is carefully observed. The greeting is welcoming and the wine list appealing. Korean beers, sakes and sodas are all on offer. The menu is thoughtfully curated and mouth watering. Dishes arriving at the table vie for first place as best tasting of the meal. I can never decide. Go see yourself!

We finished our chat with the three questions :

Secret naughty food obsession?

Illa: Grapefruit Green Tea, 30% sugar!

Daero: Used to be Malatang but now it’s Domino’s new deep pan pepperoni pizza...

Best thing you ate most recently?

Illa: Cafe Paci's chicken liver Paris-Brest

Daero: Chaco Ramen- the yuzu scallop

Never fail pantry ingredients?

Illa: Spam 

Daero: Sesame oil

Images from Soul Dining.

Soul Dining

204 Devonshire Street

Surry Hills, Sydney 2010

Ph: (02) 85934957


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