Singing Opera Is a Lot Like Running a Restaurant

I never had the intention of changing my profession, but it turns out that my life as a performer and as a restaurant owner has considerable overlap.

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Feb 27 2015, 2:53pm

There are some times in life when one has a strong need to start something new. One of those times for me was in 2009. I had a wonderful vision that I would celebrate my 40th birthday in my own restaurant. I never had the intention of changing my profession from an opera singer.

Before Kochu Karu, I had much more time. I studied for six years at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Berlin and Munich, and directly after graduation, I spent six years as a solo soprano in a permanent ensemble in a theater. My entire life revolved around singing, voice lessons, singing lessons, music, stage, and theater.

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I was in a church choir when the choir director—a nun—discovered my voice. I was given many solo parts to sing, and eventually I attended music school. I went to university and studied opera concert singing. I wanted to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but could not pay the tuition fees. Instead, I got a scholarship after my entrance examination in Berlin at the Hochschule für Musik, "Hanns Eisler."

During my studies, I got my first role in a music festival. And then I got an agent, which led to my first proper job at the theater. Thus, I became an opera singer. It's not like I was discovered in a restaurant as a singing waitress or on the street as a street musician.

Life as a permanent cast member in an opera house takes a lot of discipline. Most of the time I was engaged in vocal training, and keeping physically fit for our many rehearsals, exercises, and performances.

As a singer or restaurant owner, you must own the thing, whether it is a performance or a menu, and authentically present it with full conviction to the public. Guests are not interested in your personal state of mind or mood.

I still sing, and I especially like being involved with music theater projects that bring new musical or acting experience to me. Of course, I have to organize my time very well with the restaurant. I was able to prepare for opening the restaurant while still performing on the stage, so the transition to life with Kochu Karu was very fluid and exciting. Thank God that I have a great partner, my José!

Kochu Karu is my first restaurant. I once worked as a waitress during my studies, just like all the other thousands of students, but I didn't realize my desire to open my own restaurant until later. My thought process and reasoning went like this: 1) I met a great partner who cooks incredibly well; 2) My friends helped me with everything regarding the opening; 3) José and I had a great concept for our fusion cuisine; and 4) I thought it would be fun to expand the horizons of my life. So why not?

My life as a performer and as a restaurant owner has considerable overlap, and the two roles are incredibly similar. People go to be entertained both in the theater and in the restaurant. As a singer or restaurant owner, you must own the thing, whether it is a performance or a menu, and authentically present it with full conviction to the public. Guests are not interested in your personal state of mind or mood. My guests like a funny, cheerful restaurant owner, and I take on that role very gladly.

Growing up, I often cooked with my mother. I would go with her to buy ingredients and helped with the cooking. So I automatically learned a lot about how to choose good ingredients and how to prepare them well. But my mother had no written recipes. She taught me that your dishes are always a bit of an experiment, and showed me how to cook by taste instead of by measurements.

Kochu Karu's menu was, of course, influenced by my childhood in Korea, my parents' vegetable garden, and the spices of my Mama's cupboard. The recipes for the barbecue dishes, kimchi, and a pair of dips are based on my mother's recipes. My mother is the best cook in the world in my eyes. She was very skeptical when I told her that I cook Korean food with a Spanish chef, and dubious about the mix of Spanish and Korean cuisine. Then, in 2013, she visited us and tried every single dish cooked by José. Now she's José's biggest fan, and she even cooks at home in Korea with a few of José's original recipes.

I am still a singer and I always will be. But now I also have another miraculous space and opportunity in which I can make people happy.

As told to Abby Carney