A House for a Korean-American Family
Published in The New York Times
August 13, 2007
MOIM, a Korean-inspired restaurant that opened recently in Park Slope, is the kind of place that convinces Brooklynites that they’re living in the most cosmopolitan part of the city.
But Kiho Park and Saeri Yoo Park, who own the restaurant, don’t need convincing. The couple moved to Park Slope in 1991, when Ms. Park was a graphic designer and Mr. Park worked for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. Since then, they have had two children, who attend the local schools.
The couple’s son, Geneho, now 12, started out in preschool at Beth Elohim, a synagogue just down the street. “He would come home singing Hanukkah songs, and I thought it was great,” Mr. Park said. “That’s what Park Slope is about.”
It is also about spacious houses. Until 1991, the Parks lived in a Brooklyn Heights apartment. When their rent hit $1,000, Mr. Park decided it was time to buy.
A broker persuaded them to visit Park Slope, where they were entranced by the brownstones, including 10 complementary houses on the west side of Eighth Avenue. One of those houses, built in 1905, was on the market for $690,000. “That was way out of our price range,” said Mr. Park, now 49. But the building, with original wainscoting, parquet floors and eight fireplaces (each a unique composition of metal, carved wood and ceramics) was hard to put out of their minds.
Eventually, the house, which had been sitting empty for more than a year, was relisted at $580,000. The broker advised the Parks to make an offer, any offer. Mr. Park offered $425,000, expecting to be turned down.
Two weeks later, he recalled, “The Realtor called and said: ‘They accepted the offer. Get your stuff together.’ ”
The couple’s biggest problem, back then, was what to do with all the space — three floors, each 20 feet wide and 75 feet deep. (The ground floor was and still is a rental apartment.) The couple had little money, they said, so they lived in nearly empty rooms.
Eventually, they began buying mission-style furniture, which complements the house’s woodwork and stained-glass windows. With their tight budget, they bought one piece at a time, Mr. Park said, proving it by pointing to the slightly different upholstery fabric on each of their Stickley-style dining chairs.
Eventually, the couple renovated the kitchen, which is Ms. Park’s domain. (“He cooked before we were married,” Ms. Park said wryly.) A graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., she worked as a designer until 2000, when, she said, “my midlife crisis hit.”
That’s when Ms. Park, now 48, began studying at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. She went on to take jobs at a series of Manhattan restaurants, including Spice Market and Café Gray.
In the meantime, the couple — looking ahead to when Ms. Park would be ready to open her own restaurant — bought a small building on Garfield Place near Seventh Avenue. Rent from two apartments helped them pay the bills, while the ground floor space sat empty. Eventually, they brought in an architect, Edward I. Mills, to design a sleek restaurant.
The basement kitchen has a skylight that allows diners to look down at Ms. Park and her assistants. There, they produce nontraditional dishes like kimchi fried rice, steak tartare with Asian pears and pine nuts, and black cod with Korean red pepper sauce.
Ms. Park works to exhaustion; she said that before she opened the restaurant, she didn’t realize how much administrative work she would have. “Only 30 percent of what I do is cooking,” she said.
Most evenings, Mr. Park drives from Queens, where he works in finance at Elmhurst Hospital, to the restaurant, where he serves as chief troubleshooter and greeter.
It helps that, when they leave the restaurant, their house is just a few hundred yards away.
When they can, they entertain guests in a large living room where the mission-style sofa and chairs mingle with a few contemporary pieces. The art is mostly by Korean-Americans, including Il Lee, who also lives in Brooklyn. (Mr. Lee, who works in ballpoint pen on canvas, is having a solo show this summer at the Queens Museum of Art.) “It’s good to support the community,” Mr. Park said.
Relaxing, for Mr. Park, means spending time in the second-floor den, with a gingham-pattern sofa and a high-definition TV. (Asked the brand, Mr. Park said, “Samsung, of course,” referring to the Korean manufacturer). The room opens onto a terrace with spectacular rooftop (and sunset) views, but for Mr. Park the real attraction is that he can smoke on the terrace. (He hasn’t had a cigarette inside since the children were born, he said). The TV room shares the second floor of the house with the couple’s spacious bedroom.
The top floor is shared by the Parks’ two children. Their daughter, Jiyeon, 14, who has the back bedroom, is spending the summer in Korea with Ms. Park’s parents. Geneho, whose bedroom faces the street, is attending a hagwon, a Korean tutoring program. Though he said he prefers skateboarding and basketball to academic enrichment, his mother said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that he understands that spending the summer studying “is part of the process of being Korean.” If it’s any compensation, he has a foosball table right outside his bedroom.
The Parks say they are lucky to have such a large house. “Coming from humble backgrounds, we’re grateful to have this kind of space,” Mr. Park said. His only complaint, he said, is that the couple’s friends, knowing what they paid, can’t reconcile themselves to buying in Park Slope, where prices are now several times higher.
Ms. Park has a few small reservations: there are too many steps, and the woodwork collects dust. “There’s a lot to clean,” she said.
Then again, the house is a link to the past. “Every time I touch the wood,” she said, “I think that someone touched this wood 100 years ago. It’s history. I feel like I’m part of the timeline.”