When MJ Jeong finished his compulsory military service in South Korea in 2012, he didn’t have much to do in his spare time. His only entertainment? Watch television. “It was mostly cooking competition shows where a lot of famous chefs were performing,” he says. “And it looked cool.” He then decides to become a chef.
He moved to Toronto to pursue his culinary dreams and, over the next eight years, secured chef positions at restaurants as popular as Canis, Après Wine Bar and Matty’s Patty’s Burger Club by Matty Matheson. But Jeong longed for a place of his own. Him and his fiancee, health worker Jennifer Yeo Jeong, quit their jobs in 2019, planning to get married in South Korea, then return to Toronto to score new gigs … and maybe even consider opening their own restaurant. But COVID-19 has struck, and the idea of starting a new business in the midst of a pandemic seemed unthinkable.
A meeting with Bo Seo, creator and CEO of the sprawling Kibo Sushi franchise, proved otherwise and was going to change their lives. “To get to where he was, Seo went through a lot of trial, error and failure at a young age,” says Jennifer. “Now that Bo is a successful entrepreneur, he wants to be able to provide young enthusiasts with the resources and finances they need to start restaurants. Kibo means “hope” and he wants to give hope to aspiring professionals. He offered to invest in their dream.
The trio moved to Yorkville, on the former site of the French café Chabrol. “Yorkville has some amazing restaurants with great food and atmosphere,” says Jennifer. “But these are also strongly corporate restaurants. We wanted to open one that was more intimate, people-centered and personal. So, they got down to work, making the space their own, tinkering with it until the end: Jennifer painted the bathroom floor, Seo chose the chandeliers, and Jennifer and MJ looked for the cutlery. , perfect plates and glasses. Jennifer’s best friend designed their butterfly logo. “It means freedom,” says Jennifer. “And hope.”
They opened 156 Cumberland in October and quickly found their restaurant filled with diners keen to try MJ’s seasonal contemporary French cuisine with a Korean twist. “He grew up eating amazing authentic Korean food cooked by his mother and grandmother and wants to spread the knowledge and the flavors,” says Jennifer. Specialties include beef tartare nestled in pockets of fried tofu skin; mushroom congee with truffle paste, poached eggs and Parmigiano Reggiano; black garlic glazed chicken wings stuffed with purple sticky rice and chestnuts; and sous vide ribs tossed on the charcoal grill and served with mashed cauliflower, seasoned spinach and grilled maitake mushrooms. “Cooking has always been a passion,” says MJ. “So seeing empty plates returning to the kitchen makes me happy.” “
After years of working in the stressful field of healthcare, Jennifer appreciates the change in mood. “What I love about restaurants is that people come to have a good time, to party and to enjoy great food and great company,” she says. “And I’m happy to be a part of it.”