As chef at the now-defunct Navy Club in the U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Yongsan, Oh Seong-geun held dear his flavor memories from each overseas locale he visited, and applied them in tandem with Korean and American cuisines suitable for U.S. military personnel, their families and other guests.
Buried deep in concocting sauces that originated from different cultures all under the roof of Building 1657 ― with methods emphasizing fusion but with each original flavor still preserved ― Oh, along with other Korean chefs was confident he could satisfy the taste buds of U.S. Navy sailors with a mixture of ingredients harvested from both land and sea.
A sous-chef by trade, Oh is also proud to say he lives and breathes Jeolla-type cuisine learned through apprenticeship with his maternal family ― Oh said he poured his intuition and effort into making any guest feel the Navy Club as a home away from home when he was preparing dishes.
Be it a Philly cheesesteak with onions and kimchi, Vietnamese pho noodles with a broth that deserved equal or more credit than the ones boiling in Vietnam, Oh expended his talents and creativity to the fullest in his nearly 20 years manning the Navy Club kitchen until its closure in 2015. His salad pizza in particular drew inspiration among prospective Korean restaurateurs who emulated nearly every topping he had used.
“Scouts from other clubs were looking to recruit me,” he said. “Serving up a kind of fusion of exceptional flavors, you couldn’t have this kind of food at the Dragon Hill Lodge or anywhere else on base.”
Introducing dishes that were to die for among all ranks of U.S. service members stationed in Yongsan Garrison as well as from the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA), Oh said that personnel from other U.S. military bases like Camp Carroll and Casey flocked to the Navy Club to pick at one of the menu’s signature dishes, Mongolian barbecue, which consisted of an assortment of spicy meats, calamari and vegetables, mixed in 10 different sauces he had made all from scratch.
“Including Korean chili paste and soy sauce,” he added.
With word-of-mouth raves pouring in, as well as from official broadcast channels of the American Forces Korean Network (AFKN), the customizable stir-fried dish ― with ingredients sauteed on a round and rotating cast-iron griddle ― became the weekend occasion that trumped expectations compared to other specials offered at Hartell House, Dragon Hill Lodge and other kitchens run on base.
Oh said the Mongolian barbecue “saved the restaurant’s image as a joint that had always wanted to preserve traditional flavors for sailors who craved meats other than seafood.”
By both adapting and applying his strengths ― diverse sauce-making into a menu actively collaborated on with his kitchen supervisors ― Oh added that his distinguished guests of navy sailors, officers, and high-ranking personnel would sometimes find the time to thank him and his colleagues for making the Navy Club a “legend.”
“One group left a $1,000 tip after feasting on Korean pig skin; you have no idea how good that felt to us,” he said. “If an officer requested our audience for a handshake and compliment, it meant they haven’t tasted anything like this before.”
Following the Navy Club closing its doors for good, Oh immediately took his talents to the DFAC-Talon Cafe located at USAG Humphreys in Pyeongtaek.
However, he said he had to readjust his methods to simpler cooking, combined with a management system that restricts a philosophy that had been successful only in Yongsan.
“You can also get Mongolian barbecue in Pyeongtaek, but it’s just not the same, it lacks flavor,” he said. “They don’t pay enough attention to it, but if I had done it, everything changes.”
Oh Seong-geun first entered Yongsan Garrison as a gate security guard while operating his own restaurants in Sinchon and Hongdae from 1991 to 1999. In 1997, he applied for a full-time position as chef at the Navy Club, but was assigned to the role of dishwasher for three years prior to working in the kitchen. Since 2015, Oh has worked at the DFAC-Talon Cafe located in Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. Apart from his work on base, Oh makes weekend trips to Seoul to appear at restaurants as a guest sous-chef.
Published on Korea Times Yongsan legacy Column on 20th March 2019 by reporter Jon Dunbar https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2019/03/113_265541.html