One of Melbourne's most exciting chefs, Jung Eun Chae, shares her guide to the suburb where her famous six-seat restaurant came to life.
Before every service at her six-seat restaurant, Jung Eun Chae has a shot of gin.
"I love watching people eating in front of me, but I still feel very nervous every time," she says.
The Korean-born chef, who goes by her surname, Chae, launched her eponymous, ferment-forward restaurant from her one-bedroom apartment in Brunswick in 2019.
It's currently a booked-out pop-up with a 7000-strong waitlist hoping for a cancellation, before it transitions to her new home in the Dandenong Ranges in August. But today, she's showing me around her old 'hood.
We're meandering down Sydney Road, which runs through the middle of Wurundjeri land called Iramoo (grassy plains in the Woiwurrung language). Robert Hoddle surveyed it in 1837, but the area didn't become urbanised until the mid-1880s. After World War II, those fleeing Europe took to Brunswick's affordable housing. As migrants opened grocers and delis, life along Sydney Road became more culturally vibrant.
I think people feel … like they get to be treated. It's a treat from me. They feel they are special.Jung Eun Chae
One of those grocers is Mediterranean Wholesalers, established in 1961. It boasts more than 250 varieties of dried pasta, giant cheese wheels and dried, salted cod. But Chae makes a beeline for the furthest aisle, grabbing two bottles of Sicilian EVOO.
"We are drinking one shot of olive oil every morning for health," she says.
Chae buying olive oil at Mediterranean Wholesalers. Photo: Sofia Levin
She's referring to her husband, Yoora Yoon. The couple arrived at our meeting point, Lebanese bakery, cafe and community hub A1 Bakery, before me and stand the instant I enter. Chae's dressed in a pale pink beanie and calf-length black puffer. Both wear grey knits and maroon socks.
The couple are the picture of inner-north Melbourne, though both were born in South Korea. Chae moved to Melbourne to study patisserie at William Angliss Institute in 2006, while Yoon arrived a year later to take fashion at RMIT Brunswick.
"We met through a mutual friend who had a crush on me, but he wasn't sure if I was straight or gay, so he brought Chae to get a second opinion," Yoon says, laughing.
It was the start of their partnership, in every sense of the word.
"He's my counsellor and he is a really a positive person," Chae says. "He always tells me I can't satisfy everyone so don't get stressed; you have to enjoy this moment."
A vibrant falafel platter, cheese pie and labne pizza arrive at the table, plus bonus zaatar bread and baklava for the former regulars. Yoon pours thick Lebanese coffee from a traditional pot.
"Out of us, I'm the more ambitious person," he says. "I didn't want her to compromise the quality (of Chae), but I had to talk her into taking the business further."
Chae pictured in the first iteration of CHAE restaurant in her former apartment in Brunswick. Photo: Justin McManus
The pair sold their apartment during lockdown in August 2021 and bought their home in Cockatoo after a virtual inspection. When Chae 2.0 opens in August for six at a time, it will be a culinary experience with the addition of fermentation demonstrations and homemade teas accompanied by the laughter of kookaburras and rustling gum leaves.
"We want to offer a comprehensive cultural experience," Yoon explains. "We want to not only serve food but show people where the food is coming from."
We walk to 40-year-old Russel's Fruit & Vegetables, beyond the sliding doors of Brunswick Market past a shuttered butcher and an abandoned fishmonger. Chae spots chestnuts and starts piling them into a bag. They'll end up in "chestnut rice"; an understated description of the clay pot dish she serves with whatever is seasonal. I explain who she is to the new owner.
"No way! I saw an article on that. That's so cool," he says. "Did you make good money doing it?"
Chae's brow furrows and she half laughs, "Money's not…" She trails off. Later, she'll tell me she's better at listening than talking.
On the way out, we notice the queue has died down at Tochi Deli, a sushi and nigiri kiosk run by a third-generation sushi chef. Chae's tried to visit twice before but they've been sold out each time. We dive at the chance to order anago (saltwater eel), kingfish and diced scallop nigiri.
Owner Shingo Tochimoto is a huge fan of Chae's and the feeling is mutual. Throughout the day Chae's attention is enthusiastically directed towards others, despite the interest in her.
Sushi and seafood are popular where Chae's mother lives in Korea's South Jeolla province, wedged between the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and Sea of Japan.
"When I told her about this idea [to open a restaurant], she said it's stupid," Chae says. "She said six people is just like inviting friends over, it's not a restaurant. She said, 'Who will eat your food?'"
While her mother still can't comprehend why her homely cooking is popular, she supports Chae by supplying produce from her 2000-square-metre farm.
Chae suddenly looks at her watch. "You need to feed Haru," she tells Yoon.
Back at their car, a black labrador is wagging from the driver's seat. Haru is the envy of the park – and possibly Brunswick – snacking on Chae's homemade chicken jerky treats that are marinated in fermented soy.
Chae does a lot of her fermenting in large plastic tubs from the Magic Dollar $2 store nearby and insists they're "even cheaper than Springvale".
The shop is just across from Harper & Blohm, a specialty cheese store with a tempting display of cheddars, blues and soft cheeses from Australia and beyond. Chae doesn't use cheese in her cooking, but always has some in her fridge. Today, we're here for the toasties.
Chae's turophilia (cheese obsession) has been fostered throughout her 17-year cheffing career. She's worked at The European, The French Brasserie, opened Le Miel et La Lune in Carlton and was part of the original team at South Melbourne fine-diner Lume.
It was while riding her motorbike to the latter that a car rear-ended her. She was unable to work for six months. When she tried again at Cutler & Co in Fitzroy, she could barely stand on her injured ankle.
"I lost my passion and my health. Mentally, I broke, and that time I was mid-30s," says Chae, now 38. "I lost eight kilos and I had to think about what was important."
It was a turning point. Chae travelled back to Korea to learn the art of fermentation, volunteering for a couple of months with Jeong Kwan, the Buddhist nun from Netflix's Chef's Table. It was stricter than she expected. She worked from 7am until midnight and eventually went to stay with her mother. While there, she watched her make every crock of kimchi, condiment and broth from scratch.
"I was looking for my master over the last 20 years, but I didn't realise it was my mum," Chae says.
We take a short drive to Basfoods, where you can buy wholesale products before 3.30pm on a weekday. Chae stocks up on soybeans, while I buy a curious mix of Greek mountain tea, bulk chia seeds and chilli oil.
Our next stop is The Royal Nut Company, a lofty brick warehouse painted gold. As we queue to pay for pine nuts (for jatjuk rice porridge) and yoghurt-coated apricots (for Yoon), Chae points out a display of nut butters.
"When you're feeling lazy for dipping sauce, just add soy sauce with this. Maybe some vinegar, garlic and chilli," she says.
We are too late in the day to snag a caraway and coriander loaf at Ovens Street Bakery, but Chae is given a consolation baguette. She's also a fan of Wild Life Bakery in Brunswick East, while Mile End co-founder Michael Fee was a barista at Chae's cafe. The Brunswick bagelry is 100 metres from her old apartment.
Does she miss living in Brunswick? "Not really, but I love coming here," she says.
We finish our tour with a margherita pizza – extra anchovies, thank you – at Mr Wilkinson in Brunswick East, a bar the couple first stumbled upon when exploring their once-new neighbourhood.
Yoon is about to finish up as a fashion designer to help grow Chae full-time. Meanwhile, Chae spends 12 hours a week studying Chinese medicine online with Korea University, and they have a cookbook due in February.
People feel overwhelmingly lucky in the presence of Chae and Yoon, whether they've nabbed a booking at their restaurant or are sharing beers at Haru-friendly Welcome to Brunswick. I ask Chae why she thinks she is so in-demand, and for the first time today, she doesn't mention food.
"I think people feel … how do you say daejeobbadda?" She types something into Google Translate. "… Like they get to be treated. It's a treat from me. They feel they are special."
Chae and Yoon with their dog Haru at Welcome to Brunswick. Photo: Sofia Levin
Need to know
- Mediterranean Wholesalers, 482 Sydney Road, Brunswick
- A1 Bakery, 643-645 Sydney Road, Brunswick
- Russel's Fruit & Vegetables, shop 9, Brunswick Market, 661 Sydney Road, Brunswick
- Tochi Deli, 661 Sydney Road, Brunswick
- Magic Dollar, 462 Sydney Road, Brunswick
- Harper & Blohm, 365 Sydney Road, Brunswick
- Basfoods, 423 Victoria Street, Brunswick
- The Royal Nut Company, 60 Fallon Street, Brunswick
- Ovens Street Bakery, 19 Ovens Street, Brunswick
- Wild Life Bakery, 90 Albert Street, Brunswick East
- Mile End, 1 Wilkinson Street, Brunswick
- Mr Wilkinson, 295 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
- Welcome to Brunswick, 1 Frith Street, Brunswick