‘Korean cuisine can delight palates across the globe’
“I thought about how I could contribute to society, more so than simply thinking about how to make money. After long consideration, I realized that I could create high-quality basic ingredients and raise the quality of the food that people eat. That is, I could produce the basic staples of Korean cuisine using only the finest ingredients and build on our more-than-60 years of fermentation expertise. With that, I believed, people would be able to enjoy great food, everyday. That is the ultimate way to improve the quality of what people eat every day and to help develop Korean cuisine.”
Park Jinsun is CEO of the Sempio Foods Company, a firm that represents the traditions and heritage of Korean cuisine, particularly its emphasis on fermented pastes and other pungent condiments. He stresses his belief that the taste of many Korean dishes could delight palates across the globe.
His philosophy is as uncommon as is his educational and employment background. Park majored in electronic engineering at Seoul National University. He then received his master’s degree, also in engineering, from Stanford University. He also, unexpectedly, holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Iowa. He even worked as a lecturer in philosophy for a while at that same university. Only in his late 30s did Park begin to run a business.
The Sempio Foods Company specializes in making the fermented pastes that are used so often in traditional Korean cuisine. It controls more than 50 percent of the domestic sauce and paste market. As Sempio’s CEO, Park is at the forefront as Korean cuisine goes global, producing sauces and pastes that include the company’s original soy sauce, as well as Yondu, one of its latest products, a type of seasoning or broth concentrate.
Korea.net sat down with Park to talk about the history and future of sauces and pastes and the role that a single food company can play in the development of Korean cuisine.
As a 68-year-old company, Sempio seems to have followed a similar trajectory as the overall economy did, moving through urbanization and onward to industrialization. The company saw many years of rapid development and went through many big changes, just as the country itself has. Even until 1997, when you took the helm as CEO, it was presumably difficult to think of expanding the company’s scope of business. What inspired you, if anything, to expand your company and to look at making inroads overseas?
We have had many hard times and, of course, faced failure, too. Until the 1990s in Korea, there were no logistics firms. We didn’t have sales people, either. We had about 100 branch offices across the nation. Staff received orders from supermarkets in the morning and requested payment in the afternoon. I was barely able to imagine any type of sales or marketing strategy at that time.
Before I became CEO in 1997, I lived in the U.S. for about 16 years. My family always wanted me to inherit the family business, but I wanted to get a better job than simply sell sauces and pastes. However, when I came back to Korea, I found that society was changing really quickly, but that Sempio remained as just a minor manufacturer. I thought that Sempio would never be able to survive without a big breakthrough.
In addition, as I have always had deep affection for my grandfather, the founder of Sempio, who showed me a great amount of love, I gradually came to develop a sense of responsibility to maintain the business, as I am the eldest son in the family.
When I first came to the company, I felt an urgent need to develop new business. I started to push myself to do something more, to make the company modern, substantive and strong. As the first step, I decided to close one of our outdated factories located in Changdong. I replaced the old facilities with an automated system. We also moved our offices to where they are now, near Chungmuro Station in central Seoul.
Sempio is a food company that requires as much customer communication as possible. I thought it was essential for our staff to be in the city center in order to learn more about recent trends and to experience the diversity that exists in Seoul. With that in mind, Chungmuro Station, where subway line Nos. 3 and 4 intersect, was the perfect location.
Many people believe that home-made or hand-made sauces and pastes just taste better. Sempio’s sauces are the products of mechanization and mass production. How can you maintain the quality of your products?
Many people believe that it is desirable to avoid mechanized production. However, the development of science and technology has brought a broad range of benefits to our lives. One of the strengths of Sempio is that we can always maintain the same level of quality because it is based on science. Without the use of science, we would probably get a different taste each and every time.
For instance, if a sauce happens to taste great, we wouldn’t be able to find out the factors that gave it the great taste. It also works the other way around. If it tasted bad, there would be no way to prevent it from tasting bad again.
At Sempio, we study the characteristics of microorganisms and their living environment, to uncover the optimum conditions for fermentation. Therefore, we can keep our products at a constantly high level of quality. Also, mass production makes it possible for our customers to enjoy their food at a reasonable price.
It seems to be impossible not to talk about Kikkoman when it comes to the globalization of soy sauce. What do you think is the difference between Sempio and Kikkoman?
First, the basic ingredients used to make our soy sauce is different. The taste itself is different, too, as people from two different nationalities will have different opinions about taste. Both sauces share the fact that they use soy beans as the base ingredient, but Kikkoman soy sauce makes use of soy beans and wheat in equal amount, while our soy sauce is created using only soy beans.
For many years in the past, we concentrated on grinding the beans into a powder. However, in recent years, we carried out various experiments and research to dig deeper into the idea of “tasty.” We found that it creates a better taste when the beans remain a little less crushed, technically called a peptide. In fact, there are only 20 or so types of amino acid found in wheat, but peptides have hundreds of thousands of different types, greatly enhancing the taste. Therefore, I strongly believe that our soy sauce has great potential in European markets. In particular, our newest line of Yondu condiments, a fermented soy bean-based salad dressing-like seasoning, similar to broth concentrate, will be able to replace monosodium glutamate (MSG) throughout the world.
As the CEO of a food company where the main product is soy sauce, what do you think are the merits of the condiment?
Soy sauce is used in most Korean cuisine. In other words, it determines the basic taste of the dish, and therefore has a big influence on the over cuisine. On the other hand, there are some dishes that do not go well with soy sauce, as it is dark in color and gives off a strong smell and flavor. We have strived to redeem those weaknesses. One of our results has been our Yondu line of soy-based sauces.
Since the establishment of a partnership in 2013 with the Alicia Foundation, the Spanish research center for culinary innovation, you have been working on the development of recipes for Western food that can be improved with your line of soy bean-based sauces. It seems, indeed, an adventurous step. What’s behind your decision?
Early on, I knew the importance of and felt an urgent need to make inroads into overseas markets. Also, since I lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, I wasn’t either afraid of or resistant to international markets. However, it wasn’t easy to develop a new market with no demand.
Equipped with our new lineup of products, we targeted niche markets in Russia and Saudi Arabia. Among our lineup was Yondu, of course, released in 2010, which gained unexpectedly popularity in those markets.
With our Yondu brand, we began cooperation with the Alicia Foundation in Barcelona. After a week or two of testing, to incorporate our soy bean-based sauce into Western cuisine, they got a few positive responses.
Today, they have produced about 150 recipes for Western dishes — 50 Spanish, 50 French and 50 Italian — that use our fermented sauces. Professional chefs and culinary experts in Spain have praised Yondu, saying that it can be a substitute for salt. Moreover, in comparison with salt and pepper, Yondu is lower in salinity by about 20-30 percent, as well as in calories, too.
It probably wasn’t easy to incorporate fermented sauces into Western cuisine. How has it been accepted in the global marketplace?
I was surprised that fermented soybean paste, or doenjang in Korean, has been well-received in the global market. It is even hardly ever consumed by the younger generation here in Korea. The menu items we can create with fermented soybean paste is very limited. We don’t have anything else than boiled soup broth and vegetable seasoning mixed with the paste. However, through cooperation with the Alicia Foundation, we’ve discovered an overflow of possible menu items that were beyond our imagination. Now, I have strong faith that we can create a new cuisine with our fermented sauces and pastes.
You are known to be highly interested in traditional beverages. When do you think we can taste a Sempio-made alcohol that differs from makgeolli, traditional Korean rice beer?
I have always had the desire to do so, but now is only the time to study. The development of a new alcoholic beverage has been stagnant for the past century, as the nation has gone through colonization, war and then industrialization. We have lost our traditions during this time.
Imagine what it would taste like, if we had continually been developing a traditional alcoholic beverage. I would like to discover that scent and flavor through study. It should not be a simple alcohol, but a type of beverage that can harmonize with food and that can add taste, too.
To make this dream come true, we need to build an abundant amount of prerequisite knowledge and imagination. We do not expect to create it in the near future, as it appears to require a variety of studies and experiments.
Since its inception, Sempio has been famous for never having any labor disputes. You seem to follow the wishes of the company’s founder, who is known to have stressed that, “all the staff are family, and people are important.” It might not have been easy to follow his will over the past 68 years. What’s behind your management philosophy?
I think I was largely influenced by my grandfather, the founder of the company, and by my father, who inherited it from Grandfather. During their time, society was very hierarchical and class-conscious, but they were different. There is a famous story, still talked about, about the way in which my grandfather cherished his staff. In the 1970s, Sempio had a group of women day laborers who used to wash the soy sauce bottles. With the adoption of automatic washing equipment, they lost their jobs and were forced out of the company. My grandfather, however, switched their status a day before the launch of the equipment to “regular laborers,” allowing them to keep their jobs. I believe this was possible because he thought of them as family. Sempio always looks to be transparent and honest. Knowing the efforts to which management will go, the labor unions also avoid conflict and seek a peaceful relationship.
Recently, Korean cuisine has been getting more and more global. How do you think you can help to encourage this trend?
I’ve been working in a food company for about 18 years now, but only in recent years have I started to think deeply about “taste.” We should first gain an understanding of the way in which Korean cuisine can be differentiated from other cuisines. We need to find out, “what is tasty,” and then make up for what’s needed. Only then will we be able to improve the quality of Korean cuisine.
By Wi Tack-whan, Lee Seung-ah
Photo: Jeon Han
Korea.net Staff Writers