Zelen Bulgarian restaurant: Seoul's most unlikely culinary success story
“I have been to most cities in Korea. Even my Korean friends do not know the country as much as I do.”
Meet Mihal Spasov Ashminov, a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, who has been living in Seoul for nine years.
With his brother, Fillip, and a Korean partner, Ashminov manages two Bulgarian restaurants in the metropolis; one in Itaewon and a newer one in Hannam-dong.
While the number of non-Korean owner-chefs is on the rise, Ashminov is not the typical foreign investor armed with abundant capital and experience. He was only 21 when he first landed on the peninsula in 2002.
After graduating from a school of culinary arts and hotel management, Ashminov worked four years at Sheraton Hotel in Sofia, which got sold to Daewoo Group. He then received a job offer to work as a cook at the Westin Chosun Hotel.
“It was the best offer because they gave me free housing and a high salary,” says Ashminov. But the seemingly sweet deal began to show its sour side. “I missed my friends and family, homeland, and food, mostly.”
From dishwasher to entrepreneur
“I was taking out my stress at a small bar in Itaewon,” says Ashminov, of a bar he went to almost every day. “I became good friends with the staff and the owner. On really busy nights, I was helping out in the kitchen, washing dishes. I often stayed there until five or six in the morning.”
As Ashminov and the bar owner, Soojin Oh, got to know each other better, they invited each other to home parties. His dishes were always popular among health- and calorie-conscious Korean women.
And one day in 2007, Oh suggested that the two of them open a Bulgarian restaurant.
“I said, ‘No way, that’s impossible!’" The blonde chef laughs as he remembers the conversation. “And she said with a straight face, ‘Nothing is impossible.’”
The pair flew to Sofia the next day.
Oh, an established female entrepreneur of a chain of bars and an online shopping mall, was impressed with Bulgaria -- especially its green scenery.
“That is why we call this restaurant ‘Zelen.’ It means green [in Bulgarian,]” explains Ashminov.
The Hannam branch opened in May 2010.
Ashminov’s brother, Fillip, who was working as sous chef in Ireland, also became involved in the new venture.
“I told him, ‘Brother, bring all your money,’” says Ashminov. And he did.
Despite the joy ride in the land of green, it was rough sailing at first.
“For one year, we were fighting a lot because there were no customers,” said Ashminov. “When you walk into an Italian restaurant, there is pasta, pizza. And Korean people like French food. But Bulgarian? They don’t know, so they don’t [come.]”
That changed literally overnight toward the end of that year.
“One day it just got packed and it has been really busy since then. It was around Christmas, when everyone is looking for a restaurant,” said Ashminov. “We had a chance to make it full and people really liked it.”
Although the Korean to non-Korean customer ratio was one-to-nine when the Itaewon branch opened four years ago, the two figures have swapped over the years. Ashminov attributes the similarity between Korean and Bulgarian food to the growing appetite for Bulgarian cuisine.
“If you go to the very countryside, down south, the food that nobody in Seoul knows about is very similar to Bulgarian food,” explains the 28-year-old. “Back home, we use a lot of intestines, especially liver, and they were preparing it the same way we do in Bulgaria.”
While the familiarity of the cuisine is indeed a big factor in the success of the business, Zelen does not alter recipes to meet Korean tastes. The various dishes, such as roasted lamb legs and meat balls, are prepared almost the same way its head chef Vasko has served in Bulgaria for more than a decade.
The Itaewon branch has gone through a renovation and tripled in size since its opening, and now boasts four Bulgarian chefs including Mihal and Fillip, and six Korean sous chefs. But even with the expansion, you might wait up to an hour for a table during the weekends.
On Zelen’s Facebook fan page, many have written that Zelen is their “favorite restaurant in Seoul.” A Polish customer was impressed that you can order the meals in Polish, Bulgarian, English and Korean.
What keeps Ashminov working six days a week for 10 hours a day, however, is not merely the monetary success of the business.
“This is not just a restaurant. We feel like we are ambassadors of Bulgaria,” says Ashminov. “We want to show the world that we are a nice country and that the food is great.”
2F, 116-14, Itaewon dong, Yongsan gu (서울시 용산구 이태원동 116-14번지 2층), tel. +82 2 749 0600; 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Closed Mondays