The recently launched RHK Seafood Boil and Bar in South Norwalk, CT brings Cajun-inspired seafood boils and new American flavors to lower Fairfield County, inspiring people to gather, eat and have a good time together.
Featuring locally sourced seafood, the restaurant’s boil menu allows diners to select their seafood and sides and customize the seasonings and heat level; other house specialties include the RHK Cajun Ramen Noodle made from the broth of the boils, the RHK Burger, sandwiches, salads, vegetarian options (including a vegetarian boil), and brunch options. With a focus on Japanese Whiskey, the beverage program includes beer, wine, nautically-inspired cocktails and custom milkshakes, as well as integrating coffee beverages from its sister Round K brand in New York. Total Food Service caught up with RHK Seafood’s owner, Ockyheon Byeon to learn more about the recent opening.
Please share your background and experience with our readers.
Like most people, I started out with a childhood dream. As an 8-year old boy, I wanted to make my mother a cup of coffee before she ran off to work. So, I did, and from that day forward my love of coffee started to grow. I realized food and drinks are not only to satisfy hunger but also a moment to share and be together. During my college years, I was selling coffee from my small 2-seater used car. It was the best time of my life, and it was the beginning of my dream.
But of course, all dreams come with obstacles — my skills and professionalism were questioned. No one believed a college student could serve “correct” coffee. I entered a coffee competition in Korea, attended many coffee workshops/conferences in Japan, volunteered at coffee farms in Vietnam and visited coffee farmers in Indonesia but it was just not enough.
I had a hunger to learn more, so I bought a one-way ticket to Italy, packed a backpack and off I went. In Italy, my skills were recognized, and I became a head barista in Florence. I spent the next few years studying the culinary arts, business and marketing. I travelled from one European city to the next consuming everything that I could observe and immersing myself in every aspect of the hospitality industry – from the kitchen to interior design. I spent time with chefs, purveyors, growers and in restaurants throughout Brazil, Russia, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, Vietnam, and of course my beloved Italy. But, most importantly, I refined my skills and palate and gained a better understanding of human needs and expectations.
I eventually landed in New York City and made my coffee dream a reality. I opened, my first coffee shop, Round K Café, on the Lower East Side. Round K quickly gained recognition for innovative drinks including the Matte Black Latte, Egg Cappuccino and Astronaut Coffee.
As with anyone who is passionate about a dream, I am grateful that I realized my coffee dream. Now I’m chasing a bigger dream – to become recognized as a culinary chef and restaurateur who delivers great food and service in a passionate and creative way to guests. RHK in Norwalk, CT is my first restaurant and my second RHK is slated to open early next year in Tennessee.
What was the vision behind RHK Seafood Boil and Bar?
My vision for RHK is to give you, the guest, what you want. I strongly believe you must first love what you cook before you start to share what you cook. So, everything on the menu is food that I love to eat and to make. That’s the secret behind all of RHK’s food and curated cocktail menu.
RHK’s menu is loosely inspired by the seafood from my hometown in Korea accented by my travels throughout Europe and Asia. I understand to make a business successful, or to make “money”, many restaurants gear their menu toward what they think will sell best. I do take into consideration what sells well, but stick to my core goal, which is to serve what I love to you and to your loved ones in a way that I would serve it to my loved ones.
What were some of the challenges and fears that came with the opening during these trying times how have you tackled those?
It’s a very difficult time for every industry. The hospitality industry continues to struggle, as variants and new waves of the pandemic continue to hit and recalibrate how we serve our guests. These two years has been full of challenges none of us could ever have imagined. From the crazy price of inventory to the challenges hiring staff to providing a safe space for staff to work and guests to enjoy.
The food cost is something that I fear the most now. Suppliers are increasing their prices each week, but I can’t increase my prices every week. So, my challenge is to find a balance on pricing that is fair to my guests but still allow me to find a point where I can keep my places running and all staff paid.
Let’s talk location. You operate Round K based in New York City. South Norwalk seems like a perfect match for RHK’s offerings. Why attracted you to Connecticut and what were you looking for in terms of space?
I was raised in a southern city in South Korea that’s very similar to South Norwalk. Where I am from, seafood is the prime core economic source and the backbone of the community. When I first visited South Norwalk two years ago, it felt reminiscent of my hometown in Korea, and I knew that South Norwalk, CT was the place that I wanted to open my first RHK. Every day I park my car on the top floor the highest level in the Maritime Parking garage next to the restaurant, so that I can enjoy the expansive ocean view and feel like I am home.
The restaurant features a nautically-inspired motif playing off the seaside concept featuring large windows, fish nets, ship wheels, shellfish, oars and portholes. What designer/consultant did you work with to develop RHK’s dining room?
I guess you can say the interior of RHK is a bit of a collage of my travels across Europe and Asia. Time spent in the seaside town of Bari Italy, inspired the nautical elements like the nets, ship wheels and the portholes. Everywhere you go in Bari you see the ocean and nautical vibe. The big windows and gold decors on windows are something I got from NYC. The shellfish and lighting are designed from scenes I remembered from Vietnam and Japan.
Please discuss some of the commercial kitchen equipment being used at RHK. Who did you work with to outfit and develop the kitchen space and what are some key pieces of cooking equipment that helps your culinary team?
We did a good amount of research to determine the best setup of the kitchen and how to make it easier for kitchen staff. I consulted a few chefs and visited different restaurants to find the best setup that would work for us.
The location of the grill and fryer is arranged in a way that it won’t cause traffic in the kitchen. We’ve divided the kitchen into stations and use a system where one cook can work in one station but help another station if needed.
One of our key pieces of kitchen equipment is the dicer. It’s very labor intensive to dice all the onions, tomatoes, garlic, shallots etc. for our most popular dishes. We want our cooks to focus on the taste of our food, so having this piece of equipment saves a lot of time and guarantees the consistency of our food.
From POS to inventory control and online ordering and delivery, what types of technology is RHK currently using if any?
We use our own proprietary inventory system. It’s not a well-known system, but it’s designed for our needs and keeps things flowing and keeps waste low. For every one of our restaurants, we will create or build on our previous inventory system to fit the needs of each restaurant. We are currently in the process of bringing in online ordering and delivery service to our restaurant. With the new pandemic wave coming, we want to be prepared for a cohesive delivery service.
What’s your approach to building a team? What helped to bring RHK to fruition to create a unique dining experience that’s unique to traditional seafood fare.
The best way to find people is to first find their innate skills. I have encountered a lot of people that are treasures that need to be dug up and polished. I’ve also come across some who are just in the wrong field. For example, one of my staff that worked for me for 5 years at the original Round K. Over the years I saw his potential and knew he could be successful operating his own place. So, I licensed the Round K name to him, helped him to find a location, and assisted him with marketing and menu design.
There are many cases where I find people from one industry and are unhappy with what they are doing so I guide them to use their skills in a field they are happier in. This is how I build my team. I observe skills and find the best place for those skills to shine. I believe everyone has an opportunity to shine and sometimes they just need a nudge to find it. RHK is a competitive environment where if you prove yourself capable, you can go from a dishwasher to line cook in one day.
Using this approach, the RHK team has built a unique dining experience and service. In fact, one of our servers recently received a $1,000 tip on a $503 check from a party of 10 because the guest said RHK was the best restaurant (food and service) his family had been to in 2 years. So, something we’re doing must be working.
RHK beverage program includes a strong focus on Japanese Whiskey. How Japanese Whiskey compliment RHK’s Cajun-inspired menu?
I want to give people more exciting alternatives and choices. I believe that whiskey offers a new opportunity for food pairing, instead of the typical wine pairing.
When you think about Japanese food, seafood food is one of the first things that come to mind. This is one of the main reasons why I curated a Japanese Whiskey menu.
Most people think of whiskey as a hard liquor that has a very strong flavor. My sense is that the intense flavor is a good balance for the strong flavor of Cajun seafood. Its bold and unique flavor doesn’t overpower the food, but at the same time maintains its own character. Niki from the barrel is a good example, it’s very strong but at the same time very smooth and silky, and one of the best choices to cleanse your palate to taste new flavors.
RHK’s seafood is locally sourced. What local CT/NY seafood purveyors have you partnered with? And with rising food and seafood costs, does partnering with a locally sourced supplier become more challenging cost-wise compared to a national distributor?
For meat, we use NYC meatpacking district based Golden Packing Meat Purveyors. They curate some of our best beef patty choices for our burger. The bakery that we use is Leaven Bakery, based in the Bronx. If you ask me, buns are one of the most important elements of a good burger or lobster roll, and Leaven does not disappoint.
Norwalk based Pagano’s is our local seafood purveyor, and they supply us with the best quality seafood. We’re also in discussion with a few local farmers about chicken, vegetable and meats.
While we know that national and larger distributors are less expensive, I prefer working with our local businesses to supply my businesses. In addition to supporting the local economy, our local people are more stable as far as taste, flavor, and quality.
What are some of the safety precautions and procedures that have been implemented into RHK’s program to protect their staff and guests during the COVD-19 resurgence?
All of our staff is fully vaccinated, and we require them to wear masks. For those that don’t have masks, we provide them. If staff member is not feeling well, we request that they do not come to work, and stay home to take care of themselves.
We offer outdoor seating for those that don’t want to eat indoors, and our indoor seating is safely spaced. We clean our tables with disinfecting sprays in between customers , and every night, and mop the kitchen and dining room with a disinfection solution. We offer hand-sanitizing throughout the restaurant and have a few contactless forehead thermometers on hand so we can check guests and staff for fevers. And we will continue to follow CDC and Norwalk guidelines to keep our staff and guests safe.
To learn more or visit RHK Seafood Boil & Bar in South Norwalk, CT, visit their website.