Here in Seattle, we are lucky enough on any night of the week to choose from a multitude of award winning, seasonally focused, farm to table type restaurants…enough actually, to make your head spin a little bit. But one chef that we never tire of is Matt Dillon, owner of Sitka and Spruce, Bar Sajor, The Corson Building, The London Plane, and Bar Ferd’nand. Each of his establishments are a totally unique experience, yet they all seem to tie together in subtle, perfect ways. It got us thinking, how exactly does an award winning chef keep such an operation running so seamlessly, while still making magic in the kitchen?
Enter, EunJean Song. As Dillon’s Director of Operations, she oversees the restaurant group, and makes sure everything runs smoothly across the board on a daily basis. It’s a big job, and we couldn’t wait to get her take on it all. Lucky for us, she agreed to meet up at The Little London Plane in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square early one weekday morning, to fill us in on the details.
Tell us about your job!
I work for a small group of restaurants in Seattle. My expertise is in restaurant operations, so my daily focus is on helping each of the restaurants run the best they possibly can. We have an incredible team of chefs, managers, cooks and service folks who run the places on a daily basis, so my role is focused on helping everyone make sure they have the resources and support structures they need to do their jobs the best they can. That can be anything from financial reporting and analysis, to human resources and employee benefits, to public relations/marketing, to IT, to business development efforts, etc.
In addition to being a lovely wine bar with great bites to eat, The Little London Plane sells a ton of excellent cookbooks, foodie magazines, and hard to find bottles of wine.
What does your typical day look like?
Action packed! On most days, I will spend part of the day corresponding with vendors, our accountants, government agencies, and lawyers. And then dedicate the rest of my time to working with our management team on special projects and general operations. We are still a fairly small and young company, so my focus right now is on helping build out the foundation of our business so that we can start to add on more complexities, whether that be new restaurants, or new employee benefits, or new events programming, etc.
What is the best thing about what you do? The worst?
I really value the community of people I get to work with on a daily basis. My colleagues, the farmers that supply to the restaurants, and our incredible professional services teams… I love being able to work with people who truly believe in what they do. I also co-founded a non-profit group, Toklas Society, which helps build a community and support system for women who work in the restaurant and hospitality industry. I love that I get to do this sort of work on the side, based on my own career experience.
The worst thing? Recently, it seems like I run out of hours in a day! I’m trying to work on prioritizing and delegating.
Tell us a bit about your background…how did you get here?
I studied journalism in college and worked in publishing for a few years in my early 20s. Although the magazine world was incredible, the industry’s shift in focus from print to on-line made it so that my role as a photo editor wasn’t as satisfying. At 23, I decided I wanted to work in restaurants instead. Growing up, I had always cooked and enjoyed hosting dinner parties, so I had this romantic and naïve idea that a restaurant job would help me fulfill my passion. I ended up walking into a small Korean restaurant in my Brooklyn neighborhood and dropping off my resume. The owner liked my cover letter and ended up bringing me in as a weekend server. After a few months of waitressing on the side, I knew that I wanted to leave magazines altogether, so I put together my resume and cover letter for a small New York restaurant group called Momofuku. The restaurant had just gone from one business to two, so they were looking for chef’s assistant to come on board to help manage the administrative side of the business. The company gave me a chance and I worked my butt off to contribute however I could. It started with lots of small tasks in the beginning, like managing our website and payroll, and as we grew, I was able to hone in on specific projects in service, HR and business development. We went from being 25 employees when I first started, to 600 employees by the time I left, and I really learned so much from working with such a driven and thoughtful group of people. By my sixth year at Momofuku, I was feeling like I was ready to leave New York City. I explored the idea of moving to Seattle, where my mom’s family is from. Matt Dillon (the owner of the restaurants I currently work for) and I were acquaintances through mutual friends, so we got to talking about possible opportunities within his team, and I joined the team last summer as Director of Operations.
Where do you see the food scene in the Northwest heading? What do you feel is unique and special about restaurants in this part of the country?
Even though I grew up in Seattle, returning after 12 years away has really made me appreciate the beauty of this area so much more. The amount of space, the access to the best ingredients, the incredible community network and support… All make Seattle a really attractive place for chefs and restaurant operators. I am seeing more talent moving to the Northwest, and hope that we as a city can continue to build spaces and infrastructure to support this merging of creativity.
Where do you see your career heading in the long term future?
I want to work on making Seattle a world-class dining destination.
Any advice for women looking to get into this field?
Lots of people love food (for obvious reasons!) and are attracted to the idea of working in restaurants. But loving food as a diner or a blogger is totally different from loving food as a line cook, a server, or even an office manager of a restaurant. Get to know the behind the scenes of the food and restaurant world by getting your feet wet. Volunteer to intern in a kitchen, or apply to be a server at a restaurant you admire. Even in an entry level role, you can show that you are there to contribute the highest quality work you are capable of, and most managers will notice that drive and integrity and make it a point of creating an opportunity for you.
How do you keep that life/work balance in check?
I try to make a point of keeping my phone on silent and in my workbag when I’m not working. I used to respond to email at all hours of the day and night, but at some point, I realized that I don’t do my best work at 2 am.
Top 5 can’t-live-without items?
My bike, Evernote for keeping track of all the projects I work on, spam musubi, my kitchen knife, NPR
Large picture windows that look onto Occidental Square make this the absolute perfect after work date spot.
Best local weekend or day trip you guys have gone on since living in Seattle?
Give us another year or two to get into Pacific NW outdoorsy adventures. For now, I will say that my favorite weekend trip is to Mutual Fish!
All photos by Carlton Canary for “That Pleasant Surprise”