Women’s History Month Spotlight: Sohui Kim of Gage & Tollner
March 30, 2021
This Women’s History Month, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership is proud to share stories of our many women founders and business owners. As part of this initiative we interviewed chef and co-owner of Gage & Tollner, Sohui Kim.
Gage & Tollner is an historic restaurant located along bustling Fulton Street. For more than a century the original Gage & Tollner was the cornerstone of the Brooklyn restaurant world. After going through multiple owners and decades of operation, it closed its doors on Valentine’s Day, 2004. A few years ago, Sohui Kim and restaurateurs Ben Schneider (also Sohui’s husband) and St. John Frizell joined forces to restore Gage & Tollner to its former glory. However, on the verge of the restaurant’s grand re-opening after years of planning and investment, they were forced to put their plans on hold due to the pandemic.
As Sohui and her partners prepare for relaunch, we asked her about her journey as a professional chef and entrepreneur, her tips for those starting out, and of course, Gage & Tollner.
DBP: How did you decide to become a chef?
Sohui Kim (SK): I graduated from Barnard and was law school bound. I kept delaying and delaying the LSAT and I finally took it, but by that point I had gotten really into cooking. It was just something that I dabbled in, and if I made something good I would invite friends over. My friends were like “oh, Sohui can cook!” I took 7 months off, traveled to Korea, back-packed across the US — I was just procrastinating. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Cooking was always there. It wasn’t law, it was just cooking. So I said “I’m going to cook and see how it goes.”
I went to culinary school at ICE wanting to be a caterer, and of course my very traditional family thought I was absolutely bonkers. I had to do an internship to graduate, so I signed up to intern at Blue Hill, and there I met Michael Anthony and Dan Barber. I got bit by the restaurant bug there. I wanted to make my own food. I wanted to pursue cooking as a culinary art form.
DBP: Can you speak a little more about your culinary journey?
SK: I pursued cooking very seriously after Blue Hill. I worked at Savoy under Peter Hoffman, and then I worked for Anita Lo, which was great, you know, seeing a woman doing her own thing. It was very educational. She had a lot to do with the molding of the kind of chef I would become. Then in 2006, Ben and I opened the Good Fork. Then we opened Insa in 2015, and in 2016 and 2018, I wrote two cookbooks.
DBP: How did the idea of restoring and opening Gage & Tollner come about?
SK: In 2017, St John came to us and said he wanted to open this concept called the Sunken Harbor Club. He wanted to do it in Downtown Brooklyn, nowhere else. He asked me to consult on the food, and Ben to consult on the design. It came full circle because I remember in 2004, when Gage & Tollner shut down, thinking “shoot! I’ve always wanted to go there!” It really is the fascinating history of Brooklyn in general that all of us gravitate towards.
DBP: How did the idea for take out and delivery come about?
SK: Knowing that hope was increasing and that at some point the city would start reopening, we thought: what could we do to start getting Gage ready? We wanted to flex our kitchen muscles, our food and beverage muscles, and get our core people activated. It seemed like a good way to get the ovens on. It’s the warm up before the sprint.
DBP: Why did you decide to include Sunken Harbor Club in the takeout program?
SK: It seemed like the world had never really heard of Sunken Harbor Club; it’s a tucked away bar with its own vision and food and drink! It felt like a good time to get that off the ground. We always imagined Sunken Harbor Club as a place to hang out if there was a long wait down here, at Gage.
DBP: To what do you attribute your success?
SK: It’s all relationships. The only reason we are sitting around here talking about reopening this place is because of these nurtured relationships that are true and real, and are based on mutual respect and talent - with people like Adam, our Chef de Cuisine who I’ve known for almost twelve years, Caroline, our Head Pastry Chef, and of course St. John and Ben, who I’ve known for over 20 years. That is why we will be able to open this restaurant soon.
DBP: Is mentoring something you enjoy?
SK: It’s something that happens naturally, because when you run into and develop relationships with people as lovely as Caroline, it’s not work at all, it’s really about cultivating a relationship that is so grounded in the goodness of people and their talents. I’ve had many “kids” — at Good fork, at Insa — but specifically with Caroline, it’s how much talent she harbors. Now that I’ve been doing it so long, I can recognize talent and hard work very quickly.
DBP: Do you have any tips for entrepreneurs who want to embark on their own venture?
SK: It’s about nurturing relationships, especially for women. It is network building, in the simplest terms — keeping those relationships solid over the years. I don’t know how to say this in such gentle words: it’s not about getting to the place you need to get to for your own personal advancement; you need to think about your community as a whole. It’s something that some young people want to bypass and forgo. Core relationship building takes time. Build on your own experience through other people’s experience. I think that is sometimes missing in some young people.
DBP: Why Downtown Brooklyn?
SK: 125 years ago, Gage & Tollner was opened at 302 Fulton Street. This current location, at 372 Fulton Street, was opened in 1882. We planned for the opening in March 2020, when Gage & Tollner’s reclaiming of its glory would be parallel to that of Downtown Brooklyn. We still feel very strongly about Downtown Brooklyn, there is no other home for Gage & Tollner. It’s landmarked. History is here.
The restaurant has survived the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and now, the coronavirus pandemic. DBP is confident that Gage & Tollner will once again be able to capture the hearts of Brooklynites when they reopen on April 15th!
Find out more about their reopening here.