▲ Yoo Eun Ah, entrepreneur and violinist, has set up a homey cafe near Halla LIbrary. Photo by Alpha Newberry
Yoo Eun Ah, linguist, violinist and café owner, describes herself as a student of life.
The 46-year-old Busan native with deep dimples set in her kind, inviting face has studied everything from culinary arts, scuba diving, horseback riding to French, and of course English. She has also been a violinist in the Jeju Symphony Orchestra for the past 26 years.
“I think... I just liking studying and learning new things,” she told me while describing her various interests, as we sat in her modestly decorated living room and café.
Five months ago, Yoo opened the appropriately-named Café at Home, literally in the living room of her recently built house, primarily to provide a relaxing space for fellow members of the Orchestra to unwind after their daily morning practices.
Yoo greatly appreciates her life away from the city; her house/café is nestled along the narrow farmers’ roads between Halla Library and Shin Jeju. As the name of the café suggests, guests can enjoy the comforts of feeling right at home in Yoo’s unique Café at Home.
When Yoo is not practicing her violin in the yard surrounding the house, she plays sweet sounding classical music for guests while preparing delicious handmade drinks, side dishes and meals. While her menu is not extensive each dish, like everything she prepares in life, is created with great care and a uniqueness you can taste. From Western-style eggs Benedict for 5,000 won to traditional Korean bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) for 6,000 won, her café is an expression of her own life experience; worldly, carefully crafted, modest, and delightful.
Why did you move to Jeju?
In 1980, I was living in Seoul with my former husband. I had moved from Busan to Seoul to study linguistics at Seoul National University. It was just after we married, and I was very pregnant. My husband and I didn’t want to live in the busy big city anymore. Seoul is very inconvenient. I felt like I was always wasting time traveling from one place to another in the city. Also, the rent was too expensive. We had both finished studying at university, so my husband said I could pick somewhere else to live. I picked Jeju!
Do you have any children?
I have two children. Six months ago, they both lived in Jeju, but they just moved up to Seoul together. My daughter is the oldest. She is 22 years of age [and] studying design in Seoul. My son is 16. After finishing high school he moved [there] to study singing and dancing. He really wants to be a famous singer. Right now, he has made it past the first two of three auditions for a singer training school in Seoul.
I feel maybe some people think it is not a serious profession for my son to study. If I tell some of my friends what my son studies, maybe they would think it is funny. But I don’t think it’s funny. I’m just happy if my son is happy! What is your favorite place in Jeju?
I’ve always loved the sea. I used to do some scuba diving and I really loved being in the ocean. But these days, summertime days, the oceans in Jeju are so calm and so cool. I like just floating and drifting in the water. I like just doing nothing.
Tell me about how you joined the orchestra.
After I arrived to Jeju in 1980, I joined the Jeju Symphony Orchestra just after it began, so the membership was [then] very small, and they were accepting anyone. Actually, I only studied violin when I was young, and I stopped because I [found I] didn’t love playing it. But when I came to Jeju I thought it was a good chance to play again. Back then, my ability was not great ... but these days I am the only member who didn’t study music in university, so I have to work very hard. Actually, I am not a very good violinist. I cannot play technically well, because I stopped playing for so long in my teenage years. But I really enjoy expressing myself through music. I found that out in my mid-30s ...
Even though I am not a good musician technically, I focus very hard on making a beautiful sound. I take the same approach to making food. Food is very important. The food I make is an expression of what I want to give to people.
How did you learn to speak English and French?
I just studied English through [reading] many books, and of course I learned a little in school. I worry that I cannot speak English very well because I have never studied abroad. But English is very popular in Korea these days, so it is not too hard to study.
After I completed my culinary studies at Halla College in 2002, French was always on my mind. So I majored in French through a broadcast university here in Korea called Open National University. I have visited France two times.
The first time, I went on a tour for a few weeks. And the second time I joined a “work camp” group sponsored by UNESCO. We went to a very small town in France and cut bricks to make a road in exchange for food and lodging. It was really hard work! I really enjoyed this trip in France because we worked and lived in a small town away from the big cities.
Do you have a philosophy of food?
Making food, it is interactive and the sharing makes people happy. It has always been important to me. I like the creativity of it. I can express myself through food.
And the homey interior decoration of the café?
People — and in particular families — don’t eat together ... they’re too busy. So I want people to come and really feel at home. I want to treat my guests like a mom, rather than a businesswoman.
What are your hopes for the Café at Home?
It may sound silly, but when I dreamt of opening a place like this, I didn’t want big money. I just wanted to make a place for people to rest. Maybe that’s a little too idealistic, but I feel happy when people feel comfortable here. When a guest tells me that they feel like my café is their home, it makes me very happy. That is my dream for my café.
Because I am the only person working here, I actually get a little nervous when there is more than one full table here. The other day, there were three tables full, and I felt very sorry for making people wait so long for food and drinks. When there are other orchestra members here, they help me serve the food and take orders. But the kitchen is only big enough for one person. So if there are many people here, it may take some time for the food to be prepared.
What do you do in your free time?
When I have no guests in my café, I read just one book, the Bible. I also practice violin. I think of this café as my living room, so I just do my hobbies, until someone arrives and orders something from the café.
I live just behind the café, and I rent the two rooms upstairs to my friends. This is a very comfortable place to be, so even when I have nothing to do at the café, I am just happy being at my house.
What is your dream in life?
A while ago, I made something like a bucket list. The first thing I wanted to do was build a house. I don’t want to die in a hospital or in some apartment that I was just renting. I wanted to build a place that I could live happily until I die. I know maybe this sounds like I think too much about death, but I don’t. I just think it’s important to be happy.
I saved a lot of money. And building this house was my dream. But this house doesn’t just belong to me. Many people helped me make this house. My sister gave me some money, and my parents really helped me to build this house too. So I decided that if I could build the house that I wanted, then I should open it for others to enjoy. So I made this café.
My next dream is to study abroad and live in another country for at least a year. Although, I suppose I’ll have to rent out my house before I can go!
Café at Home (727-9 Ora 2-dong, Jeju City) is located near Halla Library and is open weekdays from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. For information and directions, call Yoo Eun Ah at 010-4178-4888.
Additional reporting by Todd Thacker
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