Meta’s metamorphosis: how Sun Kim’s restaurant became the rising star of Asian gastronomy

Ben McCormack - 04/03/2021

In the five years since Meta’s opening, chef Sun Kim has been tirelessly honing and refining his culinary style. Combining South Korea’s gastronomic heritage with the cook’s international experiences, Meta has distinguished itself as Asia’s most up-and-coming restaurant, winning the American Express One To Watch Award as part of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021. This is its story

The cliché that reading a book can change your life is as old as the invention of printing. But had Sun Kim not picked up a copy of Tetsuya in the late noughties, the South Korean-born chef would never have moved from Seoul to Sydney at the age of 26, unable to speak English but determined to bag a job at Tetsuya Wakuda’s world-famous restaurant.

And if Wakuda hadn’t eventually given Kim an interview after he’d fired off 20 job applications, the young chef would likely have returned to South Korea to restart a career cooking Italian food. Instead, today Kim’s Singapore restaurant Meta is picking up the American Express One to Watch Award for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, ahead of the list’s announcement on March 25.
Meta's South Korean-inspired dishes: jeju abalone (left) and cabbage chawanmushi (right)

The restaurant’s name is an abbreviation of ‘metamorphosis’ and Kim’s culinary journey has been nothing if not transformative. He caught the chef bug watching his mother cook in the Korean restaurant she owned in Seoul. When the time came to don his own chef whites, Kim was drawn to the simplicity of Mediterranean food and was making a name for himself in some of Seoul’s smartest Italian restaurants until his encounter with that copy of Tetsuya.

“I first saw Tetsuya’s cookbook in 2008,” says the cook. “The idea of a Japanese chef cooking modern Australian cuisine was completely new to me and something that that I wanted to learn. I read the book every day until I got to the point where the only way I could learn more was to move to Sydney and work with Tetsuya himself. That was my dream job.”

He worked at Tetsuya’s for two years as a junior sous chef before taking on the same role when Wakuda launched Waku Ghin in Singapore in 2010. “Tetsuya is still my mentor and my biggest inspiration,” says Kim. “I worked alongside him in Sydney and Singapore and I was inspired by how he blends Asian and Western technique. The most important thing I learned from him was to focus on the flavour and to always use fresh ingredients, which is what I wanted to do when I opened my own restaurant.”
Chef Sun Kim at his restaurant Meta

The Korean cook was offered the executive chef job when Meta launched in 2015, after the chef the restaurant’s investors had lined up couldn’t get his work permit sorted. He had a month to recruit his kitchen brigade as well as get his head around what to put on the menu. “It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t ready,” he admits.

Early reviews of the restaurant, while by no means terrible, picked up on the ambivalence of a chef who had yet to commit to the food he cooked. Gradually, however, Kim began to look for inspiration in the dishes he had watched his mother prepare back in Seoul and grafting them on to the contemporary technique has had been taught at Tetsuya’s. He had learned English to communicate in an Australian kitchen. To find his voice at Meta, the chef returned to his Korean roots. As Kim’s cooking became more confident, so the reviews became ever-more glowing.

The chef describes his style of cooking today as “based on French technique with Asian passion from Korea”. He also describes it as “hearty”. This might come as a surprise to anyone who has tried his refined take on East-meets-West cuisine. But when Kim says hearty, he means from the heart – and his heart is in Korea.
Kim's barbecue shortrib dish

“We’re introducing Korean elements to dishes rather than serving kimchi with everything,” he explains. “It’s more about promoting Korean flavours.” Take, for instance, a dish of barbecue Wagyu beef short rib with clay pot rice, which Kim says is beef done the Korean way.

“Some Korean ingredients, like gochujang and kimchi, are overpoweringly spicy and sour,” he explains. “I try to balance the flavour and keep the textures. We slow cook the beef short rib for 30 hours with soy sauce and a bit of onion and garlic. Then, we barbecue the beef with a sauce made with pear, garlic, soy sauce and apple. We serve the rice on the side with a chive and garlic crumble to give a crunchy texture.”

Kim’s other signature dish at Meta is a Korean take on chawanmushi, a Japanese savoury egg custard. “We purée cabbage and blend it with an egg mixture to make a custard. On top of that we have pork trotter jus, which we mix with our homemade kimchi. Then, we put fresh uni [sea urchin] on top and a bit of condiment, such as a truffle lime zest and finger lime from Australia.”
Meta's home at 1 Keong Saik Road

Meta moved to its current site in 2018, in part because the previous premises, focused on a long eating counter, were too narrow to be conducive to five- and seven-course tasting menus, which change every three months. When number one Keong Saik Road – the premier address on Singapore’s most prestigious restaurant row – became available, Kim finally had the opportunity to craft every aspect of the Meta experience.

The chef had a big hand in the design of the airy dining room, where warm woods on the walls and floors offset the sombre grey-leather seating. “There is also a lot of natural light,” he says. “Whenever I walk into the restaurant, it feels like home.” The dining room accommodates 25 diners, with a further six seats for customers who want to get up close and personal with the team of 10 chefs in the open kitchen. 

Kim admits that pivoting to takeaway during Singapore’s three-month lockdown in 2020 was an even greater challenge than opening Meta and that winning the American Express One to Watch Award this year means even more to him because of the challenges of operating in the current climate. Having closed his causal spin off, Kimme, when coronavirus hit in 2020, would he consider growing the Meta brand?

“For now, I’m focused on improving my cuisine. Korean food is something that I can really cook with my heart.” Not everything in life can be learnt from a book.

Go inside Meta with the video:

The ninth edition of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list will be revealed on Thursday, 25th March, through a digital awards show on Facebook and YouTube. To stay up to date with the latest news and announcements, follow us on Instagram, like us on Facebook, find us on Twitter #Asias50Best and subscribe to our YouTube channel.