Last time we were in Seoul, I met up with our Korean friend, JiHye and her daughter Sophia. We’ve known them for ages, since her husband did a Phd here with Rod. Sophia was born here in Urbana, and I’m her “unofficial American grandma”. We’ve kept in touch and see them whenever we go to Korea.
After lunch, Jihye wanted to take me to her favorite bookstore, a huge place called Kyobo Bookstore. It’s in Sinnonhyeon, in Gangnam, not far from the Gangnam Station. Gangnam is an upscale Seoul area just south of the Han River that runs through the city.
It was fascinating to wander around this enormous multi-storied bookstore, with every imaginable type of book and magazine, plus gift items. It was pretty crowded, so is obviously very popular and JiHye told me that books are still relatively cheap in Korea—in fact many other Korean students have told me the same thing.
We read to Sophia and she picked out a couple of books to buy, then I perused the section with books to learn English. The Korean people in general believe that it’s really important for them to learn English and put a lot of time, effort and money into doing that. English language institutes abound, and special schools and after-schools for children, even as young as pre-schoolers nowadays (they tell me these schools are really expensive).
There were not that many English or other language books per se, but interestingly all the sections in the store are marked in both Korean and English.
A Taste of France in Korea and the Korean Love of French Names
Many stores, especially those related to food (and especially bakeries), have French names. Some that we have seen are: Le Pommier, Paris Baguette, Paris Croissant, Tous Les Jours, Patisserie Emma. We have eaten at a few, and the baked goods were pretty good, I must say.
However, there are large variations in the type and quality of baked goods in Korea. One the one hand, at many of these bakeries around Korea we saw loaves of bread with crisp crusts and airy interiors, buttery flaky croissants, baguettes and gorgeous pastries and cakes that are aiming to live up to European standards. They have some Korean bakers trained in France and Germany. On the other hand, many places also serve earlier versions of Korean bread that came by way of Japan: soft and chewy, filled with red bean paste or topped with hot dogs or gooey condensed milk icing. For a country whose cuisine was mostly based on rice and noodles, the Koreans have embraced bread and pastries in a big way.
Regardless of what variation of bread and pastries the stores sell, how did this love of/use of French names for bakeries come about?
It seems that it started with Paris Croissant and Paris Baguette.
In a society with an abundance of American brand names for fast-food eateries, what could be more exotic for Korean food-lovers than a name in French?
Established in 1986, Paris Croissant introduced the European bakery culture to Korea. In 1988, Paris Croissant launched Paris Baguette, which grew into a top bakery café franchise brand in Korea.
Paris Baguette was founded in 1988 by Korean businessman, Hur Young-in, as a place to go in Seoul for eclairs, croissants, and other delicious pastries with a distinctly French “look”. They also adapted many of the typical French goods for the Korean palate, for example by using flavors such as green tea and sesame. They also made pastries fusing savory (like ham and cheese) with sweet (like condensed milk or honey)—a concept very popular in Asia but strange to most European and western tastes.
Generally, the menu was exciting and different, but many felt the replicas of real French cuisine were not totally authentic. This didn’t stop Paris Baguette from opening shops in Korea and around the world. In South Korea, Paris Baguette operates about 3,250 outlets, and the company aims to open stores in 60 countries, including China, the USA, Singapore and Vietnam.
Paris Baguette’s management says that it’s nonsense that it can’t be the face of French-style baking around the world. “There’s no reason a Korean company can’t become the best French bakery chain in the world,” Ahn Tae-ju, a company executive who has helped to plan Paris Baguette’s overseas expansion, said in an interview.
Paris Baguette calls itself a “traditional French bakery” and prominently features the Eiffel Tower in its logo. In its outlets, shop employees working the cash registers wear Breton stripes and berets.
The company has a number of affiliates, also with French names: L’Atelier, Le Pommier, and Petit 5.
The French theme caught on in Korea.
Tous les Jours is the name of another popular Korean chain. It’s not as big as Paris Baguette, but it has powerful backing, as the owner is CJ Foodville, part of the mega CJ Corporation. They also run A Twosome Place (coffee shop chain) and OliveOYoung (an up-market convenience store).
Au Bon Pain is in Seoul too, but it’s an American company. This American chain has five stores in Seoul—all in upscale visible settings—and one in Susong-Dong. Like the others, it offers what is supposedly real French-style goodies.
Which of these is “more French”? That’s all a matter of individual taste.
Many small, independent bakeries and coffee shops around Korea also have a French name. For example, Jean Boulangerie, and Café Goutier near Nakseongdae metro station at Seoul National University; Tour de Café in the COEX district, Seoul. (This is just a very tiny sample!)
To further complicate the story, there’s also Caffé Bene, a coffeehouse chain that rapidly expanded to more than 1,500 coffee shops, more than 900 in Korea and nearly 100 in the USA, since its founding by entrepreneur Kim Sun-Kwon in 2008 (*Note that we have 2 Caffe Bene in our university town of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois). It has also opened in 11 other countries. The name “bene” is actually Italian, almost as trendy as French when it comes to enticing Korean customers. In spite of competition from Starbucks and Coffee Bean, Caffe Bene is Korea’s biggest supplier of coffee, and also offers cakes, cookies, bagels and other food items.
French-Korea Moving to France
Now Paris Baguette has opened a store in Paris, France, putting its French cooking ideals to the ultimate test. It’s been open a while (ca 18 months) so I’ll be interested in finding out whether it can be a success in France, whether the often-finicky French will accept this. Next time we are in Paris (July this year) I aim to go and find the Korean Paris Baguette and give it a taste test. Will let you know.
Here’s a good article on the types of pastries and baked goods offered at the Paris Baguette and other stores around the world:
On our trip in 2015, we noted the ubiquitous convenience stores again (and used them). A very common chain is 7-Eleven, which we also have in USA.
A fun new one for us was C-U. Why this one seems so interesting is that we live in a university town in Illinois called Champaign-Urbana, usually abbreviated to C-U! Our Visitor’s Bureau uses that to full effect, with “See You” in C-U etc.