By Courtney Tan
Dak is special to the Ju family. The relatively new Korean restaurant in Edgewater unified the family after many hardships — from the closure of their first restaurant to a cancer diagnosis.
The cramped kitchen is filled with silver appliances and four seemingly exhausted kitchen staff. Sunhui, who also goes by Mama Ju, due to her kind and affectionate nature, wipes a knife across her apron as she prepares to cut mushrooms.
Seteak takes his glasses off and wipes his tired, wrinkled face as he prepares to wash and brine the chicken by hand. The two brothers, Daniel and Tom, both in their 30s, begin to prepare for the 12-hour shift by switching out their sneakers for more comfortable shoes and tying aprons over their bulky bodies.
Dak’s wooden tables, black floors and simple decorations give the restaurant a clean look. The space is small with roughly 20 seats and bright, colorful pictures of South Korea are framed against the wall.
Meat fries in oils while fresh carrots, mushrooms and other vegetables are chopped and prepared for pickling and seasoning. The pressure cooker with chicken inside beeps and hisses loudly, almost drowning out the pop music blasting from the speakers.
An order for a beef rice bowl and five Dak sauce wings — the restaurant’s most popular combination — comes in and the Jus get right to work. Married for almost 40 years, Mama Ju and Seteak, both in their 60s, marinade, steam, pickle, ferment and season the food.
Daniel and Tom keep the restaurant running and fry the meats. Mama Ju adds a generous scoop of steaming white rice into a metal bowl and begins to arrange cucumbers, bean sprouts and other vegetables. The family works in silence until the meal is ready.
However, the process didn’t always go this smoothly. In fact, after their first restaurant closed, Tom and Daniel had once thought the family wouldn’t be able to work together again.
In 2003, Daniel, Mama Ju, and Seteak opened up a Japanese restaurant in Cleveland hoping to gain popularity through the rising sushi trend. Seteak, a sushi chef by trade, had insisted that offering high-quality Japanese food and sushi would do well in a busy city, such as Cleveland.
Although the Ju family had high hopes for this restaurant, they faced financial issues as the building’s rent went up and business slowed down. The restaurant’s management and marketing were lacking and it closed after a mere two years.
Sorely disappointed, the Jus agreed not to work together again. Mama Ju and Seteak were the most disappointed as South Korean immigrants who arrived from Seoul in Chicago in 1977 with only $200 to their name.
Mama Ju and Seteak hoped to provide a better life for their future children with the little education they had. They both started out working in dry cleaning shops, Korean grocery stores and other Korean restaurants to be able to feed and provide for their two growing boys and rent a decent-sized apartment.
“Sacrifice and struggle doesn’t even begin to explain what they went through,” Tom says.
In 2007, it felt as though the family’s struggles would finally be rewarded — but this feeling was only temporary.
Every day, for years, Seteak played the same six lottery numbers, 7-8-24-28-32-41, at the local convenience store next to the dry cleaning shop where he worked. Then, on September 22, 2007, Seteak stopped in disbelief as he stared at the winning numbers in his hand.
“It felt so surreal. It felt like my dreams were coming true,” Seteak recalls. “I could finally be a part of the American dream.”
He had won $9 million, with a payout of $3.1 million. It was an amount he’d never expected to see in his lifetime.
Two years later, Mama Ju was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemotherapy, medication and the whole family’s relocation to Chicago, where there were better treatment options, depleted the lottery winnings fairly quickly.
A health insurance problem and other personal family issues forced the family to spend even more money. The Jus also had sent most of their money to relatives in South Korea who “needed the money more than they did,” as Mama Ju put it. After four years, the lottery money had dwindled down to just $15,000.
The news of Mama Ju’s breast cancer was a shock to the family. “She’s the one thing that keeps this family together and sane,” Daniel says.
As she slowly recovered in Chicago, Daniel began to contemplate the family’s next steps. Seteak was semi-retired and Mama Ju had been out of work for a couple of years. Without many options, Seteak and Mama Ju began to reconsider working at a dry cleaning shop, but Daniel disagreed with that idea. He told the family they should open up a restaurant instead.
“She’s always been good at cooking, and people have paid her to cook for her events. So why not do what she’s good at?” Tom says about the opening of the restaurant.
The family knew only two things: it would be a Korean restaurant and would focus on fried chicken, a rising trend.
“We went into this knowing we wanted a restaurant, but we didn’t have a menu. The only thing that kept me from blowing up at my family was my mom,” Daniel says while laughing.
Despite disagreements, the family managed to complete a menu they found satisfactory and in 2012, Dak finally opened. ABC’s Hungry Hound, Steve Dolinsky, was one of their most famous early customers. It was so busy that the restaurant ran out of chicken and the wait time was over two hours.
For now, the Ju family has figured out a system that works and although sales are much better than their first restaurant’s, it isn’t as much as they’d like it to be.
“Our goal is to get my parents out of the restaurant and into retirement,” Daniel says. “They’ve worked too hard and been through too much to work 12-hour shifts a day.”