By ALANA AL-HATLANI At Hakkasan in Times Square, a heavy steel door opens to an electric blue bar right out of “Bladerunner.” The upscale Cantonese restaurant has the familiar wood paneling of a Dim Sum spot, but much like the food, a refined edge. This is Arnold Byun’s classroom with desks replaced by tables with bar stools and grades provided by Yelp.
Byun, 21, is a restaurant manager at Hakkasan and full-time student at NYU’s hospitality school. He alternates between books and menus, sweatpants and suits, working a combined 60-90 hours between school and work. He worked his way up from dishwasher to manager all before he could (legally) grab a drink after a long shift.
You started as a dishwasher?
Yes, when I was 14-years-old at my father’s Korean dessert café in Seoul. It’s something I thank him for today, as working at a young age gave me a strong work ethic and empathy for my employees having worked my way up in the industry.
Do you consider yourself a Los Angeles native?
I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Seoul in high school. It was a reverse culture shock, growing up with American customs. Working in Seoul is completely different—customers are particular, impatient, and sometimes arrogant. It’s a fast-paced city and people want things quickly and on the go.
Not unlike New York, which is where you moved for school. What was your first job in NYC?
I was a host and reservationist at Morimoto, my freshman year of college. After Morimoto, I became an assistant restaurant manager at Bouley restaurant, a French Michelin-starred restaurant in TriBeCa. I have worked at Hakkasan as a manager since December 2016.
When does your work day at Hakkasan start?
My day usually begins around 3 p.m. and could run to 1 a.m. Sometimes 2 or 3 a.m. if we have private parties.
What does your job entail?
I manage staff performance, payroll, scheduling, hiring, and guest complaints. I start my day by looking at HotSchedules, where I schedule employees and send out any relevant information. I organize a staff roster for around 50 employees, from porters, bussers, baristas, runners, servers, hostess, to reservationists.
After, I do a walkthrough of the restaurant, completing the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) form, to ensure we are up to code. A floor plan is created, noting which tables employees are assigned to. Along with the floor plan, I create a briefing sheet for the pre-shift meeting around 5:00 p.m.
Do you have a work “uniform”?
I suit up in my signature Ted Baker blazer, slacks, and button up shirt. I am a fan of details and lately have been infatuated with classic French cuff shirts and tie bars.
If you get off at 1 or 2 a.m., how many hours per week do you work?
I typically log 50-70 hours. As a management member, I am full-time and salaried.
How many hours do you devote to school?
I only devote 10-20 hours to academics. For me, working in a high-volume environment is easier than sitting in a classroom. Work comes naturally to me. I like the interactive aspect of a restaurant, constantly talking to guests and staff.
Would you call yourself a workaholic?
Yes. A lot of my friends and colleagues would too. Perhaps it’s cultural, but I take a lot of pride in my craft.
Is being a workaholic a bad thing?
The term itself seems to have a bad connotation in the States. Personally, it means that I’m in love with my work, that I’m energized and excited for every night of service.
What is your go to energy boost on those long days?
I am a huge coffee aficionado. I will probably have three shots of espresso before beginning my day.
How do you “treat yourself” on your rare day off?
Perhaps a new shirt from Ted Baker or candle from Diptyque along with a bottle of wine, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
Now that you’re about to graduate, what’s next?
Earning a degree from The Court of Master Sommeliers (which accredits Sommeliers). Perhaps take some time off to travel abroad to learn new food preparation techniques. I only have front of house experience (dining room, not kitchen)—but I’m fascinated with the idea of working my way up in the kitchen.
Build experience and then build a restaurant?
Yes. I am more of a restaurateur, a businessman. I am not a cook and don’t know too much about the culinary skills needed for the kitchen. But, I would like to have full ownership. Brainstorming an idea and executing it from beginning to finish. Essentially, (now) I am managing someone’s vision and aspirations. I want to manage my own. I want to be responsible for all decisions made and create a brand—a restaurant—that is an extension of myself.
If I gave you $250,000 to start a restaurant as a graduation gift, what would it look like?
It would be casual, approachable, and for the masses. I would produce a restaurant with my contemporary interpretation of Korean food. Not necessarily re-imagining Korean food, it is perfectly fine the way it is, but something like a Korean dessert café in New York, as there aren’t a lot of late-night dessert spots. I’m also interested in bringing Korean shaved iced to the city.
So, you want to continue working in New York?
Yes. Nowhere else. The energy here is emphatic and contagious. I absolutely love the hustle and bustle. It keeps me competitive.
You’ve became a famous restauranteur, spent a lifetime in restaurants, it’s time for your last meal. Where do you go and who are you having it with?
My last meal is probably at Momofuku Ko, with my younger brother. The restaurant is a 12-seat reservation-only omakase style (chef’s choice, no menu). The soft-cooked hen’s egg with sweet butter cooked onions, salty caviar and crunchy chips works harmoniously. It’s ridiculous.
*the interview was edited for length, clarity, flow.