Text: Nicole Baird
Photography: Abigail Varney
Despite today’s lines of hungry customers out front of Brunswick Street’s bustling Yong Green Food, the restaurant had humble beginnings. But there was one particularly keen customer right from the start.
“He lived around the corner,” says Seon Mi Lee, Yong’s co-founder, “and he’d come in every day.” For the food? Seon Mi laughs. “For the food. And for me!” Four years later and he’s still a big fan of the business albeit as Seon Mi’s partner. “He’s very supportive. He helps here a lot.”
Yong Green Food is a vegetarian’s haven offering a diverse menu of raw, vegan, gluten free, macrobiotic and organic dishes, and is a much-loved stalwart of Fitzroy’s food culture. After opening in late 2009 it has consistently grown, expanding in 2012 and today attracting crowds from all over Melbourne.
“I still feel like it’s a dream,” says Seon Mi who, with her sister Seon Joo, imagined opening a vegetarian restaurant when they were youngsters living with their family in Korea. “My sister always had a passion for cooking,” says Seon Mi. The girls started out working in offices but Seon Joo was taking cooking classes in the evenings and both were reading books on health, nutrition and sustainability. John Robbins’ groundbreaking ‘The Food Revolution’ completely changed their perspective on food. “Overnight we became vegetarians,” says Seon Mi. “We were kind of outsiders. Our friends respected our decision but others didn’t understand.”
The meat-centric Korean cuisine motivated the sisters to head overseas for vegetarian inspiration. They researched vegetarian restaurants online and discovered many in Vancouver so headed there first. For six months they toiled in vegetarian and raw food kitchens (sometimes paid, sometimes volunteer), learning food preparation processes and trialling new recipes in their spare time. Next, they targeted Australia, arriving first in Sydney and doing the same here for a year before making it to Melbourne. “When we came to Melbourne, we thought, ‘this is the place’. We fell in love,” says Seon Mi. Working at a gluten-free, vegan café in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, Seon Joo was one day asked to fill in for a chef who was unwell. She trialled some new dishes that were so successful the company eventually offered to sponsor her. When Seon Mi secured a student visa both girls were finally able to call Melbourne home.
It was two more years before the sisters had saved enough money to bring their mother over from Korea, take out a lease and start setting up Yong. “At the beginning, it was just me, my sister and mum. We did everything.” Seon Mi was still working a second job when they first opened. “I would work from four AM to ten or eleven AM, while the others were preparing for the day. Then I’d come in and we’d open at twelve.” They’d do lunch and dinner, six days a week. After three months, Seon Mi was able to give up her second job. Six months and they had to hire two staff. After a year, there were diners queuing outside. Another year and the girls took over the space next door. These days, on any given night, Yong Green Food is packed.
The key seems to be integrity. From the (now 20) staff member’s positive attitudes, to the full of flavor wholesome food, to the laid-back homely atmosphere, everything has integrity. “We use as much organic and local food as possible
,” says Seon Mi. “No chemicals.” The juices and desserts are raw and organic. Every dish is vegetarian, many also vegan and gluten free. And basics, such as almond milk, kimchi and Thai green curry paste, are all made from scratch on site. “I try to make a good atmosphere here so everyone is happy,” says Seon Mi. “Even when it’s very busy, I think we can cooperate and work as a team, having fun.” The ethos is evident on the contented faces of diners. “Food is not just about taste. The energy is really important too. People can feel the energy in the food.”
Signature dishes include the Rawsagna, made with layered vegetables, avocado, cashew cream and raw walnut Bolognese, the Macro Dragon Bowl, made with biodynamic brown rice, veggies, organic tempeh, seaweed and lemon tahini cream (and served with miso soup), and the Green Tea Ganache dessert, made from macha, brazil nut, Goji berries, coconut, agave and raw chocolate. There’s also a wide variety of curries, wraps, salads, smoothies and more.
“You can do so much with vegetarian food,” says Seon Mi. “It’s not necessary to cage and kill animals for our pleasure.” The environmental impacts of a carnivorous culture have been well documented and Yong Green Food is catering for individuals making conscious decisions about their lifestyle. “We wanted to create something healthy, unique and fun,” says Seon Mi, “a place where people feel good.”
Leaving Yong Green Food, you’ll likely have never felt better.
It's still faster than you could draw it