It was 2006, and Jin Kim had spent two nights on a park bench with nothing but his suitcase, $28 in his pocket and a return ticket home to South Korea, when he came across the sign that changed the course of his life.
You wouldn’t know it today, given his success as the owner of Corrimal restaurant Jin’s Place, which closed in early February 2024 to reopen shortly after in Thirroul.
“I remember the park I slept in, I remember which bench,” he says.
He had come to Australia hoping to improve his English, but it was impossible to keep a roof over his head with the pay at the sandwich shop in Queensland.
En route to the bus that would take him to the airport, he spied a sign in a takeaway sushi restaurant window calling for a kitchen hand, and went in to enquire.
“They thought I had just arrived in Australia because I had my suitcase, no phone number and no home address,” he laughs.
“Luckily, I missed my bus and had to wait another hour for the next one. So I returned and asked them how many people had applied for the job. The owner came out and said, ‘Wow, you’re keen. You must really need this job.’ And he gave it to me.”
That night, on his way to celebrate with a bowl of noodles from a nearby Korean restaurant, he passed another sign, this time at a convenience store calling for a graveyard shift worker.
“So it went like this: from 12 am to 6 am, I would work at the convenience store, and from 9 am to 5 pm I would work at the sushi takeaway.”
It was a hard slog but things were looking up. Serendipitously, the convenience store manager Kristy, who was also Jin’s first customer at the sandwich shop, would later become his wife. And now that he was on his feet, Jin began climbing the culinary ladder.
He wasn’t starting from the bottom rung. His first experience in the kitchen was at age six.
“My mother and father were both cooks and sometimes wouldn’t come home until after midnight. One day I felt so hungry, I decided to fry an egg for myself,” he says.
“My mum had never taught me. She didn’t want me to be a chef because she knew how hard it was. She wanted me to work in an office with air-conditioning.”
In 2010 an apprenticeship at the Hyatt Hotel in Sydney became the first in a string of diverse culinary opportunities in NSW that culminated in a decision to master authentic Japanese food. Then in 2014, Jin followed a job offer to the Illawarra where he oversaw Sushi Train (then Sushi Bay) in Shellharbour and Wollongong.
One of his young waiters was Daniel Ahn, who went on to start the wildly popular Toro Sushiya in Thirroul and later, Toro Robata in Wollongong. Jin says about once a week, he helped Daniel with the business, but in 2021 it was time for Jin to strike out on his own.
Jin’s Place, an authentic Japanese and Korean restaurant on the Princes Highway in Corrimal, opened at the height of the pandemic.
“There were no customers at all; it was very quiet. I was worried,” Jin says.
“One day a lady came in and asked me if she could take a photo and some video for her social media. I only remember her name was Julie,” Jin says.
“I didn’t know then how important platforms like Facebook and Instagram were for businesses. She said to me ‘Tonight, you’ll be busy’. I don’t know what she did but that night, the restaurant was packed.
“After that people knew me, they kept coming. I know there are many people who haven’t been to my restaurant yet, but those who come into my shop rarely come just once.”
Jin’s Place in Thirroul strives to achieve the same loyalty in the northern suburbs.
Customers have their choice of sushi rolls, traditional Korean and Japanese dishes and some signature dishes by Jin for lunch and dinner, and Western options for breakfast and lunch, as well as a range of Japanese and Korean rice wines and beers.
“There’s a lot of crossover, but also some surprises. I want to make something people have never tried before,” Jin says.
Jin’s Place Thirroul is located at Shop 2, 374 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Thirroul and is open from Monday to Saturday for coffee from 6 am, breakfast from 8 am to 10:30 am, lunch from 11 am to 2 pm and dinner from 5 to 8:30 pm.