“The easiest way to win a heart is through the stomach,” so the saying goes but even if Kwon Hyeok Ran’s carrot cakes weren’t as delicious as they are, she’d still be winning affection with her irresistible kindness and interesting stories. Having learned how to make carrot cake while living in the United States for 25 years, she adapted the recipe to fit the Korean palate, using less sugar and as many Jeju-produced carrots as possible.
Yet, Kwon’s talents extend far beyond the kitchen. Her portfolio boasts of experience as a reporter, international correspondent and talk show host in established TV and radio organizations. Beyond the airwaves, Kwon has also served as a MC at several events on the island, published a tea book with the help of her daughter, and is heavily involved in volunteer work focused on preserving Jeju’s environment. “I thank my God for everything and I try my best in everything I do. That’s my philosophy for life,” she says.
Kwon and her husband settled in Jeju almost four years ago, and plan on living on the island for the rest of their lives. Because she followed her husband throughout America on his business ventures, he promised her they would move to Jeju once he retired. “People ask me if I get bored living on an island. I tell them, Jeju isn’t an island. For me, it’s the center of the universe,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
When did you first start baking?
Before I lived in the US I didn’t bake a lot because I didn’t have an oven. I only had a gas stove. While in the US, I starting baking many cakes, maybe 10 different types of cake, but I made carrot cake the most.
How were you first introduced to carrot cake?
When I lived in Los Angeles I went to the bookstore because I was looking for a baking book. I found a carrot cake recipe and made it, but it was too sweet. I also bought carrot cake at the market, but it was also too sweet and I didn’t like it. So I changed the recipe and made it a little different, using many carrots and the least amount of sugar as possible.
Why did you decide to open up a carrot cake business in Korea?
Actually I had planned to have a teashop with tea, tea accessories and teacakes. Carrot cakes were supposed to just be a part of the teashop. But I found Jeju carrots in Garak Market in Seoul, made cakes and gave them to everybody to taste. The response was so good that I decided to go with the carrot cakes. I sold my cakes at five different places and did this for five years. It was perfect practice for my business now in Jeju.
When did you move to Jeju?
It will be four years this March.
Why did you decide to bring your carrot cake business to the island?
When I was in Seoul I would visit Jeju once or twice a year. I’d go to Gujwa, which is an area on the island that produces carrots. While I was here I noticed that there was no one selling carrot cake, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me.
Was it difficult to make the transition to the island?
Jeju people didn’t know about my carrot cakes at first, but I had basic customers already from Seoul. Several magazines, newspapers, and broadcasting stations came to me and wrote articles and made programs about my shop. Because of this, many young ladies found out about my carrot cake and started blogging about it. The Internet made my business more well-known.
What is one of the hardest things about owning a small business in Jeju?
Right now the carrot price is very high because of the two typhoons last summer. Before, 20 kilograms of carrots only cost 30,000 won, but now 20 kilograms is over 100,000 won.
How are Jeju carrots different from a “typical” carrot?
Jeju carrots are juicy and sweet. They have a very special smell and a very good flavor. That’s the difference.
Why do you think people like your carrot cake?
First, it’s delicious, but carrots are also good for health. It’s almost equal to the nutrition of ginseng. However, not everybody can eat ginseng, but both young and old can eat carrots.
What do you enjoy most about baking?
When I’m baking I focus my full attention on baking. I forget everything else around me, even if I have a very difficult thing in my life at that time. Also, I love when people enjoy eating my cakes. Their reaction makes me happy.
What are some of your favorite things to bake outside of carrot cake?
I like to make sweet rice cake. It’s not ddeok. It’s not cake. It’s something in the middle. I also like to make pineapple cakes and scones. Besides cakes, I like to bake turkey twice a year: once on Christmas or Thanksgiving, and then again on the anniversary of the shop’s opening.
I understand before you were in the baking business, you were involved in broadcasting, can you tell me more about that?
I was an announcer for MBC for five years. I was also a KBS freelancer and correspondent in the US when I lived in Mexico City and Washington D.C. I will never forget when I worked in D.C. It was during the Gulf War. At that time, I would broadcast very early in the morning or very late at night, maybe 10 to 15 times a day. I actually got a special award from KBS for my reporting during this time. It was a very hard job, but such a good experience. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Didn’t you also do some broadcast work while living in New York?
When I lived in New York, I was a news anchor for Radio Korea on 32nd Street. I was also a talk show host for Channel 63 WNBC. I had my own 30-minute talk show focused on the Korean community. I interviewed guests ranging from students who scored a perfect score on their SATs to a Korean presidential candidate.
Why did you choose to pursue baking over broadcast?
I think broadcasting fits my personality better, but the job that is more lasting for the future is baking. Still, I’d be interested in having my own talk show, especially in radio.
How has your experience been living in Jeju?
Most of my time spent living Korea, I lived in Seoul, but I didn’t really like living there. When I lived in the US I visited Hawaii and began to compare it to Jeju. I actually thought Jeju was better and I told myself that when I returned to Korea, I would live in Jeju and spend the rest of my life there.
People ask me if I get bored living on an island. I tell them, Jeju isn’t an island. For me, it’s the center of the universe.
House Recipe Carrot Cake (하우스레서피 당근 케이크) is located at 1236-9 Gwideok-ri, Hallim-eub, Jeju City, (064-796-9440, more photos) and on Lee Joong-seop Street in Seogwipo at 417-17 Seogwipo-dong, Seogwipo City, (064-733-9440, Daum Street View).