Joyeon “Joy” Wang is an artist.
Her medium? Computers and fish.
Wang, a trained graphic designer and sushi chef, operates Maru Sushi & Korean Grill with her mother, Boksoon Park.
Formerly Han Kuk Kwan Korean Restaurant, established in 2000, Maru expanded in 2010—both physically and in terms of culinary reach—by adding a third bay to the space and sushi to the menu.
Wielding her aesthetic skills, Wang created a beautiful space that belies its strip mall location just off 108th and L. Maru boasts high ceilings, stylish decor, and a long wine/sushi bar that presents a vibe that is simultaneously sleek and cozy.
“I added sushi to appeal to more people,” says Wang, clarifying that customers often first visit for sushi, then get curious about the Korean cuisine. “People love both. It’s a good balance.”
A new name heralded the revamped approach. Traditionally, “maru” is the table at the center of the Korean home where friends and family gather. On a recent visit, this meaning was perfectly personified by new customers being kindly welcomed to explore the diverse, delectable menu as it was by Park hosting longtime Korean friends for an afternoon of reminiscing and “the best homemade kimchi this side of the Pacific.”
As the sounds of Korean language and the kind of boisterous laughter that only blossoms from reconnecting with old friends periodically crescendo around her, Wang shares more about her family, restaurant, and other pursuits.
The first and juiciest tidbit is that, in addition to her career, she owes her marriage to Maru.
“I met my husband Rudy here,” says Wang. “Well, his parents met me here first, then they told him, ‘We found your wife.’”
With such a confident pitch for the woman of his dreams, Rudy, whose family coincidentally owned O Dining & Lounge, couldn’t resist a visit. The parental instincts were prophetic, and the two married in 2005. At the time, Wang worked in the restaurant and as a graphic designer at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she’d earned a degree in studio arts with a concentration in graphic design.
The Wangs soon had two boys, now ages 6 and 8. The kids also love cooking and have even expressed interest in becoming chefs when they grow up. Certainly this affinity owes much to their grandmother, Park, who prepares all of Maru’s sauces and seasonings from scratch and says that, since her own childhood, home cooking has made her feel warmth and comfort—feelings she loves to share with others.
“This restaurant and food allows me to tell my story,” says Park through Wang’s translation. “From starting in poverty back [in South Korea], to my first restaurant job working as a dishwasher, to now being able to share my passion in food with others.”
Already proficient at Korean cooking thanks to her mother’s excellent example, Wang had no idea where to start when she decided to add a sushi bar to Maru, so she scouted a New York sushi chef who came to work for her and helped open the sushi bar.
“When he left, I was still a baby sushi chef and couldn’t handle it all, so I learned more,” says Wang, who dexterously extended her artistry from design to sushi, working intensively for months to further develop her skills.
Wang says while she enjoys sushi preparation and all the creativity involved, the Korean side of Maru’s menu takes up the most space in her heart.
Understandable, as the cuisine absolutely delights the senses. Marinated Korean barbecue short ribs sizzle on a hot metal plate, exuding a savory, grilled aroma. Two varieties of kimchi, traditional cabbage and daikon radish, contribute crisp texture and masterfully developed flavor. The same scintillating sizzle comes from a lovely grill-hot granite bowl filled with beef bibimbap; a colorful feast for the eyes with its array of rice, meat, bright vegetables, and “banchan,” which are small sides accompanying the meal, like Park’s homemade kimchi, bean sprouts, potatoes, and lightly steamed broccoli finished with salt and sesame oil.
“I love to introduce this food to people,” says Wang, echoing her mother. “People love comfort food, and this is Asian-style comfort food, but it’s not heavy.”
Standing behind the sushi bar constructing one of Maru’s gorgeously creative rolls, Wang suddenly asks if she mentioned she’s in nursing school—a demanding addition to any schedule, much less a chef’s.
“It sounds crazy, right? Somehow it all gets done,” she says.
Since childhood Wang dreamt of working in healthcare, but growing up in a “right-brained family” and watching her brothers pursue art led her in a different direction.
“Ever since I had my babies, I thought more and more about my old dream,” says the Clarkson College senior who plans to work only part-time in a hospital. “I still have the restaurant. My mom needs me. And I love this place. So I will do both.”
It makes sense that Wang, who found an artful connection between graphic design and sushi, also sees a bridgeable gap between nursing and cheffing.
“Being in the restaurant business, I take care of customers and anticipate their needs and what they’ll like,” says Wang. “Taking care of patients is very similar in that sense. Trying to see their perspective and provide what they need.”
Visit marusushikoreangrill.com to learn more.