Chef Julien Royer has been a busy man. In June 2023, his restaurant Odette was awarded three Michelin stars as well as ranked No.14 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The fine dining restaurant at National Gallery was also named Best Restaurant in Asia at the World’s 50 Best’s 2023 awards ceremony held in Valencia, Spain.
Prior to that, Julien was in Seoul for five days for the Seoul Food Festival (organised by TV Chosun from May 27 to June 3). For the last 10 years, the festival has invited chefs from all over the world to discover Korean cuisine and collaborate with Korean chefs. During the trip, Julien also did a Four Hands dinner at the one-Michelin-starred Eatanic Garden at Josun Palace. We find out more about his food journey in South Korea:
What did you think of the culinary scene in Seoul, and did you learn anything new about Korean cuisine during your trip?
The last time I was in Korea was in 2018 and it was only for 48 hours. This time, I learnt and discovered lot of unique things. There are many up and coming restaurants, and a lot of young chefs doing an amazing job. The energy is quite special. I think they are very creative and at the same time very proud of their Korean roots which is great. A lot of places use native Korean ingredients and flavours. And they incorporate them into their own cooking style.
I was very unfamiliar with Korean cuisine to be honest. I only saw a small percentage of it, but the dining scene is diverse, vibrant and exciting.
We went to one of the oldest factories that produces shoyu and gochujang, about 2.5 hours from Seoul. We also met with Jeong Kwan (the Buddhist nun who was on Netflix’s Chef’s Table), and she even cooked us a vegan meal. She cooks with products that are in season and from Mother Nature. So no protein and no strong seasoning like pepper or garlic – as it disrupts the way they think and meditate. It’s very healthy and tasty. She uses honey, nuts, fresh herbs, and a range of vinegar – she makes her own like plum and apple vinegar. She does an amazing sweet rice cake using honey too.
Beyond the cuisine and taste of food, what we learnt from her was more about the philosophy and the way of life. And understanding and listening to Mother Nature. We have to understand that there’s seasonality and micro seasonality – and maybe it’s a way to appreciate beautiful imperfection. My take now is quality over quantity, and less but better.
Which restaurants did you visit in Korea and which were your most memorable meals?
It was at Eatanic Garden located at Josun Palace. Chef Jongwon Son is very talented. I love the cuisine he does. It’s very Korean in terms of flavour, and beautifully presented. It’s very technical and very new to me. I really enjoyed working with him and my meal there. I hope he will get two stars soon.
The menu is inspired by traditional Korean cuisine – so a lot of dishes have the foundation based on traditional Korean recipes. One of the most memorable dishes was the water bamboo dish.
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I also visited Mosu (three-Michelin-starred restaurant serving modern cuisine) and the meal was exceptional. I felt that it was a little bit less Korean, but it was outstanding.
Which were some of your favourite casual fare in Korea?
After our service, we went to eat casual food like bibimbap and Korean fried chicken in many different preparations.
On the last day we went to Gwangjang Market and ate octopus which was chopped up and still live and moving on the plate. It was a weird texture for me but I understand why people love it.
We ate vegetarian gimbap – Korean rice, pickled vegetables and kimchi rolled with nori. There were so many different varieties of kimchi and flavours. The level of spiciness and sourness can go from zero to ten.
The market is very authentic and food is very interesting. They have a blue swimmer crab pickle whose roe is marinated in vinegar which was super nice.
Did you find any inspiring produce in South Korea?
I love how they use a lot of perilla or sesame oil. I brought back some with me – we will use some in our cooking. At Odette we used to serve white asparagus with black sesame – like a sabayon with sesame oil. The richness and complexity of the sesame oil goes well with the white asparagus.
Korean sesame oil is different than the Chinese version. It’s more delicate, has beautiful nuttiness, and is very long lasting on the palate.
For fresh produce, my highlight is probably Jeju abalone. We tried some great Korean strawberries although it was the end of the season. What I really liked was Korean beef – I was impressed with the quality. And the sesame seeds and oil, and ginseng that they use for cooking. I love the natural bitterness – it reminds me of wild liquorice roots that we have back home (in France) that we use to make alcohol. They have a lot of ramps and wild garlic that they preserve for pickles which is super nice.
What edible souvenirs should people buy from Seoul?
Gochujang and sesame oil which is next level. And the soy sauce. When we visited Muryangsu – the oldest shoyu factory in Korea – we saw that they have different stages of maturation. They boil the soy beans after drying them in the open air and then they separate the liquid. The liquid is the shoyu and the solid becomes the gojuchang. The taste profile is a little bit less sweet and more complex.
Where else do you want to visit in South Korea if you have the chance to go back?
I really want to go to Jeju island and the southern part which I heard is very beautiful.