While born in Seoul and having cooked since the age of 14, the first time and place chef Louis Han ever cooked Korean cuisine was almost 8,000km away from home in Lebanon. Han had volunteered to be part of the United Nations Peacekeeping force and was serving in the Middle Eastern country as a military chef cooking for over 400 soldiers of every nationality.
“There were over 20 camps with different nationalities, and each country tried to introduce its own culture, so we mainly prepared Korean cuisine. That was a good chance for me to learn about it. I introduced things like japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) as Korean pasta, which people enjoyed,” says Han, 31.
“We would also organise private events and banquets for the generals and make our signature dishes like rice cakes, which we bought machines for.”
After his time in the force, Han worked in two fine dining restaurants – Marco Polo in Seoul and Circo in Abu Dhabi. Then, he landed in Singapore as the sous chef of the opening team at Meta, working under chef Sun Kim. He gained valuable experience combining Asian flavours with Western techniques under Sun’s guidance. This proved to be helpful when Han became the head chef of Kimme, the Korean-inspired, modern European sister restaurant of Meta.
Towards the beginning of 2020, Han thought about going at it alone, so he left Kimme. He had a name for the restaurant: Nae:um, a literary phrase from Korean that loosely translates as “nostalgic scent”. The plan was to travel to Europe to seek inspiration for the food, but Covid-19 shattered that dream. He ended up returning to Seoul after six years of being away.
Every revelation in his life has brought him back to his roots – and this trip back to visit family and friends was no exception. Han reveals with a laugh, “My grandmother is a superb cook, so I asked for her recipes. I must have annoyed her because she yelled at me a lot and asked me to go elsewhere to learn. She didn’t give me any recipes, so I had to learn through observation.”
At Mosu, Seoul’s contemporary fine dining restaurant, knowledge was relatively easier to come by. Han worked as a sous chef for a few months alongside chef-owner Sung Anh and gained a new perspective on ingredients. “This was not just about cutting and cooking well. His knowledge is on a whole different level. When I made a sauce, he knew just how to adjust the proportions to maximise the flavour.”
Seoul’s culinary and cultural diversity has been a boon to Nae:um, which recently opened its doors in July. The food is Han’s love letter to the syncretisms of a city that offered conceptual fusion cuisine along with native creations like French fry-covered corn dogs. “Koreans do not enjoy fine dining,” shares Han, whose favourite post-service meal in Singapore is Hokkien mee from Golden Mile Food Centre. Nae:um is a bridge between his classical European training and the flavour-packed dishes of traditional Korean cuisine.
For example, Han’s interpretation of Mulhwae, a summer dish of raw seafood in a cold, spicy broth, is subtler and more layered with kombu-aged fish, daikon pickled in nuruk (a traditional Korean fermentation starter with wheat, rice and barley), and a yuzu-chilli broth. Meanwhile, steamed fish comes with a beurre blanc that’s umami-boosted with dashi, Korean bean paste and mushroom-allium oil.
All impart comforting, cohesive and familiar flavours while retaining a sense of refinement that comes with the territory of being a fine-dining, degustation- only restaurant. The scolding from his grandmother, it seems, was worth it.