As the world becomes smaller and the likes of Michelin and 50Best continue to widen their reach, Seoul is fast gaining steam as a dining destination to watch.
Where once you might only have been familiar with the usual suspects like Jungsik or Mingles, more chefs are coming into the picture with new ideas and perspectives on the cuisine they grew up with.
Having cut their teeth overseas, these chefs aren’t content to just cook what they’ve been trained to but are instead taking risks to express their originality.
With their determination to push Seoul into the international spotlight, they’ve spawned a new wave of mod-Korean cuisine that is one of the hottest dining trends today.
Modern place dining
With her gentle tone and maternal demeanour, being ‘godmother of Korean chefs’ seems like a natural way to label Cho Hee-Suk, the 60-something chef at the helm of Hansikgonggan. With a Michelin star to its name and a location on the fourth floor of the Arario Museum which overlooks Changgyeong Palace, Hansikgonggan is the perfect platform for Chef Cho’s crusade to bring traditional palace cooking into the modern world.
The former cooking school professor who counts the chefs of Mingles and Joo Ok among her students, serves up traditional recipes in a modern setting as her way of keeping the cuisine relevant to younger generations.
“There are two kinds of modern Korean cuisine now,” she explains. “One is where chefs combine both western and Korean cooking methods; the second one is cooking with traditional methods but using modern presentation and plating.”
Chef Cho belongs to the second category, cooking with recipes that date back to the Joseon dynasty, which she has spent almost her entire career researching. The menu at Hansikgonggan offers a capsule taste of what royals used to eat. “Back in those days, there were meals for civilians and meals for the palace where they used the best ingredients and the best-skilled chefs. What I do is modernise the palace techniques and replicate the same flavours also using the best ingredients.” Globalisation means that she now has access to imported ingredients, so she has even used foie gras, “but using traditional Korean methods.”
A meal at Hansikgonggan is subtle almost to the point of understatement, but stands out for quiet elegance and clever use of Western-style plating. There’s a bowl of addictive bugak – seaweed, potato and perilla leaves smeared with a rice paste and deep fried into light-as-air chips. Pine nut porridge is served in a soup plate – thick and creamy with a delicate pine nut flavour made savoury with seafood stock and bits of abalone, shrimp and scallops. And the final dish of bansang – rice and traditional banchan – is a streamlined version of the royal smorgasbord of multiple small dishes, served on a small red lacquer platter that’s symbolic of the original. It’s a throwback to the past, but with a foot firmly in the present.
Hansikgonggan, 4F Arario Space, 83 Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul. Tel: +82 2-747-8104
(Related: Discover true Korean cuisine in its south)
Deconstructed Korean cuisine
With a background in French-Italian cuisine, Shin Chang Ho earned his chops at Nobu Miami and staged in top US restaurants from Le Bernardin in New York to Saison in San Francisco, before returning to Seoul to start his own gig. “During my journey I was thinking what kind of cuisine I can understand 100 per cent of and that is Korean cuisine,” says the soft-spoken Chef Shin of his philosophy behind Joo Ok.
“We have street food and palace cuisine, but what I want – and other chefs like me – is to bring Korean cuisine to an international level.”
Everything in Joo Ok is made from scratch, including his signature vinegars that are served at the start of the meal to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. “Korea is known for four kinds of fermentation – vinegar, bean paste, kimchi and soy sauce,” says Chef Shin.
Of these four, he chose to make his own vinegar since the other ingredients are more commonly available.
While his former teacher Chef Cho sticks to traditional Korean techniques, Chef Shin mixes things up, applying Western techniques to dishes that are still very Korean at heart. A lobster salad is given a Korean twist with pine nut mayonnaise; seaweed chips are topped with spicy beef tartare; bread is leavened with the lees from making makgeolli and topped with truffle and foie gras; quail egg is garnished with caviar and conch slices, and drizzled with house-pressed perilla seed oil; and grilled hanwoo is presented French style with a jus reduction.
“I’m trained in French cooking but I wanted to find out how it can translate into my food,” says Chef Shin. “I have no boundaries, I take the techniques and ingredients from everywhere but the objective is to create Korean cuisine. For example, there is no sauce in Korea so I use the French technique but the ingredients are traditional like bean paste and soy sauce.” His efforts earned him a Michelin star at his original premises, but he has since moved to larger premises at the Plaza Seoul hotel, where the word is that his second star may not be far off.
Joo Ok, Level 2, The Plaza Seoul, 119 Sogong-ro, Taepyeongno 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu,Seoul. Tel: +82-2-518-9393
Creating a food culture
For a taste of three Michelin-starred fare in Seoul, there is La Yeon and Gaon – the latter opening in 2003 as one of the first fine dining Korean restaurants in the city. Owned by the Kwangjuyo F&B group which makes luxury porcelain, the original premise was to showcase how Korean cuisine could be presented on fine crockery, which wasn’t the way the local population ate at the time.
Although it enjoys three star status, it’s still an uphill climb to convince Koreans to dine on traditional cooking in luxury surroundings, says Lucia Cho, creative director of Gaon, whose family owns Kwangjuyo. “We are still reliant on foreign guests, with just 40 to 50 per cent local guests.”
Chef Kim Byoung Jin has been helming the kitchen since he was 25 years old and has seen the Korean dining scene evolve over the years. Initially, they struggled with getting locals to dine as they found it too expensive to eat food that they could get at home. Of course, Gaon offered something totally different, but many remained unconvinced.
But things are changing and they hope to get more local support even as more foreign visitors are drawn by the stars to sample Chef Kim’s menu in the quietly luxurious restaurant. It’s an elegant space, showcasing beautiful plateware and semi-private dining rooms instead of a large one. The food is a bit hit-and-miss and pricey for what you get, but there are highlights including tender abalone showered with finely shredded pine mushrooms and sauce; crab ‘bibimbap’; and a delicate clam broth porridge served with perch from Jeju. “The focus is on local ingredients with a balance of Korean-ness,” says Ms Cho, whose mission is to be the most iconic Korean restaurant and guide younger chefs who are seeking their own culinary identity.
Gaon, 317 Dosan-daero, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul. Tel: +82-2-545-9845
It’s hard to wrap your head around a name like Born & Bred, which sounds more like a hip fashion label than an upscale meat shop that fills an entire building just beside the famous Majang meat market in Seoul.
But Born & Bred is the result of some clever wordplay by its CEO Jung Sang Won, who was literally born and bred in the area as his family has been in the butchery business for over 40 years.
With access to some of the best Korean hanwoo – which is described by aficionados as the perfect cross between marbled wagyu and beefy American steak – Born & Bred is a high-end concept created by Mr Jung to showcase what the best quality meat can taste like.
The building is separated into different floors and concepts including a casual cafe/butchery where you can buy meat in clean, fancy surroundings and have a beef katsu sandwich or Vietnamese-style pho. There’s a regular Korean barbecue joint on one level, a Korean dining restaurant and the piece de resistance – the omakase barbecue bar in the basement helmed by Mr Jung himself.
“I originally started this in Majang market itself five years ago,” says Mr Jung. And part of the reason was to dispel the misconception that meat in the market was of poor quality.
“People were not exposed to good beef,” he adds. “They thought that Majang only sells cheap stuff, and it’s only good if you get it from the supermarket. They don’t acknowledge the fact that you can get quality meat here, even though all the top restaurants and supermarkets buy from us.”
He started out by inviting his friends and it soon became a massive hit, even though it was an expensive meal priced upwards of US$300 a head. Seats became hard to come by, and even so now, even though Born & Bred now has its own shiny new building. While it’s easier to score a seat in the other floors, the prized spot is the basement, where Mr Jung personally presides over a beef show you’ve never seen before.
He warns you beforehand that you’ll be getting 500gm to 600gm of beef per person before he unfolds an amazing roll call of cuts – top loin which is greasy, fatty and exquisite; followed by chateaubriand, sirloin, chuck steak, side skirt, short rib, prime rib, the works. All are perfectly cooked atop smokeless Korean charcoal. In between, he breaks things up with some side dishes, a beef pie, spring rolls, katsu sando, and so on until you roll out of there stuffed with hanwoo and hospitality. And while US$300 may sound like a lot, he gives you your money’s worth.
One thing’s for sure – you’ll never look at a Korean barbecue in the same way after this. After all, Mr Jung was born and bred to do this, so you won’t find anything like this elsewhere. The personalised treatment and his cooking skills play a big part, so we don’t know if the other floors will be as satisfying. Regardless, as a special treat, this place will certainly grow on you.
Born & Bred, 781-15 Majang-dong, Seongdong-gu, Seoul. Tel: +82-2-2298-5005
This article was originally published in The Business Times.