Fine dining specialists discuss Korea’s role in global haute cuisine

Dishes served at Korean restaurants located in New York [MICHELIN GUIDE, JOONGANG ILBO]

Dishes served at Korean restaurants located in New York [MICHELIN GUIDE, JOONGANG ILBO]

In recent months, there have been two major developments in the world of fine dining.
In early January, Noma, often ranked as the world’s No. 1 restaurant, located in Copenhagen, announced it will close permanently at the end of 2024. The reason? René Redzepi, the chef, said they could no longer afford the intensely long hours and workforce required to serve the dishes the restaurant has been serving to global acclaim.
Earlier, in perhaps the most significant development since Korean food began making international inroads, the Michelin Guide awarded its coveted stars to 10 Korean restaurants in New York City, often cited as the global culinary capital. Of the 10, three received two stars each, and the rest one star. Does this portend a global expansion and recognition of Korean food?
To talk about the latest in the world of haute cuisine and the future of Korean food in the world, two specialists in the field got together to discuss the matter — Samuel Koo and Jean-Pierre Gabriel.
Gabriel is a Belgian food journalist and photographer who has written more than a dozen widely acclaimed books on food, ranging from Thai food to Venetian cuisine and truffles. Among them is “L’Air du Temps” (2007), written together with the Korean-born Belgian chef Sang Hoon Degeimbre. He has won Gourmand’s Best Book award.
Koo has had a long international career in journalism and UN organizations. He also held senior positions in and out of the government in Korea including stints as Korea’s ambassador for cultural cooperation and chairman of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. He ran “Seoul Gourmet,” an international haute cuisine festival, in Seoul in the 2010s with Gabriel as his consultant.
The following are edited excerpts of the interviews conducted via email.

Samuel Koo

Samuel Koo

Q. The recent announcement of Noma’s planned closing sparked a storm in the culinary world and beyond. The New York Times printed it on their front page, along with many others. Why? Is haute cuisine or fine dining now a concern for so many people? Or has Noma done something extraordinary to attract global attention?

A. Gabriel: Noma’s announcement, in my view, confirms René Redzepi’s talent as a great communicator. He is a first-class PR man, besides of course being a wonderful chef. There are other chefs, equally good or even better, but they do not necessarily get to the No. 1 position on the San Pellegrino chart of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. In short, there are chefs like the legendary Ferran Adrià of the now-defunct El Bulli or the Roca brothers of El Cellar de Can Roca Joan, both from Spain, who achieved top stardom without the media’s help.

Koo: Indeed. Networking and media play seem increasingly important for chefs these days intent on climbing the rankings ladder. In this sense, I am not sure how authoritative the 50 best rankings are as the barometer of the quality of food served. I tend to give more credence to other awards, most notably the Michelin guide. Regardless, earning a spot on the 50 Best tends to assure not only global fame but also business success. So, in that sense, being on that list is much more powerful than earning Michelin stars.

It appears the meaning of haute cuisine has changed over the years and is still changing. Is that so?

Koo: I always thought, and still think, haute cuisine is having a wonderful meal at an elegant restaurant. In this sense, just about all Michelin-starred restaurants — there are exceptions of course — belong in this category. In Asia, traditionally, a well-prepared full-course meal, bansang in Korea and kaiseki in Japan, served in ornate restaurants, was considered fine dining. But that concept is now undergoing a change globally.

Gabriel: In the West, fine dining stems from the art of entertaining the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. What mattered then were not only the ingredients and the preparation but also the service in an elegant setting. It is no coincidence that the celebrated chefs of that era often made a career in luxury hotels. Then came a revolution of sorts. Led by Auguste Escoffier, known as the king of the chefs then, a movement began to modernize the kitchen. “Cooking, without it ceasing to be an art, will become scientific and will have to submit its formulas, which are too often empirical, to a method of precision.” This was the start of what later became molecular cuisine.

Koo: Ferran Adrià was among the early pioneers of molecular gastronomy. But with it also came the exotic or often bizarre use of ingredients. When I dined at El Bulli in December 2009, I was served a set menu of 53 items which included fresh hare brains swimming in a somewhat sour liquid. Even counting 3 aperitifs, 53 was a bit too much for one meal.

Gabriel: When it comes to the high temples of gastronomy, the key word today is no longer haute cuisine or fine dining but “experience”! The experience a diner undergoes at the table and around it. Not only the rabbit brains you mentioned but also live ants and fake snail eggs. Heston Blumenthal, the celebrated British chef [of The Fat Duck], invented dishes appealing to multiple senses. A dish of fish and seaweed is served in a beautiful seashell as the sound of sea waves and the birds play in the background. In Paul Pairet’s Shanghai restaurant, the guests are immersed in a virtual universe [with images and sounds], which is supposed to enhance the taste of the dishes! For this exotic reason, top restaurants invest so much money in architectural decor and special effects.
In the three Michelin star restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm, food is served on four floors, with each diner moving from one floor to another during the meal. At Alchemist in Copenhagen, chef Rasmus Munk suggests, for example, sucking a human silicone tongue to taste the delicate herbs placed on it. The show (because it is indeed a staging) is also political: if the chicken leg arrives in a metal cage, it is to protest against the enclosed birds; the pork whose sauce is injected by a syringe is a manifesto against antibiotics.

Jean-Pierre Gabriel

Jean-Pierre Gabriel

One controversial element of the world’s top restaurants is the widespread practice of their using unpaid interns in the kitchen. Shouldn’t this be rectified?

Koo: It is not a simple issue. On one hand, you have legions of aspiring young chefs eager to learn the craft from globally recognized masters. More selfishly, they want to use that experience as part of their resumé in their effort to secure a position at a good restaurant. This is not necessarily unique to gastronomy. A similar situation exists in such areas as music, arts, and other fields. But of course, if one is asked to work for a long period, for more than 6 months, for instance, I do believe the intern should be paid.

Gabriel: Anyone who has the ambition to make a name for oneself in a profession or an art dreams of the best apprenticeship one can find. If the race for Michelin stars is part of your quest, it is obvious that you will ring the doorbell of starred restaurants. Important as this may be, I also do not think it is acceptable to use an intern for longer than 6 months without pay or use the intern to do one single repetitive task for the entire period. Like what happened to Namrata Hegde who, during her 3 months at Noma, tirelessly repeated the same gestures: preparing 120 copies of a trompe l’oeil beetle: a glossy, three-dimensional creature made from fruit skin. The same practice existed at Noma until October 2022, when René Redzepi was forced to pay the many trainees for their repetitive work in the kitchen.

Is there a country or cuisine whose success Korea can learn from as it strives to further popularize Korean food overseas? Japan, for instance? In working toward this goal, Korea has presented Korean cuisine as a health food. What other virtues of Korean food can we publicize?

Gabriel: The Korean culinary culture has many values and special characteristics — fermentations of all kinds, vegetables, the vegan temple cuisine of Zen temples, not to mention the magic of the Korean table, bansang, laid out in front of you. However, the younger generation of Korean star chefs seems to place more emphasis on contemporary style. But to defend an identity, you must first be aware and proud of your own traditional culinary richness. For example, from its first publication in Japan, Michelin awarded 3 stars to sushi and kaiseki restaurants. The Japanese chefs have not veered from their traditions. In my eyes, the best traditional Korean restaurants offering an extraordinary bansang deserve 2 or 3 Michelin stars and are the way to go for young chefs.

Koo: You touch on an important point. I agree with you on the path the Japanese chefs have taken in great part. But what really has taken off internationally for Japanese cuisine is sushi, and not anything else like kaiseki, and sushi does not require any modernization. All but one of the Japanese restaurants decorated with Michelin stars in New York last year are sushi places. The lone exception was a single tempura restaurant. For Korean chefs, it’s a mixed bag. Let us look at the Michelin-starred Korean restaurants in New York. More than half of them are taking a modern approach or a super modern approach. In extreme cases, the Korean-ness is lost in my view. However, there are others who have simply refined the traditional style, earning recognition for traditional noodles, barbecue and even bar food.
One excellent case is Oiji Mi Restaurant, which basically presents refined yet traditional Korean cuisine in a course menu. In short, I believe the jury is still out on whether the emerging Korean chefs will adhere to the traditional or revised modern style, but either way, it is likely to succeed in spreading Korean food.

Dishes served at Atomix, a Korean restaurant in New York, United States [ATOMIX]

Dishes served at Atomix, a Korean restaurant in New York, United States [ATOMIX]

Has Korea’s effort to globalize Korean food been effective?

Koo: No doubt it has done a lot of good. Korea’s organized and voluntary efforts that launched two decades ago are bearing fruit as we see in New York City, for example. Michelin also recognized a large number of Korean restaurants in Seoul. In New York City, Korean cuisine garnered more Michelin stars than any other ethnic cuisine except for Japanese. Korean and Asiana airlines also have contributed in an important way to popularizing Bibimbap. Not surprisingly, all of these restaurants in NY are packed day in and day out, and they usually require reservations at least four weeks in advance.

Gabriel: First of all, it must be recognized that many actions have already been undertaken at different levels in Korea, in particular since the creation in 2009 of the Korean Food Foundation, called today the Korean Food Promotion Institution. I am thinking, among other things, of the multiple actions taken by the Ministry of Agriculture. Personally, I would like these actions to be more coordinated and for a real multi-year national plan to be put at the service of the globalization of Korean cuisine. I see the benefit of taking a two-pronged approach toward a double target — at the level of gastronomy and great chefs, and at the level of making available essential Korean ingredients, including high-end products, to the world food market.

Which country do you think has been most successful in popularizing and globalizing its cuisine from which Korea can learn?

Gabriel: First and foremost, Spain, which in my view is the best example of a concerted action involving the best chefs, regional governments, the high-end food industry — wines, Iberian ham, olive oil, et cetera — and food congresses. As we know well, this teamwork has placed Spain at the very center of European gastronomy ahead of France, the traditional powerhouse. Leading this gastronomic crusade in Spain was, of course, Ferran Adrià who almost single-handedly turned the tide in Spain’s favor.

Koo: However, the global forerunners in this regard are Chinese and Italian food. Pasta is everywhere. Of course, the Chinese and Italian cuisines were helped and driven by the large overseas populations of both countries. But while Italian food has also made major inroads into the haute cuisine world, Chinese in large part remained just neighborhood fast food and takeout restaurants. In this global development, Italian cuisine was helped by Italy’s star chefs.

Gabriel: Yes, Italy’s success was first based on the immense Italian diaspora, which was also proud of its roots. Italian cuisine was first developed through this network. It then became more sophisticated, relying on cooks and products. In certain ways, Italy’s Ferran Adrià was and is still Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana in Modena), another veteran No. 1 winner of the 50 Best. Italy offers more of course — the great artistic patrimony, cinema and arts, beautiful cars and fashion. You notice that Italy has also succeeded in marketing such high-end items like white truffles from Alba and aged balsamic vinegar from Modena.

A dish served at Mari, a Korean restaurant in New York [MICHELIN GUIDE]

A dish served at Mari, a Korean restaurant in New York [MICHELIN GUIDE]

Can the Italian example be applied to Korea?

Koo: Not to the full extent because the size of the overseas Korean community is rather limited. However, the popularity of Korean food is fanned by the immensely popular K-pop, K-cinema, and the global penetration of Korean electronic goods and, of course, cars. The Korean success in New York, however, has yet to be replicated elsewhere in the world, but like K-pop in the early days, a major success in one important cosmopolitan city like New York is likely to give the Korean effort an important added boost.

Can well-organized food festivals contribute to globalizing Korean food?

Gabriel: Indeed. Most countries wanting to develop the image of their cuisine have done so through special events like food festivals. Among them are Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía (San Sebastian, Spain) and Madrid Fusion, Identità Golose (Milan, Italy), the Flemish Primitives (Bruges, Belgium), Chefs Alps (Zurich, Switzerland), Mistura (Lima, Peru), World Food (Istanbul, Turkey), Tokyo Taste, Omnivore (Paris, France), MAD (Copenhagen, Denmark) and of course Seoul Gourmet.

Koo: I believe the Seoul Gourmet festival we ran together for many years in the 2010s also made an effective contribution toward introducing Korean food and its ingredients to the top chefs of the world including Redzepi, the Roca brothers, and Massimo Bottura, all No. 1 spot winners of the World’s 50 Best rankings in recent years. All told, we brought to Korea 10 chefs with 3 Michelin stars and many others from Latin America, the United States and Europe. The lineup included Corey Lee before the opening of Benu (San Francisco), the only Korean 3-star chef in the world outside of Korea today. I felt the most important part of Seoul Gourmet was its immensely popular masterclass by these world-renowned chefs. Hundreds of young aspiring chefs packed into the classrooms. Many of them have gone on to become important chefs in Korea and abroad.

Gabriel: The impact was and remains much greater. When a guest chef, for example, is looking for specific ingredients or, more simply, wants to visit a market to learn about Korean ingredients, we refer them to “young” Korean chefs. Through encounters like this, friendship is forged. I remember a meal with Massimo Bottura and another with Francesco Illy, in the very first Mingles. Both left the table concluding that it was one of their best meals. In the same way, Kang Min Goo was able to spend time in the cuisines of Pascal Barbot or Emmanuel Renaut in France.

Koo: Another episode comes to mind. When we hosted this wonderful lunch at Jingwansa Temple. Jordi Roca, one of the most talented chefs in the world, exclaimed “This is the best meal of my life!” And he was serious.
If we are going to be successful, it appears essential that we train foreign chefs. Is Korean cuisine special and attractive enough for foreign chefs to learn? Could they become successful by being Korean food chefs?

Gabriel: Why not create a Korean International Culinary Academy for Foreigners?
I don’t think you can expect many foreign chefs to become experts in Korean cuisine. But it’s a safe bet that Korean dishes will find important niches, such as with other food like pizza, dim sums, spring rolls and ramen. In this respect, one might be surprised that many poke bowl places have recently emerged. Bibimbap can easily overtake them. But whatever route Korea may take, one link is still missing: the availability of Korean ingredients. It is indeed much easier to find a Chinese or Thai pomelo than a Korean turnip. The basic pantry should include gochujang and its variations, ganjang of different ages, tashima, gim, roasted gim, salt, dried anchovies, maesil and yuja.

Koo: I do believe there is a growing market for foreign chefs who cook Korean cuisine. Last year, I went to two Korean restaurants in Brussels, and both were run by Belgian chefs, with excellent food. They told me they learned Korean cooking from Korean chefs. Both places were packed. The availability of Korean ingredients remains a serious issue, and rectifying this ought to be a high priority item for the state-supported Korean food organizations if Korea were to be successful in globalizing its food.

Rearranged by Yoon So-yeon [[email protected]]

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