Interview with an inspector of the Michelin Seoul Guide
What were your first impressions of Seoul?
Seoul is such a huge, sprawling city and so diverse in terms of neighbourhoods and atmospheres that it wasn’t easy to get to know. The capital of South Korea can seem cold at first glance. You must be patient… I started by exploring the business district of Gangnam-gu, home to a wide variety of cuisines, some of which international. I also went to the more working-class district of Myeong-dong, which is probably more authentically Korean. Each neighbourhood has its own identity, a little like London and New York. The city is a treasure trove of excellent restaurants, hence the legitimacy of the MICHELIN Seoul selection.
How would you suggest getting to know Korean food?
Be daring! Curiosity is the key to a good meal. Be adventurous, forget preconceived ideas and taste, taste and taste some more! You stand every chance of being surprised in a very positive way.
What traps can we avoid?
Don’t make the mistake of getting stuck on bibimap, the national mixed rice dish with its host of sides. Similarly, venture beyond bulgogi, marinated beef cooked in a variety of manners. There is much more to Korean cuisine if you go just a little further afield.
Were you surprised?
Countless times! I remember a little local restaurant that didn’t look anything special. It was one of those single dish restaurants that only serve one ingredient, of which there are dozens in Seoul. This one served raw pickled crab, according to a secret recipe passed down from generation to generation. It was fabulous and I was knocked over, to the great surprise of my Korean colleague!
Another time, in a street of a working-class district, I found myself intrigued by large clay dishes of dried shrimp. This small restaurant served shrimp soups with a dozen or so condiments and dips, each of which was more delicious than the other (roots, seaweed, the famous kimchi, fermented vegetables, white radishes, spinach in soya sauce). I asked to meet the owner and was introduced to an amazing gentleman with a PhD in food fermentation.
I also fondly remember a tiny apartment-restaurant in three small private rooms called Amitié (friendship) in French. The young chef, Jang Myoung Sik had never been to France, but loved it so much that he chose a French name.
Tell us about the importance of fermentation in Korean cooking…
Fermented vegetables (kimchi) are the bedrock of Korean cooking. Winters are long and harsh in Korea and, believe me, -18°C/-0.4°F in the heart of February in Seoul is no fun! The fermentation tradition is an ancestral conservation technique which makes it possible to eat pickled vegetables, which are served with condiments and relishes, throughout the cold season.
As a Michelin inspector, what happened when you told the restaurants who you were after the meal?
After the incognito test in the company of a Korean colleague, we introduced ourselves and asked to visit the establishment. After an initial moment of uncertainty, the chef was generally surprised and astounded and then often intrigued as we explained the background and approach of the MICHELIN Guide. At the beginning of March, there was a press conference in Seoul to announce the creation of a MICHELIN Seoul Guide to raise awareness.
Would it be true to say that Korean cuisine is enjoying a new lease of life?
Definitely! Young chefs, between 30 and 40 years old, are returning to Korea after training abroad, particularly on the west coast of America and in New York, where the Korean community is growing very fast. They are all determined to enhance the flavours of Korean produce and ingredients, modernise traditional recipes and embellish the aspect of dishes. Chef Jung Sik Yim is one such. He has a two-star Michelin restaurant in New York and another very fashionable establishment in Korea. Tony Yoo, chef of the Twenty-Four Season restaurant, is also a leading figure of the Korean culinary scene. He spent a year in a monastery to perfect his knowledge of vegetarian temple food, which uses almost exclusively low-calorie foods.
Some Korean chefs are specialised in western cuisine, French if they have worked in France, but also ground-breaking, fusion cuisine, like Edward Kwon in Lab 24.
In the last few years, temple cuisine (Baru Gongyang) has been enjoying a renewed boom. Entirely vegan, the Buddhist monks’ diet is based on time-honoured recipes passed down for centuries. This cuisine is founded on several principles: short cooking times, natural seasonings and small portions. The seasonings are provided by ingredients such as sesame, mushrooms, seaweed… Fermentation is a conservation technique frequently employed by monasteries, as in the rest of Korean cuisine. However, ingredients such as onions, shallots and garlic, liberally used elsewhere in Korean gastronomy, are strictly forbidden because they nurture the libido and anger. Monastery mealtimes are strictly silent and every single morsel in the bowl must be finished. The monks generally grow their own food, which also explains their horror of waste. Temple cuisine is low in calories, high in fibres and intended to nourish both the body and soul of the eater.
Practically speaking, how can we choose a restaurant, read the menu and know what to order?
How to choose a restaurant? Well, you could start by buying the Michelin Seoul Guide (laughter)! Some restaurants provide pictures, either in the window or on the menu, which makes it possible to identify dishes… What’s more, many restaurants are “single ingredient” or “single dish”, which also simplifies things: just noodles or only pork or beef or raviolis… All the food ordered is served at the same time, in particular, the delicious banchan “side dishes”, which are a festival of flavours.
Looking back, as a Michelin Guide inspector how would you describe your experience in Seoul, the capital of South Korea?
I simply had no idea of the wealth and diversity of Korean cuisine. Seoul is full of fantastic culinary surprises and experiences.
|권숙수||Kwon Sook Soo||한식||Korean|
|피에르 가니에르||Pierre Gagnaire||프렌치 컨템퍼러리||French contemporary|
|다이닝 인 스페이스||Dining in Space||프렌치 컨템퍼러리||French contemporary|
|리스토란테 에오||Ristorante Eo||이탤리언 컨템퍼러리||Italian contemporary|
|밍글스||Mingles||코리안 컨템퍼러리||Korean contemporary|
|발우공양||Balwoo Gongyang||사찰음식||Temple cuisine|
|보름쇠||Bo Reum Soei||바비큐||Barbecue|
|보트르 메종||Votre Maison||프렌치 컨템퍼러리||French contemporary|
|알라 프리마||Alla Prima||이노베이티브||Innovative|
|유 유안||Yu Yuan||중식||Chinese|
|이십사절기||Twenty Four Seasons||코리안 컨템퍼러리||Korean contemporary|
|정식당||Jungsik||코리안 컨템퍼러리||Korean contemporary|
|제로 컴플렉스||Zero Complex||이노베이티브||Innovative|