Late September in Seoul, South Korea, and the city was swarming with world-class chefs for a second installment of Seoul Gourmet. Seoul Gourmet 2010 featured a Michelin-studded constellation of renowned national and international chefs, including Chef Michel Troisgros of Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France, Pastry Chef Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Can Sunyer, Spain, Chef Carlo Cracco of Ristorante Cracco in Milan, Italy, and double-starred native son Chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre of L'Air du Temps, in Noville-sur-Mehaigne, Belgium. Hosted by Dreamville Entertainment and the Seoul Tourism Organization, the event was a strong push by Korea for more elbow-room on the crowded world stage of modern-day fine dining.
Events within the festival included culinary market tours with the participation of the Korean Food Academy, including a visit to the Noryangjin Fish Market, dinners hosted by the presenting chefs and master cooking classes under their tutelage. These classes represented a range of topics close to Seoul's heart, from fermentation to globalization, the flux between modern and traditional dishes, the ever-stronger move toward more healthful eating, and the role of temple food in Korean cuisine.
Chef Michel Troisgros of Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France demonstrated his appreciation for Korean cuisine and its ties to the natural world. He showcased two dishes that highlighted French-Korean fusion, using Korea as the muse to guide his French technique and use of traditional Western ingredients. A “flowering endive”—endive prepared sous vide, sculpted into a flower-form and gently stuffed with pressed caviar and truffles—showcased a Korean aesthetic, while a prosciutto-wrapped potato “rose” was inspired by the Mugunghwa: the Korean national flower.
Kimchi, the national dish, has about as many variations as there are kitchens in Korea. For a window into Seoul’s Buddhist culinary traditions Venerable Sun-Jae, Chef and President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, prepared two types of vegetarian kimchi. Following a monasterial rule of thumb, she eliminated all onions, garlic and spice (allowing for just a smidge of ginger) from the recipe. Strict abstinence from these supposedly anger-inducing aromatics is supposed to ensure an even temperament, making for mellow meditative repose, not to mention a distinctive kimchi recipe.
Acclaimed Italian master confectioner Chef Luigi Biasetto touched on the lightness and acidity inherent in Italian pastry and also demonstrated the link between mascarpone and kimchi via the fermentation process. In this hands-on demonstration, participants were able to taste for themselves the vivid difference between both a young and a more mature mascarpone. The newborn mascarpone (just two days old) had a much stronger, more sour flavor than the sweeter, creamier, months-old sample, highlighting fermentation’s sometimes surprising role in the transformation of flavor.
Considered a top innovator, industry veteran Chef Hee Sook Cho prepared traditional Korean dishes altered only slightly for the modern palate, with simple twists she feels are enough to attract the attention of foodies everywhere. One small, healthful twist involved cutting down on salt in her stocks and piling on more veggies for deeper flavor. She prepared an array of dishes, including a Tofu Doenjang Soup with young pumpkin, Geundae Mountain greens with soy and sesame seeds, a traditional jabchae, and a basic sauce for Korea’s beloved ‘cue, bulgogi.
The Korean kitchen’s prodigal son, Chef Sang Hoon Degeimbre of L'Air du Temps in Noville-sur-Mehaigne, Belgium, gave a rousing master class devoted to color’s effect on the palate. He believes that colors affect health, and he draws inspiration from temple food's palette of vivid hues. Chef Degeimbre got playful with form and color with his “octopus egg”, a multi-colored creation crafted solely from rice. He also plated a bright, healthful dessert of yogurt quenelles, bold-hued mango, and acid-pink grapefruit.
Pastry Chef Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Can Sunyer, Spain is known throughout the cooking world as a pioneer in scented desserts that strive to stimulate the senses and elicit delight. His view is that the “purpose of cooking is to give people pleasure.” He prepared a dish of peach, pulled sugar, and cream as he went over his philosophy that each ingredient must “have a purpose." By assigning roles to ingredients, even going so far as to assign the female gender to rice or the male gender to chili, his hope is to orchestrate harmony on the plate.
Chef Eric Kim has spent time in Michelin-starred kitchens around the world, having stopped off in San Francisco, London, and Copenhagen’s Noma before coming full circle back to Korea, where he worked at Poom Seoul and now cooks at Cong-du. Both of these restaurants present modern incarnations of true-blue Seoul food. He has a clear vision of the current trend in Korean cuisine, with its emphasis on natural ingredients and unembellished product. To boost flavors, he relies on herbs and citrus for his unique interpretation of traditional sauces.
Chef Carlo Cracco of Ristorante Cracco in Milan, Italy paves the way in all things avant-garde in his native country, and in his master class he strove to show the mostly Korean audience how gracefully Italian and Korean food can play off each other. His Egg Spaghetti with Smoked Garlic Purée and Chili proved that by maintaining a balance among the simple elements of taste, like salty and sweet, the chef can build a canvas. If the canvas is well-constructed, then the diner won’t be overpowered, since every ingredient has a role to fulfill within the framework of elements. In this case, the acrid yet slightly sweet smoked garlic purée swayed with the heat from the Korean chili, and even though gochujang doesn't show up in your standard Italian pantry, the ingredients swept each other up in a dance all their own.
Chef Min Lee, Executive Chef of Haevichi Hotel in Seoul and one of Korea’s leading chefs, agrees with Chef Kim that the trend at home is toward a purer, more natural state in cuisine. He stressed the need to both globalize Korean food and evade the watered-down route of many internationalized traditional cuisines. For a bold take on fusion, he prepared seaweed pasta with sea urchin, egg, and octopus, along with a blend of Korean ingredients that he used to recreate the flavor of balsamic vinegar.