Chef Young Hee Roh: The Art of Presentation

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno
November 2010

Tucked into the side of the mountain and looking out over the great expanse of Seoul is Poom Seoul. Like its chef, Young Hee Roh, the restaurant is defined by its style. Both have an almost regal bearing, and both juxtapose drama and subtlety. As a child, Roh lived in a province surrounded by fields, and some of her dishes form mini-3D-landscapes, from the soil-like ground pine nuts plated organically next to two roughly-formed chestnut-ginger “pebbles” or dumplings to the earth-toned dish of marinated, grilled beef with deoduck root served on a chocolate brown, handmade plate with an irregular surface that looks like a newly tilled field.

Roh spent time as a managing editor at a Korean food magazine before venturing behind the burners herself. She kept her appreciation for subtlety and understated elegance, from her stylish pixie cut, to her turned up, crisp white collar. Whether it’s a calculated cloudlike scattering of thinly sliced chives on the plate, a large, textured vase in the dining room, or the patterned trimming on Chef Roh’s chef pants, chic touches like this are evident everywhere at Poom Seoul, and looking at Roh, it’s not hard to figure out the source.

Her poetic minimalism is translated onto the plate. For example, her well thought-out Eggplant Roll has a flavor profile, presentation, and culinary philosophy that are all about clean. Clean lines, clean flavors, clean plates. Roh fills a cold, grilled, skinned eggplant roll with crunchy cucumber; and wields the fresh textural snap of bean sprouts and the savory depth of mushrooms against the mild acidic pop of vinegar soy sauce. Inside, the restaurant is strikingly quiet. Tables are set several feet apart and the space instills the dining area with a sense of anticipation. Expectations are high, but Chef Roh delivers in spades; each dish is a visual journey, and a flight of the senses. A dish of grated ginger formed into balls that are boiled with honey, and then coated with pine nuts is seemingly simple, but each component plays a vital role in the overall impression left on the diner.

Elegance in Roh’s hands is not about opulence or a Baroque sense of grandeur. There is no glut of indulgent, decadent ingredients competing with one another’s richness. It’s a pared down elegance. Roh spent time in Japan learning about tea, as well as studying Korean and Italian cuisines to help shape her culinary style. She has an awareness of Japanese tea ceremonies and the hospitality and ritual of the ceremony come together in the respectful hush of the restaurant. It has a muted, whispered sense of expectation, as though it, and its diners, are preparing themselves for what’s coming.