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[SAVOR KOREA (5)] Bringing something new to the table


Surrounded by video cameras, Lee Hong-chul fielded questions with a certain ease.
Despite the fact that he was in the middle of the final round of a cooking competition, a competition that he and his team would go on to win, he showed no signs of tension.
Later on, when asked how he felt when he discovered that his team, Star Chef, had won the Young Creative Korean Culinary Competition`s Team Haute Cuisine Challenge, he answered: "I was bowled over."
The competition, a part of a five-day food festival called Amazing Korean Table, took place on Oct. 30 at the Korea House.
Four Korean judges and world-class chefs Pierre Gagnaire, Corey Lee, Luke Dale-Roberts and Massimo Bottura tasted the dishes of six teams before awarding team Star Chef the top prize: an apprenticeship at one of three-Michelin star chef Pierre Gagnaire`s restaurants or at former French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee`s new restaurant.
The menu that nabbed Star Chef their prize featured a series of dishes that maintained their Korean identity while drawing from global culinary influences. Yuzu-infused gochujang sauce, ginseng fried in sticky rice powder, rice dumplings filled with bokbunja jam and a magical un-melting ice cream highlighted their inventive spirit.
Lee, the team`s supervisor, was a leading force behind the menu. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the 32-year old was honing his hansik skills at Sookmyung Women`s University Korean Food Institute`s Star Chef Curriculum - a program sponsored by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries - when he and fellow curriculum peers Yi Heung-mo, Song Bo-ra and Ha Yu-gyeong decided to enter the competition.
"I really wanted to know if other people would embrace and understand my ideas," Lee revealed one of the reasons behind why he competed.
Ideas, Lee has in spades.
For the appetizer, he initially considered three dishes before deciding to push for a twist on samgyetang. One was a nengmyun that incorporated molecular gastronomy.
"The noodles for the nengmyun would be made out of the broth," he explained before launching into how exactly he would achieve the task of turning liquid into jelly-like noodles, mentioning calcium reactions and the use of a syringe.
When asked about his take on the use of non-indigenous culinary methods like molecular gastronomy and his stance on the issue of a traditional versus a more open approach towards hansik in regards to its promotion abroad, he answered: "Food is not just about the chef. It is about the diner."
For Lee, domestic as well as foreign consumers need to be taken into consideration and other culinary methods can be used as long as the identity of the cuisine is not lost in the process.
His team`s menu seems to follow this philosophy. The incorporation of doenjang in ratatouille and a persimmon chutney into their fish dish serves as a prime example of how other culinary methods can complement rather than detract from a Korean dish.
Their dessert is another example of how stepping outside the frame of tradition can take a dish to new heights.
Song Bo-ra and Ha Yu-gyeong, both of whom sport a background in Korean cuisine, painstakingly crafted tuille out of thin handmade hangwa (traditional Korean sweets) and filled sticky rice dumplings with bokbunja jam. Lee came up with the idea for an un-melting ice cream made with milk, cream, homemade pear jam and makgeolli and for an omija punch. Yi Heung-mo, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Canada, made the ice cream.
Though the overall menu was tailored to suit foreigners` palates, Lee himself also thought about the palates of young Korean diners.
"Right now, young Koreans, who are the main consumers, do not even eat it, so how can we tell foreigners to eat it?"
In Lee`s opinion, it is hard to find slightly more casual and lower-priced hansik restaurants for people to go to on dates or with guests.
"So, although the globalization of hansik is a form of globalization, first we need to eat it ourselves," he said. "If we eat it often, then diverse ideas, what I mean is, lots of demands will arise ... `I would like it like this or like that.` Comments like that will lead to more commentary. The people who make it will try this and that, leading to diverse attempts. So, initially, through this, globalization will happen, step by step."
Lee believes that pushing for one item will not be as effective as promoting Korean cuisine, its culinary culture included, as a whole. For an example, Lee turned to Japanese cuisine.
"Japanese food has been globalized," he explained.
According to Lee, Japanese food is generally served on Japanese dishes and eaten with chopsticks, a model for how an entire culinary culture can go abroad.
"It has to be like that. In order to do that, I think there needs to be diverse experimentation and lots of things have to go abroad together," he said.
Lee through his involvement in the Star Chef Curriculum and in the competition has not only explored and experimented with Korean cuisine but has also presented his ideas to the culinary arena.
So what is next on his calendar?
Unfortunately, the team supervisor does not get to go on an apprenticeship. Not to worry; Lee has his own plans: to globalize hansik via menu development or consulting.

By Jean Oh