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[Herald Interview] Owner-chef of Michelin Green Star restaurant values mindful ingredients

Owner-chef Yoon Tae-hyeon of Hwanggeum Kongbat (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Owner-chef Yoon Tae-hyeon of Hwanggeum Kongbat (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
It took becoming a chef for Yoon Tae-hyeon to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a playwright.

“My tofu plays Romeo, and rice wine Juliet. The side dishes play the role of supporting actors creating the overall mood, while the main dish comes out as the lead character of an epic drama, called the Hwanggeum Kongbat,” said Yoon, who is the owner-chef of Hwanggeum Kongbat, a Michelin Green Star restaurant that offers some 20 different tofu dishes.

Yoon, now in his 50s, had given up on his career as a playwright close to a decade ago, but did not give up his passion for trying what he loved to do.

Opened in 2013, Hwanggeum Kongbat is located in a small alley in Ahyeon-dong, northern Seoul, next to an urban redevelopment zone. There are not many restaurants in the area as most of the houses have been demolished to make way for new apartments.

“Experimenting with all types of ingredients to make different food is what I do, including these bread,“ said Yoon, who was having some bread and tea with his acquaintances. Sporting knitted arm warmers, Yoon explained the sleeves are an essential item for tofu makers who suffer arm pain from pressing and stirring beans.

Although Yoon’s restaurant specializes in tofu, he said he does not want to be a “master craftsman” of any particular dish. 

”Instead, I want to be known as someone who has the ability to find the best and fresh ingredients from around the country,” he said.

To find the best ingredients, he often travels far and wide to rural areas -- a hobby he has kept since childhood. Born in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, Yoon had a basic understanding of agriculture and the way of life in rural areas. He picks all the produce on site and deals directly with the producers.

A typical menu served at Hwanggeum Kongbat (Hwanggeum Kongbat)
A typical menu served at Hwanggeum Kongbat (Hwanggeum Kongbat)
“The moments I treasure the most are when visiting local farms, talking to the farmers and the fishermen to find mindful ingredients and unique regional cooking methods,” Yoon said.

After a busy week, Yoon does not forget to deliver leftover pureed soybeans collected from making tofu, to the farms in Yeoju or Icheon in Gyeonggi Province, to be used as fodder.

The practice has earned Yoon’s Hwanggeum Kongbat the Michelin Green Star for two years running. Green Star is a sustainability award that recognizes restaurants that employ sustainable practices, upholding both ethical and environmental standards.

“Although I thank Michelin for giving us the Green Star, it’s not a value to be specially honored. Thinking of how the food chain can serve and feed lives in a healthy manner is a duty that I think we all can take on, whether consumers or providers,” Yoon said.

Entrance of Hwanggeum Kongbat (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Entrance of Hwanggeum Kongbat (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Yoon’s eatery has also been selected as a Bib Gourmand restaurant, a Michelin recognition for good value and good quality, for five consecutive years starting from 2018.

But despite the accolades, Yoon wants new customers to know that it is still a humble restaurant.

The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week.

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)
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