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Veggie meisters play link for produce

Korea’s first accredited vegetable sommelier pushes the profession to the fore


When Ludwig Andereas Feuerbach proclaimed “man is what he eats” in his 1863 essay on spiritualism and materialism, he did not mean it to be taken literally.

He meant that the food one eats has a bearing on one’s state of mind and health.

Kim Eun-kyung, Korea’s first accredited vegetable sommelier, takes it literally. “I can’t agree more. You are in fact what you eat, so to stay healthy, you need to eat in a healthy way,” she told The Korea Herald.

The 44-year-old vegetable expert was the first “meister” to be certified by the Tokyo-based Japan Vegetable & Fruit Meister Association ― the world’s sole firm to issue accreditation for vegetable and fruit experts.

Before she went to Japan to find culinary secrets about vegetables and fruits, she worked as a food consultant for 17 years. She hwanted to expand her expertise further from cooking “tasty” to “healthy” food.

Once in Japan, Kim started from scratch ― securing the “right” ingredients. She visited crop producing farms and learned a whole range of agricultural techniques from seed cultivation to harvest. It was all for the development of a “healthy” way of cooking to maximize vegetables’ nutritional value and taste.

“Healthy cooking begins with the choice of healthy ingredients, and to do so, you need to have a general understanding and knowledge about ingredients, that is why I left 17 years of cooking experience and started with the basics.”

A vegetable sommelier is formally known as a “vegetable and fruit meister,” but usually called a “veggie sommelier” because his or her functions are similar to those of wine sommeliers who recommend the best “marriage” of wine and food on the table.

“Vegetable sommeliers do similar things, they recommend the healthiest way of cooking vegetables.”

Japanese media first coined the term “vegetable and fruit sommelier” for a person who has expertise in both, and helps consumers understand the intricacies of selection, storage, preparation, and nutritional value.

“Once you are accredited as a junior vegetable sommelier, you first learn about the distribution structure and types of produce.”

Kim says that vegetable sommeliers play crucial roles in today’s food industry. “We provide vegetable information to consumers, while helping out producers on the other hand. In short, we are sort of an axis linking the two.”

Vegetable sommeliers also gain knowledge about vegetable types and processes, as well as how to purchase, store and harvest. Their job is not only to recommend the best vegetables and fruits for consumers, but give feedback from consumers to producers, she said.

After Kim came back, she launched the Korea Vegetable Sommelier Association in 2009. She benchmarked the association of vegetable sommeliers in Japan. She believed that the rising demand for “well-being” lifestyles in Korea would help.

But some critics in Korea questioned the necessity of the term “vegetable sommelier,” pointing out that the basic function is no different from that for housewives.

“I agree on some points, but, not all housewives are aware of the details of vegetables. They are likely to have a vague understanding of cooking ‘healthy’ and choosing the right vegetables for the tables.”

Kim says vegetable sommeliers’ key role is to help customers, mostly housewives, appreciate and know the healthiest way of choosing and cooking vegetables at home. Encouraging children to eat vegetables is one of their roles.

“In the markets of the past, consumers could obtain information directly from producers, asking them on the spot. However, as today’s markets are becoming self-chosen, they have no expert to consult with when they purchase groceries, and that’s where vegetable sommeliers need to take up the role.”

She says that consumers today have little knowledge to distinguish organic from non-organic vegetables. In that case, vegetable sommeliers can be of help.
Kim Eun-kyung, Korea’s first accredited vegetable sommelier and president of the Korea Vegetable Sommelier Association, explains types of paprika at her cooking studio in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Kim Eun-kyung, Korea’s first accredited vegetable sommelier and president of the Korea Vegetable Sommelier Association, explains types of paprika at her cooking studio in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“The more we know, the wider variety of choices we can have as consumers. In a vast pool of knowledge about food products, they just enjoy more various choices as producers sell more items to meet their demands.”

“Sommeliers as a linchpin between vegetable consumers and producers are of help toward developing the nation’s agricultural industry.”

Vegetable or fruit farms and food companies face sluggish sales in a rapidly changing environment, and Kim sees a solution to their survival and growth in trained or certified vegetable sommeliers.

In Korean markets, there are only a handful of choices for a product, but according to Kim, in Japan or many other western countries, the markets offer more than five choices in a single product category.

“The problem here is that consumers do not pick from too diverse choices, just because they are not aware of it. They don’t know how to cook with it, and furthermore, they aren’t even aware of what it is.”

She says vegetable sommeliers are not necessarily going to “prod” consumers into going organic.

“Rather, we inform customers of a way of consuming veggies in the healthiest possible way. We try to come up with the best way to cook, eliminate, and mend the ingredients, to maximize its effects.”

Kim says that a healthy start to a menu comes from eating more often at home. “Some people say women should be liberated from the kitchen, but that’s not true. Cooking at home is an extremely important job as it is investing in families’ future, and health. There is a reason why wives are called the ‘home doctors.’”

The vegetable sommelier, however, says she is no vegetarian. “I would choose meat over vegetables,” she said.

Kim says her preference does not indicate that she necessarily consumes more meat than vegetables. “We need to keep the golden rules even on the table. The meat to vegetable ratio should be 2:8, although modern tables do exactly the opposite.”

However, eating only vegetables is dangerous. “Vegetables are just a supplement. For example, when you are consuming anchovies and you want to let calcium remain in your body, you need to consume it with spinach which contains potassium that holds calcium within the body.”

“Vegetables and fruits are sort of a cogwheel on the table, you just can’t do without them.”

To serve as the nation’s first vegetable sommelier missionary, and the chairman of the Korean vegetable & fruits sommeliers’ group, she appears on regular radio and TV broadcasting as often as possible, writes food columns for magazines, works on her vegetable cook books, trains aspiring vegetable sommeliers, and researches and develops new cooking methods and recipes with seasonal fruits and vegetables.

That’s all to enhance the taste and the nutritional value of every vegetable. She also runs her own home made cooking class called “Cookingnoah.”

She is an advisor for franchise restaurants regarding the choice of the best salad bar menus for the Seven Springs family restaurants and the development of the best vegetable recipes for projects like Nonghyup’s 365 vegetable and fruit movement.

“I have so much to achieve, as I am here to replicate the success of Japanese vegetable and fruit meisters in Korea, my goal is to make vegetable sommeliers take hold in Korea and to earn credibility from both consumers and producers of vegetables.”

“I wish to see changes on Koreans’ dining tables again, for them to eat healthy. I want to help.”

By Hwang Jurie (jurie777@heraldcorp.com)
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