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[Weekender] Celebrity chef eyes Korean-French fusion

For many Koreans, Leo Kang is a celebrity chef who gained overnight fame after appearing as a judge on food-focused cable channel Olive-TV’s culinary competition “Master Chef Korea.”

His straight-talking style, exemplary career and eye-catching looks helped put him on the map. But what matters more for him than being a celebrity is finding the true colors of his foods.

“I have tried to present the dishes that I imitated from world-famous chefs, but now I want my dishes to show my own colors,” Kang told The Korea Herald during an interview last week at a cafe in Namsangol Hanok Village, Seoul.

He was there to give a lecture to university students on the prospects for Korean food during Korean Food Week, organized by the Korean Food Foundation.

Kang, who started his cooking career at a five-star hotel dining room in Korea, moved to the U.K. in 1999 to learn about European cuisine at Westminster Kingsway College in London.
Chef Leo Kang(Korean Food Foundation)
Chef Leo Kang(Korean Food Foundation)

Shortly after graduation, Kang worked at Michelin-starred restaurants owned by internationally renowned chefs Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Gagnaire and Pierre Koffmann. He reached the peak of his career when he was named head chef at the Dubai branch of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2004.

The 38-year-old chef, however, felt that something was still missing in his dishes ― his own style.

Determined to add his own identity to his dishes, he returned to Korea in 2007 seeking a new taste, flavor and inspiration.

Back in his home country, he has seen new possibilities for Korean fusion food, or what he calls “modern Korean food.”

He thought that blending Korean flavors with the Western cooking techniques and modern plating style he learned in London could make his dishes unique.

“Fusion food is too underestimated, because nobody does it properly,” Kang said. “To fuse one cuisine with another, a chef needs a deep understanding of both cuisines.”

The Western-educated chef thus decided to learn how to cook authentic Korean food from Han Bok-ryeo, a specialist in Korean royal court cuisine.

After four years of intensive training under Han, the ambitious chef is gearing up to open his own Korean-French fusion restaurant in Korea. The exact date has yet to be decided.

When it comes to globalizing Korean food, Kang thinks that localization may be the answer.

Now, Korean food is going worldwide with the help of a group of international chefs eager to discover a new taste. For them, there are no more surprises in Japanese or Thai cuisine. But the authentic flavors of Korean food can scare newbies away, he said.

“Traditional foods such as long-matured kimchi or soybean paste smell too much for Europeans to embrace. At first, we need to give them what they are familiar with,” Kang said.

“Why not make bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) with lamb?”

By Ock Hyun-ju (