For Kim Byoung-jin, chief executive chef of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Gaon, 2023 will be a new year like no other. It will be his first year outside the kitchen.
After 20 years of raising Korean fine dining to a new level, one of the most famous Korean “haute cuisine” restaurants Gaon is closing Jan. 1, albeit temporarily, for reorganization. Kim, who is also the president of the Gaon Society, which operates a number of fine dining restaurant brands in Korea, will also take time off to focus on what he can do to prepare for the future of Korean “haute cuisine.”
“Trends change with time. Although Gaon started out as the most traditional of all high-end Korean food restaurants, I thought we needed to catch up with the trend to cater to the changing tastes of our customers. So we will be taking time off to reorganize our business but also look to remember our beginnings,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Dec. 21.
Gaon is the country’s only restaurant to have won three Michelin stars for seven consecutive years, since the world's best known gourmet guidebook began reviewing the dining scene here. So even though it is only for the time being, putting a halt to everything I have been doing for the past decades was not easy, Kim admitted.
“Of course, being recognized as a Michelin-starred restaurant was not my ultimate goal in life. But one thing, for sure, is that receiving Michelin stars did help Gaon promote high-end Korean cuisine. I believe the pros outweighed the cons in being a Michelin-starred restaurant,” Kim said.
When asked about his future plans, Kim excitedly shared some of his ideas.
“I have to admit I have turned down many meal kit-related meetings and offers. But I have witnessed the change in the tastes and interests our target customers. Not many people even do gimjang, preferring to order a pack of kimchi. It became clear to me to think differently to really cater to what customers would like to see from Gaon,” said Kim.
Starting Nov. 30, Gaon’s signature menu charcoal grilled pork -- Maekjeok Gui -- is being sold through e-commerce platform Market Kurly. The 23,900 won-meal kit is a result of numerous trials and errors -- the goal was to maintain Gaon’s philosophy on Korean food but also make cooking easy, even for outdoor cooking, Kim said.
Kim used Iberico chuck roll marinated with Korean pear juice and soybean paste sauce. The sauce is just as it is done at the restaurant.
“Our very first meal kit has everything we could put under the goal of offering what Gaon has achieved in the kitchen. I’m sure that Gaon will continue to contribute to Korean society’s food and beverage culture through our meal kit projects,” said Kim, adding that the pandemic has literally fueled the market for easy-to-cook home meal replacement (HMR) products.
“Simply put, I also wanted to show what Gaon, as a brand, can do. Why can’t Korean fine dining do easy-to-cook meals? What can Gaon do in the middle of the shifting paradigm of consumers in modern society?” Kim asked.
For Kim, cooking a traditional Korean menu means keeping authenticity at the core.
“For the first five years or so, we tried only using local ingredients for our menu because we wanted to clearly show what traditional Korean food is. Because Gaon is a Korean restaurant, all flatware was changed to chopsticks and a spoon, even the menu was only written in Korean language. That’s why several years later when I introduced new ingredients, like truffle and caviar on the menu, I was little afraid of how customers would perceive such a change,” Kim said.
“I’ve always told my staff that I really want to make Gaon a place that is more like an F&B research lab. That mindset has really shaped me into a chef who focuses on craftsmanship while cooking. You know, a master craftsman cannot be replaced with someone else,” he added.
For next year, Kim will visit small and lesser-known restaurants around the world to expand his horizon.
“Until now, I would visit a restaurant and look for something to benchmark. But then I would come back with learning just a little. So without thinking about the ‘purpose’ of the visit, I will think about just going to places I feel like, and enjoying the food and the atmosphere that capture people’s hearts,” said Kim.