Culinary stardom wasn’t part of chef Edward Kwon’s career plan, but he’s using his unexpected celebrity to make a kitchen career respected in his native South Korea, and to introduce the world to traditional Korean cuisine.
Meet South Korean celebrity chef Edward Kwon, who ditched priesthood for the pan
Many chefs tell you their aspiration to cook professionally started early, often after watching a mother figure whipping up their favourite childhood dish. But not Edward Kwon. The Jamie Oliver of South Korea – whose youthful, camera-ready face has appeared on CNN’S Culinary Journeys, TV dramas and cooking shows such as Cheongdamdong Alice and Yes Chef – started working in a kitchen because it paid US$20 more than his server job at the same restaurant. “At that time, $20 was not small money,” he says. “A music CD was around $1.50, so we’re talking more than 10 CDS there. That was a lot of money for me, so I didn’t hesitate to switch jobs.”
Not only did Kwon not expect to be a chef (“When I was in middle school, I made tteokbokki for my sister. She hated it. Took one bite, slammed down her chopsticks and said it was garbage”), he wanted to become a priest. That news didn’t go down too well with his family.
“I was the only son, so if I became a priest, the generations would be disconnected, and my grandmother was so, so worried,” he says. After giving up his plans for the priesthood, he went through a phase as a delinquent teenager, then moved to Seoul to work at a restaurant. He eventually went to culinary school, where he discovered his passion for the culinary arts, especially French cooking. Kwon honed his craft at luxury hotels in Seoul
(The Ritz-carlton Seoul and W Hotel Seoulwalkerhill), San Francisco (The Ritz-carlton Half Moon Bay), and most notably, Burj Al Arab in Dubai, where his TV career took off. “I was the head chef at Burj Al Arab, and back then, Dubai was just opening up to the world. It’s one of the most expensive hotels in the world. I guess because I was a Korean guy who’s not old and worked at a seven-star hotel, the media thought that would make a good story. I started appearing on the news and in documentaries… there were crews filming how I cooked and lived at the hotel. It became a hit,” Kwon recalls.
Perhaps South Korea’s first globally recognised celebrity chef, Kwon’s presence in the international culinary scene may have kick-started changes in how Koreans, especially from the older generation, perceive those who want to pursue a culinary career. “One of the reasons I came back [to Seoul] was because I wanted people to look at us differently,” Kwon explains. “Working in the kitchen in Korea was not a respected job, as compared to, say, in Europe or in the US. Chefs are not just workers in the kitchen. The word ‘chef’ has a connotation of leadership and I want people in the industry to be acknowledged and respected.”
It was following his move back to Seoul, in 2009, that he decided rather than localising Korean cuisine
abroad and fusing it with local products and recipes, it should be kept traditional and globalised. Frowning, Kwon says, “In Korea now we live in modern houses and wear Westernised clothing. Koreans don’t even wear hanbok (traditional Korean dress) anymore, nor do they live the traditional way. The only thing that remains unchanged from our original culture is our food. I want it to make an impact.”
Thus began his quest to globalise Korean cuisine, one dish at a time. Despite being French-trained, Kwon always makes Korean food when he travels to other countries for gala dinners, collaborations and pop-ups.
“Right now, Korean cuisine is like water in a kettle, slowly bubbling. Within five years, Korean food will be bigger than ever. A lot of chefs overseas have shown interest in Korean products, such as sauces and condiments for fermentation and barbecue. When I went to Mongolia for a TV shoot and I went to the local markets, I was shocked to see so many Korean products. Hallyu [the Korean Wave] has definitely hit with all the TV drama and music, and that has also had an impact on people’s interest in Korean food.” Last November, he opened Elements by Edward
Kwon and relocated LAB XXIV into uber-chic hotel Le Méridien Seoul, returning to the kitchen he first worked in 23 years ago, when the property was The Ritz-carlton Seoul. LAB XXIV, a “24-hour laboratory” for Kwon and his team to experiment with new dishes, serves a French-focused nine-course dinner menu. Notable dishes include seared scallop with Korean parsley oil and Jerusalem artichoke purée, lobster with red curry beurre blanc, and refreshing iced persimmon. At Elements, the Asian fusion restaurant is split into three areas: a sushi counter offering an omakase-style menu, two Korean barbecue rooms and a main dining area for contemporary Asian dining. Its Japanese, Thai and Korean fare includes the famous ganjanggejang (crab marinated in soy sauce) prepared to a traditional recipe.
Apart from his plans to open a new restaurant in Shenzhen (“Hong Kong is way too expensive!”), Kwon is also one of the top chefs enlisted to prepare special dishes to be served in restaurants at this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. It looks like he is another step closer to his mission to globalise Korean cuisine.
Clockwise from top left: Lobster with red curry beurre blanc; LAB XXIV amuse bouche; LAB Xxivstyle mont blanc