Chef

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.

Crave - - CONTENTS - Words Iris Wong

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

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