Ryu­nique’s Tae Hwan Ryu on the art of plat­ing, the scarcity of Korean fine-din­ing and the im­por­tance of sourc­ing lo­cally.

Crave - - TABLE OF CONTETS - Words Tif­fany Chan

Chef Tae Hwan Ryu cap­tures the essence of mod­ern Korea at Ryu­nique, his fine­din­ing restau­rant in Seoul

There aren’t many Korean chefs in the world of fine-din­ing. Chef Tae Hwan Ryu, the man be­hind Ryu­nique in Seoul – placed on San Pel­le­grino’s Asia’s and World’s Best Restau­rants lists within three years of open­ing – is per­haps one of the most well-known.

He wasn’t al­ways a chef, how­ever. Un­til he was 22 years old, he’d wanted to be an artist. But then his father en­cour­aged him to change his mind and be­come a chef, some­thing his dad had wanted to do him­self. An oceanog­ra­pher, his father was a metic­u­lous, an­a­lyt­i­cal man, who feared his son would live a hard life as an artist, and so steered him to­wards the kitchen.

“He felt a chef ’s life would be a good and mean­ing­ful one,” Tae says. “I just knew [I] was pas­sion­ate about want­ing to cre­ate some­thing.”

The young Korean chef trained all over the world – five years in Ja­pan, one in Aus­tralia and two years with Gor­don Ramsay, in Bri­tain. In Ja­pan, he learned the art of pre­ci­sion. In the Bri­tain, he “felt like a cook­ing ma­chine” and de­vel­oped “an in­her­ent kind of fear in cook­ing and ob­ses­sion with per­fec­tion”. In Aus­tralia, he learned to take ad­van­tage of in­gre­di­ents in their raw forms, es­pe­cially seafood.

His trav­els cul­mi­nated in a style that is French in pre­sen­ta­tion, Ja­panese in tech­nique, but Korean in essence – what he calls “hy­brid cui­sine”. He opened Ryu­nique, a hand­some but un­pre­ten­tious restau­rant with only five ta­bles serv­ing only one tast­ing menu in the af­flu­ent Gang­nam neigh­bour­hood of Seoul, in 2011. At the time, there weren’t many Korean chefs in fine-din­ing, and even fewer plat­ing Korean dishes, as it’s not con­sid­ered a “fine” cui­sine. In 2016, Tae opened his sec­ond ven­ture, the iron­i­cally named Bistro Nor­mal in Sinsa-dong, Seoul. A de­cid­edly more ca­sual restau­rant, the menu show­cases his orig­i­nal­ity and fi­nesse, but of­fers an a la carte menu as well as a tast­ing menu at less ex­trav­a­gant costs.

It had taken him a decade to “be­come a true chef” and one of the best known in Korea, Tae says, yet the artist in him is un­mis­tak­able. It’s ev­i­dent in his choice of plates, each a hand­picked can­vas on which to carry his art, and the ar­range­ment of his food, all po­si­tioned just so. Each dish that comes off the pass is ex­quis­ite, re­fined, but also re­strained.

His sig­na­ture amuse-bouche takes the form of a kim­chi drag­on­fly served on a peb­ble. The body is shaped from ch­est­nut purée and kim­chi salad, the tail is crispy potato and the head is crafted from kim­chi purée, with dol­lops of hot pep­per gum for eyes. The del­i­cate wings are dried kim­chi leaves. But even in art, pre­sen­ta­tion is not ev­ery­thing.

“It is some­times said that overly ‘pretty’ plat­ing means taste­less food. Plat­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion are im­por­tant, but har­mony of taste is also vi­tal,” Tae says. “I like my dishes to look com­pli­cated, but in essence, be sim­ple. I like min­i­mal­ism and pu­rity, and for each el­e­ment of the dish to be vis­i­ble. I hope to fo­cus on the beauty of empti­ness, while also em­pha­sis­ing the most im­por­tant tastes.”

His dishes trans­form and evolve with the sea­sons, in­formed by local pro­duce and in­spired by the na­ture and land­scapes that sur­round him. “Cook­ing can be seen as close to art. We learn and re­spect meth­ods from our pre­de­ces­sors, and use na­ture and the sea­sons as our in­spi­ra­tion and foun­da­tion,” he says.

But each dish is more than a prod­uct of in­spi­ra­tion and artis­tic flair; every el­e­ment is ex­ten­sively re­searched and re­fined.

“All dishes, al­though be­gin­ning with a sense of in­tu­ition and sim­plic­ity, re­quire a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of many prin­ci­ples and pro­cesses. I grew up wit­ness­ing [my father’s] thor­ough and metic­u­lous study­ing and seem to have in­her­ited both my stub­born­ness and a cer­tain way of an­a­lyt­i­cal think­ing from him,” the chef says.

“With my re­search team, I meet farm­ers and food pro­duc­ers to learn about and dis­cover new in­gre­di­ents. This al­lows me to un­der­stand where ev­ery­thing I cook has come from, and to bet­ter max­imise the dish’s po­ten­tial. Al­though the re­sult may look sim­ple, the process is very com­pli­cated.”

Quail is the cen­tre­piece of many of his dishes, de­pend­ing on the sea­son. In the last four years, he’s made five sea­sonal changes to his quail dish. To cel­e­brate Lu­nar New Year, he cooked gar­lic-fed quail over char­coal with 10 types of local grains, and potato and gin­seng purée. In sum­mer, he makes a ren­di­tion of sam­gyetang (gin­seng chicken soup), us­ing quail and gin­seng con­fit wrapped in mus­tard leaves and served in quail-bone broth.

For the chef, all of his dishes – as pretty as they are and as un-korean as they seem – cap­ture the soul of Korea. But this doesn’t take the form of fiery gochuchang or piles of kim­chi. Rather, it is in the de­tails: in the in­gre­di­ents he per­son­ally hunts, picks and for­ages.

“I want to com­mu­ni­cate ideas about the Korean land­scape, the penin­sula’s sea­sonal weather and cli­mate, po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions, even the econ­omy. I was born and bred in Korea. All of my in­spi­ra­tion and ideas come from my en­vi­ron­ment.”

Part of his work is to meet local farm­ers and pro­duc­ers to cre­ate long-last­ing, sus­tain­able re­la­tion­ships. On the menu this sum­mer was fresh­wa­ter eel fed on berries grown in Korea, and known to have 80 per cent more omega-3 than most fish. His pork is Korean, fed on ap­ples and beloved for its dis­tinct taste. His quails feed on gar­lic, and are ab­nor­mally but nat­u­rally large, and “fan­tas­ti­cally juicy”, he says.

“Once I drove al­most 1,500 km in one day around the Korean penin­sula. Re­search is ab­so­lutely one of the most im­por­tant things to me.”

Clock­wise from top left: Kim­chi Drag­on­fly; The Quail 2; The Quail “New Era” 2017

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