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