One-Star ‘Joo-ok’ Chef Defines Korean ‘Contemporary’ Cuisine

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Korean contemporary cuisine, modern Korean cuisine, new Korean cuisine. These terms are tossed around with increased frequency in the local dining scene these days. Take, for instance, ‘Jungsik’ by Chef Yim Jung-sik, ‘Mingles’ by Chef Kang Min-goo and ‘Joo Ok’ by Chef Shin Chang-ho, the trio of ‘Korean Contemporary’ Michelin-starred restaurants featured in the latest Michelin Guide Seoul.

At these fine-dining establishments, customers are served a multi-course meal of impeccably plated dishes that come with Western culinary jargons like consommé, emulsion, foam and purée. It often leads to dubious first impressions with customers wondering, ‘Is this really Korean?’ It all boils down to the question, ‘What constitutes modern Korean cuisine?’

Chef Shin Chang-ho at Joo-ok would say it is food inspired by his earliest taste memories made with ingredients that are most familiar to him, such as doenjang, ganjang, gochujang, and shikcho, the four fermented condiments you are guaranteed to find in every Korean household. Of course, he does utilize some of the more exotic ingredients like caviar and truffles, but he never strays too far from the context of hansik (Korean cuisine).

The seasons come and go and along with it, the menu at Joo-ok. Every day, Shin heads over to the markets to read the changing of the seasons. With a seasoned eye, Shin selects the produce in their peak season.

When he’s not shopping at the local markets, he visits JH’s Farm. Over and over, he tastes each sprig of herb, the leaves, the stalks, the roots, the bulbs. It is an exhausting but a necessary part of cooking for a chef. Flavor upon flavor. Idea upon idea. Tinkering upon tinkering – until a dish is born.

You may ask question the relevance of the fresh bread basket served with French butter mid-meal as well as the undeniably European sensibilities of the main dishes at Joo-ok. But appearances aside, the ‘modern hansik’ showcased at Joo-ok is a pretty accurate reflection of what Koreans are eating at home in the 21st century. Korea’s rice consumption has dropped to unprecedented levels in the past decade while the nation’s demand for baked goods has been on the rise. More and more Koreans are choosing simpler meals that consist of – say – sandwiches and pastas over the traditional rice, soup, and banchan spread. The strict parameters of what constitutes a proper meal doesn’t really exist anymore.

For better or for worse, food culture evolves with the times. And that is what Chef Shin and his contemporaries are doing. Contributing to that evolution the best way they know how by paying homage to what they love best.

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A display of house-made vinegars at Joo-ok

Congratulations on the selection of ‘Joo Ok’ as a Michelin-star restaurant in the 2018 Seoul guide. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news?

I was shopping at E-Mart. When I saw that e-mail, I froze. I remember asking myself over and over, ‘Is this for real? They’re giving us a star?’ I was so happy. I just stood there reading and re-reading the e-mail.

Were you hopeful that your restaurant might get a star?

Absolutely. But, hoping and actually getting one are two different things. I’d imagined in my head what it might feel like to get selected. It was nothing like I’d imagined.

How did you break the news to the team?

I told them the night before the Michelin ceremony. I poured everyone a glass of champagne and thanked them for their hard work. I’d promised them last year that if Joo Ok gets a star in the 2018 guide, I would fly them over to Japan and treat them to a 2-Michelin-star dinner at Florilège in Tokyo. I’m so happy I got to keep that promise.

Tell us how it all started. What made you decide to become a chef?

I was never what you’d call a motivated student. In my senior year of high school, I happened to watch an episode of a local food and travel show called ‘Global Kitchen.’ That did it for me. I wanted to cook and eat my way through the world. Even as a kid, I enjoyed cooking for other people. From that moment on, I buried myself in cookbooks. I loved it.

Was being a chef at all like what you had envisioned it to be in the beginning?

Until my mid-30s, I’d never cooked outside of Korea. At the time, chefs were really sensitive about deviating from the norm. I’d get yelled at for suggesting we use a little soy sauce in a French-inspired dish. I grew up eating things like rice and fried eggs with butter and soy sauce so I knew from experience that butter and soy sauce went really well together. But chefs wouldn’t have it. I eventually started tinkering with my own ideas, and I discovered that people liked the same things that I liked. That’s when I knew I was going to do my own thing regardless of what anybody says.

Enter, ‘Joo Ok.’

Absolutely. I remember asking myself as a kid, ‘What’s the point of doing the same exact thing everyone else is doing?’ When I opened ‘Joo Ok,’ I wanted to put myself on a plate. I knew that’s what my customers would want to eat.

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Local fleshy prawn from the west coast, four ways

 In a sentence, how would you describe your style of food?

Uncomplicated food made with love and care.

What kind of chef would you describe yourself to be?

I am not a gifted chef. What I am is a hardworking chef. I persevere. I am good at sourcing ingredients and getting the best price for it.

 One of the things people always say about ‘Joo Ok’ is its great value for money.

We are a small establishment. We are located in one of the most expensive parts of Seoul, but whatever little space we occupy happens to be the cheapest piece of real estate in the area, so rent is affordable. We use some of the best products out there, but in order to do so, we have to go get it ourselves. I go to Garak Wholesale Market and Gyeongdong Market every morning. That saves me 10% on food costs. I visit JH’s Farm to collect the vegetables and that saves me an extra 10%. I get seafood delivered directly from the local producers which is another 10% saved. You get the idea.

What do you look for at Gyeongdong Market?

All kinds of wild vegetables – both dry and fresh. Gyeongdong Market has more variety in terms of traditional local ingredients compared to Garak Market. It also carries many rare ingredients – Chinese yam seeds, for instance.

 Chefs talk about the importance of preserving the integrity of ingredients when they cook. It makes sense, in theory, but so much of what we eat these days is produced in a way that compromises the taste of ingredients as nature intended them to be. What are your thoughts on this dilemma?

I’ve been visiting JH’s Farm for the past two years and I am still learning every day. I stand by Mr. Lee’s strict adherence to pesticide-free, fertilizer-free and cultivator-free farming methods. He refuses to compromise because he cares about his products and his customers. The herbs and vegetables from his farm really are different. Seasonality is key. Beets simply taste better in winter. Before I tasted his beets, I’d never thought local beets were tasty. But his tasted amazing – so sweet – just like the ones I once had in a salad in Hong Kong. I realized more than ever the importance of eating seasonally. I’m not saying all organic produce taste better. Some don’t – and those I use as garnish or as secondary ingredients.

How often do you test new dishes?

We used to do it over a span of three weeks every season. But now we do it every chance we get. It’s easier that way. Every time we come up with something new, we serve it to customers – on the house – and try to get as much feedback as we can. Based on the feedback, we revise the recipes before putting it on the menu.

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Perilla oil, quail egg, turban shell, caviar, soy sauce

The signature dish at ‘Joo Ok’ is the perilla oil with seasonal seafood. I heard the oil you use is pressed from the perilla seeds grown and harvested by your mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law has a farm in Jinju in Gyeongsangnamdo Province. She grows all kinds of crops, including perilla. The first time I tried her perilla oil, I knew immediately I wanted to make a dish with it. The flavor just doesn’t compare to the mass-produced oils you find at supermarkets. It is really something special.

Perilla oil is a pantry staple in Korean kitchens, but it’s an ingredient that is virtually unknown outside of Korea.

True. Sesame oil is used everywhere, but perilla oil is considered exotic. When I was working at Nobu Miami, none of my colleagues knew what a perilla leaf was. Nobu kitchen is known for the sheer variety of Asian ingredients it uses, but even so, the chefs would mistake the perilla leaves for Japanese shiso leaves.

How did you come up with the idea of pairing perilla oil with seafood?

Inspirations often come from taste memory. For a Korean kid, the simple combination of rice with a fried sunny-side egg is a staple. But even this simple dish can be amped up with the help of a little soy sauce and grease like butter, sesame oil, or perilla oil. It’s delicious. From that memory, I paired a single quail egg with perilla oil and soy sauce. I wanted to add a little more ‘oomph’ in terms of seasoning and umami so I threw on some caviar. Some soy sauce-pickled onions gave the dish a little bite and acidity as well as a pleasant crunch. The dish still desired something, so I turned to seasonal seafood. I tried adding all kinds of seafood – lobster and cockles, even raw fish. I finally had my ‘eureka’ moment with the turban shell. The sweetness of the turban shell meat added a heightened dimension to the dish. I am still working on it, though; it’s one of those dishes that is constantly evolving.

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Chef Shin Chang-ho (left) at Nobu Miami

Nobu was your first experience cooking in a kitchen outside of Korea. What did you take away from the experience?

I found the creative freedom I’d always yearned for while working at Nobu. The restaurant is no longer considered ‘innovative’ compared to its heyday, but back then, it helped open my eyes to a bigger world. I loved how Nobu didn’t limit itself to a set genre. It’s inspired by Japanese cuisine, but it is not a Japanese restaurant. It offers flavors that are an amalgam of American, Asian, Peruvian and Brazilian influences. All I’d ever wanted was to step away from the rigid boundaries and rules, so I was really happy working there. Another important lesson I learned at Nobu was to use the best ingredients I can find – no exceptions.

Back to Joo Ok. You offer a bread basket mid-meal. Why bread?

There had to be a carb component and I decided to go with bread for the simple reason that I like bread. I took a baking course while preparing to open Joo Ok. Of all the things I learned how to bake, my favorite was the baguette. My instructor only used four ingredients to make the French staple – French flour, good-quality salt, yeast and water.  Some of these ingredients are not cheap, but they are worth paying for. Once you taste it, you understand why.

The main course includes ‘Iberian pork jumulleok.’ (‘Jumulleok’ is a Korean dish that consists of pieces of meat – originally beef – seasoned with ingredients such as salt, sugar, soy sauce, gochujang and sesame oil. ‘Jumureuda’ is a verb which means ‘to massage’ or ‘to squeeze’ by hand – a method commonly employed to season meat.) Why did you decide to use Iberian pork instead of using one of the local varieties of pig?

I had originally intended to use a local pig for the dish. I experimented with Jeju black pig, locally-raised Duroc, and Jirisan Berkshire K. None of them yielded the flavor nor the texture I had in mind. I use Iberian pork because it is the best option for this particular dish. No other pigs comes close.

I was working through my pork steak when the waiter brought over individual bowls of rice and a communal platter of jangajji (pickled herbs and vegetables). Have you always served rice and banchan with the main dishes?

It’s something we started doing recently. I always use some sort of fermented condiment in my cooking, be it soybean paste, chili paste or soy sauce. These traditional condiments are inherently salty, so I tried eating some of our main dishes with rice, and I thought they went really well together. The pickled herbs and vegetables mitigate the richness of the meat dishes. Koreans always eat meat with rice and banchan, so it’s not a strange concept. This is the kind of food I like.

Do you make all the pickles yourself?

Yes. We always have leftover vegetables and herbs lying around. Whatever we don’t use in cooking, we pickle – everything from the common wild chive and the highly seasonal red toon to the more exotic sweet basil.

What is your favorite food?

At the risk of sounding spoiled, I don’t even know what I like these days, because I eat way too much of everything. It comes with the job. I used to love meat as a kid, but now I prefer fish, preferably raw fish. I am obsessed with aged kimchi – the gloriously funky, extra-fermented kind. Go to any of the rural marketplaces run by old ladies and you’re guaranteed to find some. I love it so much.

 Do you make your own kimchi?

I do, but I never serve it to my customers. So many variables can make or break kimchi. It’s something I don’t have control over at this point in time, so I save it for myself and my staff.

Was there ever a moment when you gave yourself a pat on the back said, ‘I’m glad I decided to do this.’  

It was when Joo Ok received a Michelin star. My wife is a former chef too, and we wondered for the longest time if the Michelin Guide would ever Korea. So, when we got our very own star last year, it was like a dream come true. Everyone was so happy for us.

Is there any advice you would like to give young chefs and aspiring chefs out there?

Don’t rush into anything. For me, taking the longer route has been so rewarding. I look around and see young chefs eager to open their own business. I want to tell them to take every baby step that comes their way, because at the end of the day, it will make them a much better chef. Shortcuts aren’t always bad, but take it slow. You’ll reap the rewards one day.

 What are your resolutions for 2018?

Life is full of ups and downs. I’m currently in the middle of my ‘up’ but I want to be ready for the ‘downs’ as well. I just want to make better food for my customers. I want to improve whatever shortcomings we have as a small business and keep on growing.