What/Who inspired you to become a chef?
This is a difficult question! When I was young, I actually wanted to be a priest. I come from a religious family, and was the only male grandchild. When my grandmother found out I wanted to be a priest, she was distraught. It meant the end of our family line! I gave up that dream for this reason. I lost my path for a while, and became a server in a small, local restaurant. I took the opportunity to work in their kitchen because it paid $20 more a month. With $20 at that time in Korea, you could by ten CDs! Working in the kitchen inspired me to attend hotel culinary school after my military service. The rest, they say, is history!
What is your culinary philosophy?
Respect. Always respect the ingredients, respect customers, and respect colleagues. If respect at the restaurant is not present, guests will feel it. Dishes are a way of communicating between chef and customer. Every single step of its preparation and service should be respected.
What does the ‘art of plating’ mean to you?
I think a chef is a combination of a technician and an artist. In Korea, there is a saying that, directly translated, means ‘If you look at the food beautifully, then it will taste beautiful.’ Having a great first impression of a dish raises your expectations. This is true not just for plating, but for the restaurant interior, the attitude of the servers, everything. The art of plating is one part of the restaurant experience.
How do you try to translate your philosophy onto the plate?
I always focus on telling the story of the food. I want my food to be both beautifully presented, but also have meaning. Beauty on its own is not interesting. All of my dishes contain four elements – saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and sourness. Added to this, is texture. Each ingredient is selected for a purpose. It is the server’s job to explain why we use this ingredient or that ingredient, or why the dish has been presented in such a way. This helps each customer to truly understand the philosophy behind the dish.
Can you explain to us how the creative journey of your dishes begin?
The first step is going to the market to source seasonal products. The creative journey actually starts with me looking at what is accessible, what has value, and what will be approachable for guests. I put all factors together like a puzzle. Once I have an idea for a dish that satisfies these conditions, I check that it hasn’t been offered elsewhere. Then I push ahead with its creation.
Although creativity is important, I also believe that it is my job to help establish a thriving food culture. There must be a demand, and this comes from offering food that is accessible for customers. Even at a five-star hotel, my lunch course starts at $45. Sometimes students come to my restaurant with their laptops to take notes on my new menu. It feels good to be contributing to the market. It shows growth. It helps create value.
Do you have a particular dish that was a favourite to create?
I have a love-hate relationship with my truffle soup. I’ve wanted to take it out from the menu several times but received too many objections! I guess my strongest point is also my weakest point. We chefs have to give the customers what they want. It makes me happy and sad at the same time!
What would you say has been the most memorable moment in your culinary career so far?
For me, every single moment is memorable. A lot of chefs will agree. We live in hell and heaven. Every single meal period, one customer will take to you heaven, and another customer will take you to hell. If you enjoy challenge or a thrill, adrenaline, risk, being a chef is the perfect job! Any one weak link can ruin everything.
Is there a dish of another chef that you feel is iconic and why?
It’s not a dish, but one of the most memorable meals of my life was at a small, local Iranian restaurant in Dubai, in the Emirates mall. I can’t remember the name. I ordered the mezze, and it came with free pitta bread. I was so blown away, that I kept ordering more of this free bread to eat with it. I must have had ten pittas. I was full before my main course. I could see the look on the server’s face – “What is this small Asian guy eating all this bread for??” I don’t think they were happy!
Whose restaurant would you most like to eat at and why?
I would love to revisit Guy Savoy in Paris. I ate there in 2002 and 2006. It was the best French restaurant experience I’ve ever had. I cannot really describe it. I had the duck dish with orange sauce reduction, and it was incredible. The skin was perfectly cooked, and the meat just amazingly juicy. I’ve eaten at many Peking duck restaurants in China, but this was incomparable. I could eat it every single day.