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.
Words Iris Wong
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 91, February/March 2018
Many chefs tell you their aspirations 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 you 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 Seoul – Walkerhill), 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 at 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 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 acknowledge 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 the 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 to 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 ganging, gejang (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.
|My Favourite Things with
1. Favourite Korean dish?
My favourite Korean dish is tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes. Some people don’t like tteokbokki’s texture but I love it. It’s very simple to make, cheap to buy, easy to find and has a unique sweet and spicy taste.
2. What makes a good chef?
Being a good cook and being a good chef are not the same thing. It’s easy to find a good cook, but a good chef is like an orchestra conductor. A good chef needs to be fully engaged in a business mindset. He or she has to think about numbers, costs, human relationships – every aspect of the cooking business process is important and should be respected.
3. One culinary tip?
Use the right amount of salt and the right oils. While respect for each ingredient is very important, knowing how to use salt is vital. Salt is in everything and those countries that use less salt still have substitutes – the Japanese wrap foods with seaweed, for example. Oils are also important. At LAB XXIV we infuse our dishes with different oils depending on the flavour we want to achieve.
4. Favourite restaurants in Seoul?
Ryunique by chef Tae Hwan – Ryu, and the traditional Korean BBQ restaurant Young Chen Young Hwa – it serves excellent quality beef at value for money.
5. Go – to dish to cook at home?
Kimchi stew – this is a typical Korean answer. All I need to enjoy a meal is kimchi and rice. Kimchi to Korean food is what potatoes and butter are to French food. Without kimchi, there is no Korean cuisine.
6. When you’re not cooking, you are…
Car racing! I don’t drink, so for stress relief I head over to Inje, in east Korea, and spend time on the racing track. There’s a racing community there.
7. Favourite ingredient to work with?
Meat. I love beef and so do most Koreans. We love chicken, beef and pork in Korea. Ninety – five per cent of my customers order beef if there is a choice. I always say, if you want to know the level of a restaurant’s cooking, order the fish. Fish is very delicate but meat is far more approachable ingredient.
8. Advice for aspiring young chefs?
Always focus on what you do. Lots of young people want to be famous, want to be a top chef or want a shortcut to success. I want to emphasise the importance of looking back at what you’ve done at what you’re currently doing. Competition is high. You need to focus on yourself. Put in the effort and focus on your time management.