5 Guys, a Cafe and Joie de Vivre

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5 Guys, a Cafe and Joie de Vivre

Those who love the novel "The Little Prince" may know that the shortened "Le Saint-Ex" is a reference to the book's famous French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. But to the habitues of Le Saint-Ex bistro in Seoul, the words are more than a nickname for a great writer; they stand for a special place where people from all over meet, dine, drink, think and discuss traveling and living in Korea. The owners of Le Saint-Ex, Benjamin Joinau and Ahn Sang-joon, chose the name because the author's life and philosophy best fit their lifestyle.

Le Saint-Ex is a place where diners can both enjoy homemade meals prepared by the French chef Numa Bertrand and meet with young artists working in Korea. This month, a Belgian-Korean fashion photographer, Vincent Sung, and a Swiss travel photographer, Leo Pierrard, are holding a joint exhibition there. Their show is titled "A Tribute to Korea." The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently spoke with the five friends - Joinau, Ahn, Bertrand, Sung and Pierrard.

The photo exhibition "A Tribute to Korea" runs through Sept. 23. Le Saint-Ex is located in Itaewon near the Hamilton Hotel and is open from noon to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m to midnight every day except Monday. Hot dishes are available from noon to 3 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, call 02-795-2465 or e-mail lesaintex@hotmail.com.

Benjamin Joinau, French, 31, co-owner of Le Saint-Ex

I first came to Korea seven years ago to teach at the French School in Seoul, and later at Hongik University. Through a mutual friend I met Sang-joon about three or four years ago. We're now partners in this place.

I met Vincent through a mutual friend six months ago. I knew Leo first as a customer, then discovered later that he was also a good friend of Vincent's. I'd like to hold events like theirs every month. It's a good way to help promote young artists who I think are promising. What's also special about Le Saint-Ex is that we change our menu every three days. So far the most popular choice has been scallops dishes. In October, we will invite another Belgian-Korean artist to hold a show, and we will collaborate with the French Embassy to promote other events.

I guess I've settled down in Korea. Why? If you like your life in a certain place, it's as if you like someone. Just like you cannot say you're attracted to that person because he or she is blond or tall, liking a place is an overall feeling. I've traveled a lot in Korea and find South Cholla province, such as Jeongseon and Yeongwol, particularly interesting. They are remote from cities; there you can still see traditional ways of life.

Leo Pierrard, Swiss, 24, travel photographer

I came to Korea because of one particular Korean movie called "Seopyeonje" I saw on TV in Switzerland. The movie was about old artistic ideas which have been disappearing these days in Korea. Actually, I had harbored a dream of discovering Asia for over 10 years by then.

I've been been traveling Asia as a travel photographer since February 2000. Before coming to Korea, I was in China to study Mandarin, followed by a few months in Osaka. In Korea, I've traveled to many places: Mount Songni, Haeinsa, Mokpo, Taejeon, Pusan and Cheju island.

At Mount Songni, I enjoyed a very peaceful time by just being there and talking to the locals. Many people visiting Seoul can feel deceived about Koreans because it has changed dramatically since the old days. It took a little while for me to learn that some Koreans would talk to me only to get a free English lesson. To experience the real Korea, I think going out to the countryside is helpful, just meeting people and following them around. Along with Vincent, that's how I formed my first impressions of Korea.

I like Korea. It's an interesting country, and I look forward to discovering much more.

Vincent Sung, Belgian-Korean, 33, fashion photographer

I first visited Korea as part of an overseas Korean adoptee program, and since 1996 I've been working in Korea as a fashion photographer. I met Leo at a local club in Hongdae (the area near Hongik University). We share similar interests and vision - and now we share the same atelier in Namsan. We speak the same language, French. My stepfather is Swiss and he is Swiss. We are living in the same country. We both come from a European background - sometimes we need to be European, but at the same time we understand the feel of Asia.

This time, Leo and I worked on a series of Polaroid images printed on paper. One work consists of 9 to 20 small images, from both individual and collaborative endeavors. We tried to express our feelings about Korea and what are uniquely Korean images. To get our shots, Leo and I went to Udo, a small island near Cheju. There we were able to see images of the old Korea, seemingly frozen in the '60s and the '70s, untouched.

I am in Korea because I'm Korean-born and feel Korean. It's like being with a big family. Actually I feel more Korean than European, not that I reject my European upbringing, though.

Numa Bertrand, French, 28, chef

I left Toulouse in the southwest of France for Korea in November 1998 to work for a year as a chef in the French Embassy. After that, I worked for a year at Harue, a trendy cafe in Cheongdam-dong, Seoul. I first went to Le Saint-Ex as a customer and met Benjamin, who happened to be looking for a French chef. I joined Benjamin and Sang-joon last July.

Thinking about my work here in a restaurant frequented by ordinary Koreans, I feel rewarded. I may be making the same foods as before, but the customers are very different. Here at Le Saint-Ex, customers peer into the kitchen and throw me a wink or a thumbs-up for my cooking. Before I began working here, most Koreans were afraid to speak to me, which was frustrating. But Koreans who come here are different. They either want to try something new or look for what they had before. As a result, I've boosted my confidence as a chef.

At Le Saint-Ex, I prepare homemade French food. The basic concept is to serve typical bistro foods with various ingredients - salmon, tartin, chicken, steak, potatoes, you name it - and change the menu every three days. "Il fontante," which means "floating island," is our popular dessert. It's made from egg whites, sugar, vanilla and caramel.

Ahn Sang-joon, Korean, 27, co-owner of Le Saint-Ex

I met Benjamin through a Korean friend of mine in September 1998 while visiting Daecheon beach in South Chungchong province. Both Benjamin and I enjoy traveling and we immediately connected. In fact, we became better friends than the we were with the person who introduced us! We also lived in the same area, near Hongik University. He was working on writing "Le Petit Fute," (Nouvelles Editions de l'Universite) a guidebook about Korea in French. The book introduces Korean foods and restaurants, which I was also quite interested in.

I became more interested in France and went there in 1998 and again in 1999. I realized that in Korea French foods were too expensive and were often mispresented. I wanted to introduce authentic French fare to Korea. After quitting my job as a graphic designer, I began a year-long preparation process to open a typical French bistro in Seoul. To create the concept, I went to Paris, Bordeaux, Avignon and Marseilles. Benjamin and I came up with the idea to create a provincial bistro of the '90s: modest and not too modern. I personally designed the sign, menu and promotional cards. I got the inspiration from the book "The Little Prince." At Le Saint-Ex, we lend books, including "The Little Prince," both the French and Korean editions, for free.

by In? Cho

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