In Bad Times, Cooking Turns Hot

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In Bad Times, Cooking Turns Hot

Cooking classes are back - and it is no coincidence that this is happening as the country sometimes seems to be sliding into recession and people tighten their belts. It may seem strange, but food crazes have always gone hand in hand with Korea's economic downturns. The idea is simple. People are stressed from working long and hard. Families have a great need to enjoy a good meal together, to take some comfort in tough and worrying times.

For others, cooking can be the start of a new career. As a country with a proud history of culinary arts, Korea produces about 200,000 chefs every year.

During tough economic times, cooking schools are filled with people seeking a chef's license. Age or sex means little in the kitchen. Students of both sexes range from people who have just left high school to a 60-year-old former government employee.

Why cooking? A main reason is that restaurant jobs are least affected by a fluctuating economy. Other reasons are the short training term and the possibility of starting a small business with a minimum investment. And If you are lucky, you can earn up to 7 million won ($5,625) a month.

Han's Institute of Culinary Arts, near Jong-ro in central Seoul, offers certificate programs as well as special courses. Graduates receive a certificate that is equivalent to a college diploma and many high school students take advantage of this program. Since last year, universities have begun accepting students with such qualifications as "special students" for their Food and Nutrients courses. For students, it is a chance to get into a university without having to sit 20 government exams.

Courses at Han's Institute of Culinary Arts range from traditional Korean cuisine to European baking. The institute also offers blowfish cooking classes every few months. Because blowfish are poisonous, the intensive program teaches safety tips for handling such potentially dangerous food.

Kang Yoon-suk, 56, has been studying Japanese and Korean cooking since August. After working for a manufacturing company for 20 years, he plans to open a small Japanese restaurant.

"I never disliked cooking, but I didn't know I was going to make a career out of it," he says, laughing.

But he has some worries. "The price of fish to make sashimi is awfully expensive in Korea," he says. "Also handling and preparing Japanese food is quite tricky compared to Korean food." Mr. Kang's wife runs a bakery, and he hopes their joint incomes will be enough to send their two daughters to university.

The president of Han's Institute of Culinary Arts, Han Jung-hye, says there has been a dramatic change in Koreans' attitudes toward male chefs' and in general perceptions about food culture.

"Even 10 years ago, men in aprons were often considered incompetent," she says. "But things have changed. More than half the students here are male, young and older. Now, Koreans talk about food more often. They have become much more sensitive about what they eat."

A food analyst and critic, Ms. Han has published several cookbooks. Many of her recipes are registered under her own name.

Food and wine have become something of a Han family tradition. Ms. Han's eldest daughter, Oh Kyung-hwa, now the institute's vice president, became a food analyst against her mother's wishes. Ms. Oh turned to food after studying to be a pianist.

"It may sound strange, but I objected strongly when she told me she also wanted to be a food analyst," Ms. Han says.

Her only son, Oh Gwang-cheol, is also a freelance wine critic who regularly contributes reviews to magazines.

He set out to be an architect. His mother says she felt a sense of panic when he phoned from Italy, where he was studying, and told her he was taking wine-tasting classes.

Perhaps the biggest change in cooking classes in recent years is the diverse group of people who come for many reasons. Just a few years ago, a cooking school was part of the etiquette for wealthy housewives and newlywed brides - on the same level as flower arrangement courses. The concept back then was centered on "cooking for someone else," mostly husbands and children. Today, cooking schools and cookbooks are aimed largely at single men and women in their 20s and 30s.

La Cuisine is a chic cooking school in the Apgujeong-dong fashion district in southern Seoul, next to the famous interior design store, "A Room With a View." With a large kitchen designed by a top interior decorator, and featuring fancy kitchen utensils, La Cusine is very popular with younger people. Students are interested not only in cooking, but in the latest lifestyle trend of "healthy living." And in keeping with its young clients' particular tastes, La Cuisine describes itself as "a contemporary culinary school that hopes to bring different dimensions to modern culture."

Lee kyung-ah, 26, has been studying Korean cooking at La Cuisine since November. With her stylish clothing and pink hair, she aims to become a food stylist a few years from now.

"I have heard that the market is very small and competitive because food stylists are generally hired by fashion magazines, of which there are very few in Korea," she says. "I want to study different courses here, so that I can offer a good balance of quality food and stylish presentations." She will take her first chef's license test at the end of January, and admits she is very anxious.

Students at La Cuisine can learn the latest in French, Italian, Chinese, Korean and New York cooking and food trends. And of course, fusion.

So from now on, you do not have to spend a fortune at "Le Cordon Bleu" to learn French cookery. Courses at local cooking schools usually cost around 200,000 to 400,000 won a term. Hotels and restaurants throughout Seoul also run regular courses for small groups. As well, local community centers offer free courses for people who have lost their jobs or who want a new career.

If all this sounds too much like hard work, pop down to your local bookstore, where you will find a huge range of cookbooks offering sumptuous recipes and great photographs.

by Park Soo-mee

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