Cooking up something new

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Cooking up something new

To cook Korean food, Koreans say you need a special hand that can whip up magic.

To cook rice, you dip your hand into a pot and add water until it comes a little above your third finger. But what if your hands are small or large?

That question bothered Choi Young-sook, the second generation owner of Woo Lae Oak, the first upscale Korean restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, specializing in grilled meat and noodle dishes. She found that none of her chefs used precise measurements when making dishes, yet they were all too stubborn to change the two-finger, three-finger way of cooking. Ambitious to expand her business but frustrated by the inconsistent dishes coming out of her kitchen, she turned to the lowest-paid person on her staff, Eleazar Martinez from Honduras.

Fourteen years have passed since Ms. Choi taught Mr. Martinez how to cook Korean foods. Mr. Martinez, the executive chef of three Woo Lae Oak restaurants in the United States, is the first non-Korean chef to oversee a top-drawer chain of Korean restaurants.

Both Ms. Choi and Mr. Martinez are in Seoul, and next week will serve their adaptations of Korean food at the Sorabol restaurant in the Shilla Hotel. Among their dishes: spicy black cod braised in anchovy stock, jalapeno pepper, green onion, garlic and radish; jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge) served with caviar spring rolls; sundae or sausages made from kimchi, glass noodles, tofu and short-rib, and braised duck breast.

Born in a remote area of the Honduras, Mr. Martinez moved to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to study accounting. Seeing no no future in his poverty-wracked country, he stuffed $150 in his pocket and began the long journey to the United States.

Six months and over 5,000 kilometers later, the 22-year-old slipped over the border and settled in Los Angeles in April 1989. At that time, and still today, many illegal workers found low-paying jobs as dishwashers in restaurants. The Choi family let him stay in their house, helping him gain U.S. citizenship and also funding his accounting studies at college. Today, Mr. Martinez is a certified public accountant who has chosen cooking over the more lucrative American profession of cooking books.

He says his initial years in the kitchen were gruelling. "It's very hard working with Koreans because they often scream, yell and call names," he says. But he knows that is the nature of the kitchen, not the people. "The same people who yelled at me would turn around and offer me a cup of coffee, even when there was only one cup left. That's Korean heart," he says.

Mr. Martinez's passion for Korean foods comes from his experience. "Korean ingredients are fresh and healthy, and they are prepared simply using basic condiments: sesame, oil, salt, red chili pepper, soy sauce and garlic," he says. "In Korean food, you can taste the original taste of the ingredient flavored by the sauce, not the way other around."

Although this is his first time visiting Korea, he says he feels at home, perhaps having spent so much time with native Koreans. "I feel like I've already been here many times. Everything seems so familiar," the 35-year-old says.

In Koreans' minds, the kitchen is a living hell, a place where generations of Korean women have suffered. It's a place where the famous Korean rancor originated. The baring of the Korean heart ?love and hate within the family ?comes from here. The Korean kitchen was a dark dungeon made of mud. In the winter, women stayed there all night long to keep the fires roaring so the house's floor was heated. Even in the hot summer, the women lived in the kitchen, picking over leftovers after their men had gorged.

While memories of the kitchen may be clouded with bitterness, the food that emerges can be filled with joy. Ms. Choi wanted to bring that taste to her diners.

In the late 1980s, she surveyed Korean restaurants in many U.S. cities, and found few that she considered elegant. "Why should Korean food be always cheap, dirty and smelly?" she asks rhetorically. "First off, the presentation was wrong." In her head-to-toe Dolce & Gobbana and Chanel, and perfectly fit, size 2 body, presentation is obviously important.

While researching traditional foods in an attempt to systemize their preparation, she found that few of the "real" Korean dishes could satisfy the palate of sophisticated epicures. "The poor peasants in Korea ate just about anything, and they ate everything all together -- fast," she says. "It was eating for survival, never dining for pleasure."

To cater to demanding diners, she decided to modify the recipes. Foods that filled the stomach but didn't satisfy the palate were eliminated. Ms. Choi further reasoned that if a person needed months to develop a liking for something, then it shouldn't be on the menu.

Her concept was to maintain Korean identity and to keep her recipes simple, in tune with culinary trends to highlight rather than mask the taste of the ingredients.

She believed that many Korean dishes were all about spicy sauces that overpower the ingredients. She wanted to elevate Korean restaurants to a higher level.

Both Ms. Choi and Mr. Martinez worked with a French food consultant to develop a "creative" cuisine. Despite harsh criticism from some quarters that Woo Lae Oak changed Korean foods to suit American tastes, they opened Woo Lae Oak in Beverly Hills, California, in the mid-'90s, followed by Woo Lae Oak Soho in New York City.

They recently opened a second Woo Lae Oak in Manhattan with an open kitchen so diners can see how Korean food is prepared. "In my kitchens, there are timers going off in every corner because we measure every ingredient and time the cooking," Mr. Martinez says.

"In typical Korean cooking, you have basic yangnyeom (condiments), and then season with either gochujang (red chili pepper paste) or doenjang (fermented soy bean paste)," he says. "Instead of mixing unknown amounts at random times, we've created a specific sauce. If you have a sauce that guarantees the right flavor, then all you need to do is measure correctly to get a consistent taste."

So what is the next mission for the two masters? Ms. Choi plans to continue stylizing the taste and ambience of her restaurants. Each season, she redesigns the front window of her first New York restaurant, on trendy Mercer Street, next to the Prada and Mark Jacobs boutiques. The latest: a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" bamboo forest. Mr. Martinez, meanwhile, is studying for a master's degree in management and taking a pastry course at New York University to develop French-style desserts with a Korean flair.

Three years ago, the New York Times gave Woo Lae Oak two stars. "I'd like to get another," says Mr. Martinez, who perhaps has the best Korean hands in the world.

The "Creative Korea" dinner at the Shilla Hotel runs from Tuesday to Oct. 26. A six-course dinner costs 125,000 won ($104), exclusive of tax and service charge. For more information or reservation, call (02) 2230-3354.


Eleazar Martinez Shares His Recipe for Success

- Perfect Steamed Rice: Wash the rice one day before cooking and soak it in the water. Strain the rice one hour before cooking. The proportion of fresh water and wet rice should be one part each.

- Perfect Kimchi Spice: Use red chili pepper flakes, which yields a clean spicy taste, because the powder version is rather tasteless.

- Allergy Awareness: To get a milder flavor or avoid allergies, mix sesame oil and extra virgin olive oil in 1:5 ratio.

- Garlic Treatment: If you want to avoid the stench of garlic, but love its taste, used dried garlic cloves. Soak the garlic overnight and wash it thoroughly in running water to remove its excessive odor. Chop fine using a food processor or by hand.

- Best Meat Tenderizer: Make a marinade from a mixture of kiwi, garlic, green onion and onion. Use a food processor to make it very fine.

- Tempting Color: Use two kinds of soy sauce, dark and light, to adjust the sauce's taste and color.

by Inēs Cho

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