Recipe for happiness in life

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Recipe for happiness in life

There’s a jarring sense of dislocation the second you step into the kitchen at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Seoul. Whisks clatter against metal bowls, oven doors slam and knives pound chopping boards as students rush back and forth in a constant blur of motion.

One voice cuts through the cacophony, that of Marc Chalopin, a master chef from France and an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu. “After you’ve cooked the chicken, you’ll poke it with the tip of your knife and feel the temperature on your wrist. If it feels hot, it means the meat is done.”

He raises his voice as the noise level increases, barking instructions, voicing encouragement. There are 16 intermediate students in the continuing education class at Sookmyung Women’s University. All are taking a 20-week course that today focuses the making of ballotine de volaille, a boned chicken that is stuffed with foie gras and capers, rolled into a bundle and then poached.

The trick is to wrap the meat as tightly as possible with chicken skin, almost as if you were stuffing a sausage, making sure there aren’t any air bubbles in the parcel. Students are graded on the shape of their ballotine and their tying technique; tight knots prevent the meat from expanding.

“Pull it tight!” Mr. Chalopin yells in French, as his assistant, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, translates into Korean.

Mr. Chalopin leans close to one of his students, Park Han-na, and tells her to use the weight of her body to press the ballotine. “Harder, harder,” he says, like a marathon coach training an athlete.

Ms. Park, who’s dressed in kitchen whites, knots her face with a pained expression. “I can’t, I’ll die,” Ms. Park says, her wrists turning red from the pressure she’s already applying to the ballotine. Her chef’s hat is soaked with sweat by the time she knots the bundle.

“Voila!” Mr. Chalopin says, patting Ms. Park on the shoulder.

Later that afternoon, Ms. Park shyly holds out her palms. They’re pocked with burns, blisters, calluses and cuts.

Her hands were once delicate. Ms. Park was a violinist, a student at the prestigious Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory before abandoning 12 years of studies to become a chef.

At 24 years of age, she’s old enough to crack eggs, and young enough to switch paths in life. A year ago, she decided to follow her dream of opening a French restaurant and applied to Seoul’s Le Cordon Bleu, a branch of one of the world’s most respected culinary schools.

“There’s an odd similarity between cooking and playing violin,” she muses. “For one thing, you have to stay attuned to the sounds to become a good chef.” There are other similarities; both music and food give pleasure to people.

Ms. Park abandoned music for her love of food. She certainly didn’t do it for the money. Chefs in Korea are generally paid less than 1 million won ($790) a month -- one-third of what Ms. Park would earn if she had earned her master’s degree and given private violin lessons. Hotel restaurants may pay better, but it takes years to rise through the ranks. You “start from peeling potatoes,” she notes, and put up with all sorts of verbal abuse from senior chefs who demand perfection.

Low salaries and limited job prospects discourage many people from entering culinary institutes like Le Cordon Bleu, where tuition for an 11-week course costs as much as 6 million won. It costs 16 million won and takes 90 weeks -- nearly two years -- to complete the entire Cordon Bleu curriculum. For some, that adds up to a risky investment.

I t’s an overriding passion for food that draws students to cooking schools, many launching a second career. Nearly 60 percent of the students at Le Cordon Bleu are young professionals who secretly harbored the dream of becoming a chef, but didn’t have the courage to pursue their passion when they were younger.

In Mr. Chalopin’s intermediate class, there are investment bankers, an accountant, a botanist and a teacher who have decided to chuck their careers to cook. In a country that generally holds chefs in low regard, this is a cultural eye-opener.

Enough people have taken this route that the Korean media now calls young professionals entering the food industry “the intellectual food tribe.”

Kim Seong-mi, 36, is a tribe member and one of the country’s few gourmet chocolatiers. She was a graduate student in sociology in Japan when she developed her passion for food.

“I knew that I was losing interest in what I was doing,” she says. “I just couldn’t accept it until I discovered there was a job called a chocolatier.”

Marriage and raising children kept Ms. Kim from pursuing her dream. But once her kids were older, she enrolled in a nine-month course in pastry arts at Le Cordon Bleu in London. With a diploma in hand, she was hired by the Ritz, one of London’s finest hotels, where she crafted creme brule for dinner and afternoon tea.

“It was a liberating experience,” she recalls. Returning to Korea, she faced an unexpected hurdle. Koreans are accustomed to factory produced sweets, and often don’t like the taste of gourmet chocolates. That’s one reason why she decided to use her training and practical experience to teach a pastry class at Suwon Women’s College.

Han Hwa-jeong also switched careers after discovering the beauty of food. Ms. Han, 36, was an investment banker with a Korean securities firm before moving to Japan eight years ago to study food styling. She now teaches party planning and food styling at La Cuisine, a cooking school in Apgujeong-dong that is particularly popular among professional women.

“Eight years ago, it would take 15 minutes of explaining before people understood what food styling is about,” Ms. Han says, noting that magazine editors didn’t think about stylists working with photographers and that people didn’t consider the intricacies of planning a party.

The situation has changed. “There’s no doubt this is a trend,” says Noh young-hee, 39, a magazine reporter-turned-food stylist who specializes in advertising.

Ms. Noh also owns a cooking studio in Cheongdamdong, and has three large closets packed with plates, cutlery and table linen. “It’s never enough,” she says. “I have to invest in new things endlessly.”

Ask the Korean students at Le Cordon Bleu about the most difficult aspects of European cooking and many will say “taste.”

“Training my tongue has been the trickiest aspect about learning French cuisine,” says Shin Eun-mi, a student in her late 30s at Le Cordon Bleu. “It took me a long time for me to taste the sauces and figure out whether they were properly prepared.”

The best part of European cooking?

Many students say it’s chopping vegetables or crushing garlic. “Believe it or not I love chopping,” says Park Sin-ae, an alumnus of Ms. Noh’s cooking class. “I find the process very meditative, a major stress release.”

But most say their greatest joy is giving other people pleasure through their food.

“Sometimes I think about my old job as an investment banker, and how much money I would have made. But those moments don’t last long,” says Ms. Han, the food stylist. “I wouldn’t swap what I’m doing now for the money.”

Ms. Shin, who sold a private school, or hagwon, she had run for 13 years to attend Le Cordon Bleu, has similar sentiments.

“My husband jokes the worst thing that can happen is that I won’t find a job after graduating and I’ll end up cooking for my family,” she says. “So what? This keeps me happy. What more can you want from life?”

by Park Soo-mee
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