Putting Seoul’s newest world-class chefs to the testIt is not just the weather that is heating up. In the struggle to overcome wars, epidemics and a bleak economic forecast, Seoul’s hotels are raising the competitive temperature. This spring, two of the capital’s finest pulled out all stops in efforts to entice big spenders through their portals: each hired a world-class chef. Now that their settling-in period is over, the time has come to put these men through their paces. First, who are they?
THE CHEF AT PARIS GRILL
In the red corner, hailing from the Auvergne, France, is Julien de Vita at the Grand Hyatt’s venerable flagship, Paris Grill. This twentysomething young master is friendly and pleasant ― but obviously serious about grub. Not surprising, when you consider his background. He was initiated into the secrets of fine cuisine at the tender age of 15, and has apprenticed at some of Europe’s finest restaurants. He has cooked at the Ritz Hotel, Switzerland’s famed Freddy Girardet Restaurant, Paris’ Taillevent, and has even worked under probably the most renowned living chef, Alain Ducasse.
In this career, presumably he has encountered some picky customers? “Well, you have to say ‘Yes’ to the customer when you work in commerce, but in France we say, ‘The customer is King ― but the chef is God!’”
Ah ― so what can an appropriately respectful customer expect in the “new” Paris Grill? Unconsciously echoing the dancer Isadora Duncan (“If I could tell you about it, I wouldn’t have to dance”), he replies: “I like simple, I like classic. That’s enough to explain; anything else is blah-blah.”
The Paris Grill was, for a long time, largely an up-market steak house ― albeit one with terrific views. Will this change? “No, the steaks will stay; it will be an evolution, not a revolution.” Da Vita is a chef who knows what he likes ― and what he doesn’t like is fusion: “I am not a fusion cook ― they play with this and that, I don’t like it, it’s not my spirit, not my style. To me fusion is like prostitution!”
THE CHEF AT VECCHIA E NOUVO
In the blue corner, from Europe’s second culinary wellspring, Italy, and now at the helm of the Westin Chosun’s brand-new Italian restaurant, Vecchia e Nuova (“Old and New”), stands Franco Sommariva, a native of Trentino in northern Italy’s Dolomites. This big, jovial 43-year- old grew up in a family of hoteliers, and was put to work early ― as a dishwasher!
Whence his style? “I learned in the family, then I went to cooking school ― but it was too much books, too much studying, so I only stayed six months.” He then trained in Padua and Sicily before working as personal chef to a general of Italy’s elite Alpini Corps. This grueling baptism of fire gave him a background which he later used in P&O cruise ships, some of London’s most famed Italian restaurants (including Luigi’s and San Carlo) and a host of hotels in Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Shanghai. He has filled some very famous bellies - Pavarotti’s (“He comes with his bodyguards - they measure the chair for him”), George Michael’s (“He celebrated his breakup with Sony at our place; he ate Dover Sole”) and Boy George’s (“He was hell, man!”) ― but is unfazed by fame: “All customers are the same to me.” And ― you can tell us, Franco, we won’t pass it on ― what is the secret to fine cuisine? “Use fresh ingredients, stay simple and cook properly. Don’t exaggerate.”
Neither chef cooks his hometown dishes; neither will be drawn on his personal specialty. But we ate at both restaurants (it’s tough, but we don’t complain), and can happily report that both chefs make an effort to come out and mix with customers (very rare in Seoul). Food-wise, our recommendations are:
Paris Grill: Escargots (18,000 won ($15)) and Lobster Thermidor (64,000 won). The wrigglers were numerous and came in a grainily-textured barley risotto. With the addition of butter, cheese and garlic, this offered strong, rural tastes, but with a sophisticated presentation. The lobster was the classic belle epoque Parisian dish: a large lobster with chopped herbs, breadcrumbs, garlic and cheeses, served on a bed of penne. Best of all, it is personally served at the table, cooked in a smoking pan of aromatic rosemary. Rich but superb.
Vecchia e Nouvo: Black Ink Papardelle (28,000 won), and Rugetta Pizza. (19,500 won). The pasta comes with cherry tomatoes, rucola leaves and lobster meat. The bitter rucola is a match for the sweet lobster chunks and the tomatoes, and the whole offers simple but well-blended flavors. Unique here are Franco’s patented Lazio-style pizzas; unlike the crusty Neapolitan originals, these come on super-thin, light, airy dough ― “just a base for the ingredients,” he says. The Rugetta included prosciutto crudo (raw ham), rucola and mozzarella. Again, simplicity itself, and for the season, a delightfully light and flavorsome dish.
So who is the man: Da Vita or Sommariva? France or Italy? Hyatt or Westin? Our choice is clear: the superior chef is very obviously [Sorry, we are out of space - Ed].
Hyatt Hotel, Paris Grill
Subway: No convenient subway.
Hours: Lunch: 12:00 p.m. -2:30 p.m.; Dinner: 6:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Westin Chosun, Vecchia Nuovo
Subway: City Hall.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
Both restaurants also serve breakfast.
by Andrew and Jinny Salmon