Le Cordon Bleu eats humble pieWhen the management of Le Cordon Bleu Korea, part of the renowned French culinary academy, opened a branch in Seoul two years ago, the school’s executives also decided to create a casual French bistro on campus where customers could enjoy a fine meal without having to pay 100,000 won per person.
The project was intended to help Le Cordon Bleu graduates get hands-on experience while at the same time changing public perceptions that French dining comprises never-ending courses and wallet-emptying menus. The school also believed the restaurant was a good way to promote its academy, which houses the eatery.
But it all has gone terribly wrong.
As construction began in November 2002, Le Cordon Bleu’s management realized that opening a restaurant on campus could be more difficult than they had expected. Under the Private University Act, Korean schools that are registered as an educational property can’t provide a paid service other than teaching.
But for Le Cordon Bleu, which runs the school with Sookmyung Women University’s continuing education program, opening a restaurant on campus was part of an agreement.
Kim Je-se, the general manager of Le Cordon Bleu Korea, says Sookmyung insisted on owning the exclusive rights to a restaurant run by Le Cordon Bleu.
The university foundation, which initiated the plan, refused to comment on the dispute until the legal battles are settled.
“The space will be used for students’ training,” says Han Young-sil, the university’s administrative director. “Its initiatives are not meant for commercial profits. If we can’t settle the systematic problems, we can also consider using the space as a mock facility for students to test their service as we do now. But the restaurant will open eventually.”
Mr. Kim says the management was aware of the legal barriers well in advance, but it proceeded with the plan anyway because before construction began, several proposals for a revision bill had been submitted to the National Assembly to give private universities rights to run for-profit organizations on campus.
“We were aware of the challenges,” he says. “But we thought they would be settled by now.”
Le Cordon Bleu Brasserie, which was set to open March 2003, remains idle, even though construction was completed about a year ago at a cost of at least $400,000, or one-fourth of the academy’s budget.
Korea’s Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development refused to issue a restaurant permit for Le Cordon Bleu last year, saying that operating a for-profit business within the school compound is illegal, unless the facility is specifically for students and school staff, such as a cafeteria.
Le Cordon Bleu is in itself a trademark for luxury and prestige for gastronomic enthusiasts, something like Louis Vuitton or Christian Lacroix in fashion. It is the most expensive culinary training offered in Korea, with tuition costing 5,049,000 won for a 10-month certificate program.
The brasserie reflects the school’s elite tastes. The restaurant is set up in a renovated space in Cheongpa-dong, northern Seoul, its posh interior decorated in blue and yellow.
A large glass window separates the kitchen from the 32-seat dining room, which offers a wide view of northern Seoul. Glass cabinets on the walls are filled with silver plates and cookbooks published by the school.
A private dining room for six people, which is modeled on an antique French salon, is designed to offer only set menus based on the best ingredients of the day. Marc Chalopin, a high-profile culinary instructor from Paris, was set to lead the restaurant as the master chef.
There are schools besides Cordon Bleu that are trying to change the system. As more universities need funds to support advanced campus facilities, several are looking at ways to make money while giving students a chance to get practical experience.
Solpine, a restaurant run by the hotel management students of Woosong University in Daejeon, was originally built as an upscale restaurant for the public. But the university’s proposal was discouraged by the Education Ministry last year for the same reason given to Cordon Bleu.
School restaurants are also prohibited from advertising in public media, so Solpine now serves mainly students and instructors.
The rules are different for other departments. Under the Labor Ministry’s new Industrial Education Promotion Act, certain academic departments are now allowed to set up for-profit businesses for sale and research. For example, Kyungbuk Science University set up a factory where a team of professors and students in a doctoral program is developing various health drinks.
Hospitality management, however, is excluded from this list, largely because restaurants are generally perceived to be part of the leisure industry, and some conservative ministry authorities consider such for-profit activities disruptive to the campuses’ learning atmosphere.
“We are making decisions based on practical sense,” says Yu Hae-won, a ministry official. “The purpose of continuing education is to provide convenience for students and residents, not commercial profits. It’s an obvious concern that facilities within university grounds shouldn’t interfere with the students’ education.”
Another official said the universities’ tax-exempt status could be threatened if they decide to start running restaurants on campus.
Cooking on campus
The idea of cooking schools opening restaurants on campus isn’t uncommon outside of Korea, though most international branches of Le Cordon Bleu have set up their restaurants at hotels or in high-end neighborhoods.
Seoul is the first international branch of Le Cordon Bleu to open a restaurant on a university campus, though Signatures, a three-star French restaurant in Ottawa, Canada, is located in the same building as the cooking academy.
Le Cordon Bleu is located on the seventh floor of Sookmyung’s social education building past the main university gate through the school hallway. Some might think lavish French dining doesn’t mix with a university atmosphere, but Mr. Kim saw no problem with it.
“We didn’t see why the restaurant shouldn’t be on campus,” Mr. Kim says. “If customers could dine at our brasserie at about 80 percent of the price they get in hotels or French cuisine in Gangnam, we thought there were enough benefits the location could offer.”
Benoir Frouin, a chef at Cafe de France at the French Cultural Center, looks forward to the opening.
“It will be a good restaurant,” Mr. Frouin says. “Students in professional training would give their best. Customers would know what they will be getting. It probably won’t be a professional restaurant, but it would be great way for students to practice their skills.”
Sookmyung officials express support for the business but aren’t optimistic that it will open soon.
“It’s going to take some time until the Education Ministry takes action,” says Gang Jong-gwang, a representative of Sookmyung’s facilities management. “The school is definitely very enthusiastic about the project. There is no question about it. The school wants to proceed with the plan by all means. But the problem is when.”
by Park Soo-mee