Discovering Seoul’s culinary richness

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Discovering Seoul’s culinary richness

To Paul Schenk, accommodating and challenging Korea’s fast-evolving culinary scene can be compared to jumping into a wild ocean of unknown depth.
Having spent his childhood surfing in Queensland, Australia, Mr. Schenk, 30, still maintains a youthful casualness in conversation. Describing some of his most memorable dishes, he uses expressions related to the sea: delicious Chinese dumplings are “submerged” in a creamy soup, and a plate of fresh truffles arrives with a “wave” of powerful perfume.
It’s been three months since Mr. Schenk came to Korea to work as the executive chef of the COEX InterContinental Hotel in southern Seoul. So far, he has handled the opportunity with the calmness of a resilient professional and the exuberance of a young man.
Previously, he was the executive sous chef of the exclusive Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai and the Grand Hyatt Muscat in Oman. There, he learned to embrace Muslim cooking and ingredients as part of the already versatile range of Australian cuisine.
“Australian food is truly multinational. If you flip through ‘Australian Gourmet Traveler,’ one of the most widely read food magazines, every page each month features food from different countries around the world,” he said. “One month it would be Arab, the next it would be Chinese or Thai ― the list goes on.”
In Korea, Mr. Schenk heads a staff of about 150 in the hotel kitchens, which prepare meals for 653 rooms, six restaurants and 16 banquet and meeting facilities. He plans to present variations of seasonings and dishes that local diners are already familiar with, while making sure that authentic Korean flavors are retained.
“You don’t want to overdo it when you use the freshest ingredients. I just want to bring out the best of each flavor in the food. That reflects the current lifestyle that prioritizes good health and well-being in people’s lives today,” he said.
One of the restaurants he has recently revamped is the Sky Lounge, a restaurant and bar atop the hotel’s 35th floor. Overlooking a panoramic cityscape of the capital, the restaurant, which can seat up to 100, is simple and modest in its decor and table settings.
The new menu he created begins with two pages of culinary terms. “There are so many words to describe the food, but diners are often embarrassed to ask what they are. So I added the list,” he said. The list includes multinational terms ranging from French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese to Korean, as words like jeon (patties) and myeon (noodles) are explained, along with aioli (Provencal garlic spread), duxelles (sauteed mushroom and shallots) and tofu (bean curd).
For starters at a recent meal, he recommended a tempura-battered prawn, pear and mango salad with wasabi sauce for 15,000 won ($14.50), plus 10 percent VAT and 10 percent service charge, and pan-flashed teriyaki scallops with turnip mousseline, carrot and ginger reduction (14,500 won).
Both dishes had vibrant colors and refreshing aromas. Each ingredient carried its own distinctive flavor in a simple and elegant manner.
To match the light and simple lunch, a glass of Australian chardonnay, 2004 Jacob’s Creek (12,000 won), was served.
Main dishes, such as oven-roasted beef medallions with shiitake mushroom duxelles, black sesame steamed rice and sauteed spinach (20,500 won), and pan-fried salmon fillet topped with grilled enoki mushrooms, asparagus and red onion in a light soy broth with cherry tomato salad (19,000 won), included familiar ingredients that are prepared in a modern, health-conscious way.
Because in Korea spicy noodle dishes cooked with assorted seafood are perennially popular, he has included his own version: Wok-tossed noodles with scallops, prawns, calamari and julienned pepper and chili. This bright red dish came with a lot of fresh, plump seafood morsels but is fiercely spicy, the way Koreans prefer it.
For dessert, the chef raved about his tiramisu, so we decided to try it with an espresso. My favorite tiramisu is a super-moist one spiked with a shot of rum; the tiramisu at the Sky Lounge, which is served in a tall cocktail glass, is fluffier and lighter than I had imagined but is excellent.
On the whole, lunch at Sky Lounge was light, wholesome and affordable. The chef said such dishes were created for younger diners meeting for power lunches as well as casual get-togethers.
Mr. Schenk said he was looking forward to his time in the city. He plans to visit a Korean restaurant in Insa-dong this weekend, and said he’s already found Korean mustard leaves to be much spicier than other varieties, and the lettuce indigenous to Korean soil different, too. The chef said the menu would be updated every two months, most likely reflecting the culinary wonders he discovers in Korea.

by Ines Cho
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