Finding fulfillment from a chef’s knife and a whiskOn a recent afternoon, students clad in white chef’s uniforms at Le Cordon Bleu in Seoul, a French culinary school that opened a branch here in 2002, are busy writing down the words “Heureux Mariage” in their recipe books. The students mimic the graceful writing style of the French chef Jean-Pierre Gestin, swiftly moving their eyes between the chalkboard and their notes about the letter icing on a French-style wedding cake they will make in the afternoon.
The students, most of whom speak little or no French, have no idea how the words are pronounced. Out of the silence, one frustrated student carefully speaks out in Korean, “Can we just write it in Korean?” A French-Korean interpreter, who stands between the students and the chef, passes along the complaint. The chef sighs, replying, “Just write the word ‘mariage.’”
In a way, everything that happens in this room is a cultural lesson.
Indeed, that may be exactly why hundreds of Korean students have attended the school, whose classes are taught by chefs with many years of work experience at Michelin-standard restaurants in Europe, paying up to 20 million won ($20,000) to complete the full nine-month course in French pastry instead of signing up at local schools for about one-fifth of that cost.
“I read about the chefs of the school in a magazine when I was in the army,” says Wang Yeong-wook, one of the three male students in the group of eight in a senior pastry class. “I don’t have any prior cooking experience, but I signed up for the class as soon as I got out of the army. Eventually I want to open up a shop.”
In the West, many young adults have been categorized as the “lost-in-the-kitchen generation,” those who grew up never properly learning how to roast a chicken as families began eating together less frequently and as busy working mothers never had time to teach their children how to cook.
In Korea, the same generation of people is showing a great interest in food, led mostly by foreign chefs and Koreans who sought jobs in the food field after returning home from studying abroad in the 1980s and 1990s.
The result has led to a cooking frenzy in Korea, quickly spreading a new culinary scene and party culture from the West that has become more specialized and true to its origins.
But while the renewed interest in food fueled the notion of family cooking in the West, the phenomenon here has led many young urban Koreans to cook as a new status symbol of a fashionable profession.
As a sign, television dramas are featuring local celebrities as pastry artists and chefs of Italian cuisine. A popular radio program recently set up a new segment in which the host and a celebrity chef chat about food for half an hour at midnight. In Seoul’s culinary havens, shops and restaurants offer an eclectic range of food from gourmet desserts to pancakes served in the style of classic American diners.
“The motivation for cooking here is very different from places like Japan,” says Mr. Gestin, who taught at Le Cordon Bleu in Japan before he joined the Seoul team. “There, students are mostly young women from wealthy families who take classes as part of their bridal lessons. Here people are genuinely more eager to learn and use their skills for their professional career.”
Park Seong-ju, a manager of La Cuisine, a food academy in southern Seoul, agrees, saying local high schools with specialized culinary programs have seen fierce competition within the past few years.
“They have been quickly filled by middle schoolers who are in the top ranks,” she says. “They prepare for that long to become chefs. For them, it’s a dream to become world-class chefs and work for prestigious restaurants.”
Park So-hyun, a catering consultant at “W,” a wedding coordinator, went through the typical phase of being an aspiring chef, which many young Koreans envy. After majoring in vocal music at a college in Korea, Ms. Park left for New York to study world cuisine and pastry. Aside from the full-time job at W after her return home, she cooks and mingles with the customers at a posh restaurant in Cheongdam-dong every weekend.
“At the time I left, food stylists I had known here were getting paid 600,000 won per photo shoot for magazines,” she says. “It was the beginning of the heyday for aspiring chefs in Korea.”
There are plenty of other role models aside from Ms. Park in Korea, as more restaurants in Seoul that venture into inventive menus from abroad have received a promising response from locals.
“K.C.,” a veteran chef and manager of “Tell Me About It,” a new urbane restaurant in Cheongdam-dong, the city’s mecca for fashion-savvy hipsters, says he hadn’t expected such enthusiasm among younger Koreans when the restaurant introduced Western-style brunch menus earlier this year.
“We practically didn’t do anything to Koreanize the menus,” says K.C., a Korean-Canadian who was a chef at New York 5000 in Cheongdam-dong, which first introduced the idea of “a one-table restaurant.”
“We decided to go ahead with the classic styles of breakfasts served in North American homes,” he says. “It was a risk we took, but that turned out to be the key to our success.”
The most vigorous shift in the culinary scene brought by the giant wave of Western food culture in Korea, though, is the elevated status of chefs, a huge departure from the elitist view of the past that defined cooking as a low-paying, blue collar job.
“Now there are Korean chefs who own restaurants or are treated like a corporate CEO,” says Park Seong-ju at La Cuisine. “Chefs must produce a well-crafted menu to compete with other restaurants and have strong business minds.”
Others warn, however, that the interest in food culture now might simply turn out to be a fad among those who wish to have more exposure to Western culture, driven mostly by the glamourous side of the business shown in the media.
“It’s a big problem that there are more business marketers than professional chefs in the industry,” says Huijin Kim, who runs an online shop, “Blossom,” specializing in traditional butter-cream cakes. “It seems everyone wants to become a patissier now like all the drama characters, just like everyone wanted to become an interior designer a few years ago when a Korean television variety show featured an interior decorating program. You can’t think lightly of the media influence.”
While areas of Western-style cuisine have become more specialized to more closely reproduce authentic tastes, some also point out that much traditional food in Korea remains neglected. That seems to bring up the issue of the homogenization of Western culture in food.
“We need to develop a better sense of our food in order to see other [cuisines] more clearly,” says Ms. Kim, who took time off from a Western-style pastry school after college to learn Korean desserts at the Institute of Traditional Korean Foods.
“Trends change so fast here, especially with the Internet. That’s why for me, the titles aren’t important, whether I am called a patissiere, a baker or a confectioner,” she adds.
By Park Soo-mee