Cook the rice fully and x-ray the cakes

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Cook the rice fully and x-ray the cakes

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Illustration by Bae Min-ho

Everybody experiences humbling moments. Lee Geun-bae has decided to share his with the world. The former resident chef at the Blue House, who cooked for three past presidents ― Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung ― has written an autobiography titled “The Blue House Chef,” published by Pulgeurim in March.
In the book he writes about his triumphs, and, more notably, his mistakes as he cooked for the most important political figures in the country. “Everyone in the Blue House, including the diplomats and the serving staff, were top practitioners in their own field. There was absolutely no room for error,” he said. He laughed as he added, “But I managed to survive a few.”
Lee’s first mistake at the Blue House was a big one.
“It was five minutes before President Roh and the first lady were due to have dinner,” he writes in the first chapter of his new book. “Suddenly, everyone in the kitchen huddled around the rice cooker. As it turned out, the rice inside was raw. Everyone turned blue. I had forgotten to turn it on. As the maintenance official’s voice began to squeak with anxiety someone brought in a rice cooker full of cooked rice that had been purchased from a nearby diner.”

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Lee remembers the incident now with a smile. “It was really embarrassing at the time,” he said. “Especially because I had been a top chef at the Plaza Hotel for 10 years.”
Despite the successful career he has created for himself, Lee started at the bottom. He grew up in Cheongyang county, South Chungcheong, which he describes as “a total hillbilly town.” The first time he stepped inside a kitchen was when he was in the army, serving as a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation Troops to the United States Army) member during the late 1970s. “Traditionally in Korea, especially in rural areas, the elders say that a man’s testicles will fall off if he enters the kitchen,” he joked.
Lee was originally meant to serve in the engineering division, but there were no vacancies, so he was moved to the cooking division. “It was a real ego-buster for my parents,” he said. “The first day I went into the kitchen and put on a white apron was hard, I couldn’t handle that image.”
The job proved to be challenging, despite his initial disdain. “It was the toughest job I’d had until then, especially because of the need to speak English with American servicemen,” he said.

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Lee sought help from his fellow American soldiers and tried to fit into his new role. He said he memorized 100 English words per day, just to read the American recipes.
After a year or so, Lee found he was good at cooking and he found the work satisfying. He began to ask American soldiers in his unit to bring back recipes from the United States when they returned from leave. “After a year, I found myself working much faster than other people on the cooking staff. I guess I realized I had a talent for something that I never thought I would be good at,” he said.
His new-found skills were also recognized by others, including a senior officer in his unit. “He said I had good ‘hand skills’ and asked me if I wanted to pursue a career in cooking,” he said. “I shrugged it off at the time as being just a courteous compliment.”
Little did Lee know that kitchens were destined to be his workplace from then on.
After he finished his army service, he started hunting for jobs. In 1981, he landed a position as head chef at the Plaza Hotel, after numerous tests and interviews. It was the leading hotel at the time, known for its outstanding Western cuisine. The Chosun Hotel was its only serious rival. There, he specialized in food for executives. “You know meat cutlets, back then, were a rare dish, for the elite,” he said. “When I first started making Western food, it felt so odd, to put fruit in main dishes and use tomatoes as a main ingredient.”
He managed to develop his skills and, in 1990, he was recommended by his superiors to be one of the new chefs at the Blue House.

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Lee Geun-bae

“I made so many mistakes when I first arrived,” he said, with a winning smile. “There is nothing to do but to learn from them. If not, what are you going to do?”
The mistakes he describes seem rather minor, but he explained that the atmosphere in the Blue House is something that is hard to imagine for those who have not encountered it first hand.
“There are strict pre-tasting sessions we go through before serving the food to the president,” he said. “We even have an organization to do the tasting beforehand. For example, if the Blue House receives a cake, it needs to go through an X-ray machine to see if there are any bombs or such things inside.”
Lee said that the top four priorities at the Blue House with regard to food were (in order of importance) safety, sanitation, nutrition and taste. “Many people, even my friends expect some unimaginable feast to take place at every Blue House meal, of the sort they might imagine being served to kings. This is not so,” he said. “During my years at the Blue House, I have never even cooked special stamina food, like snakes or dogs and such. Because we put safety first, the food served there might be considered rather bland.”
As he talked, it became more apparent that, as a chef for almost two decades, he uses food and menus as metaphors that run through everything he says. “After a few months of sorting out the likes and dislikes of presidents, you get a sense of where they are from,” he said. “All three presidents, like many people who are getting older, preferred food that they were familiar with, the dishes from their hometowns. For example, former president Kim Young-sam was almost an expert in seafood, as he grew up near the sea.”

When asked if he faced any hardships when the presidents he served received criticism from the public or media, he demurred, “I never allowed politics to interfere with service, or my responsibility as a chef.”
Lee is still pursuing his passion, as the vice president of Greenpal, a company which mass produces seollreongtang or Korean beef soup. He talks enthusiastically about a revolutionary seollreongtang pot, which he invented and uses in his company. It seems he is a man who doesn’t linger on his past. “I hope that people who read my book get an entertaining, humane story from it. We learn and grow from our mistakes. I hope that people connect with my past mistakes and use that to gain some courage.”

Lee Geun-bae
·Born in Cheongyang county, South Chungcheong
·Worked as a head chef at Plaza Hotel from 1981 to 1990
·Worked as a resident chef at the Blue House from 1990 to 1998
·His first book, “Blue House Chef” was published on March, 2007


By Cho Jae-eun Staff Writer [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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