A new generation of Korean chefs
If it lives in the sea, you’ll find it at this market. There are mounds of tuna, squid and soft scallops. Beside the market, restaurants sell seafood fresh from their store-front tanks.
This is a familiar scene for Phillip Lee, an assistant sous chef at Namu, a contemporary Japanese restaurant at the W Seoul Walkerhill Hotel. Lee comes here regularly.
Even in jeans and a leather jacket, Lee seems too delicate to wield a fish knife.
That makes him immediately stand out among the many sushi masters who tend to adopt a more macho image.
Lee has a similar disposition to food.
In a genre of cuisine noted for strict recipes and conservative traditions, where senior chefs serve as the culinary shoguns of the kitchen, Lee expanded his territory by adding a Western palate to his authentic Japanese dishes. His grilled geoduck clams mixed with apple slices and topped with vinegar sauce are just one example.
“The rules were very clear when our senior chefs taught us how to cook,” he says.
“They showed us a certain technique, and that was how it should be done. Just like Koreans say you must put tofu in kimchi stew, the rules for preparing Japanese food are very strict in many hotels in Korea.”
In 2004, Lee put the Ritz-Carlton behind him and joined Namu at W, a hotel noted for its edgy contemporary spirit.
Perhaps he wanted a change after the strict training and the rigid hierarchy of Seoul’s top-class hotels.
“I had serious delusions about being a chef,” Lee says with a smile.
“I actually thought that a senior chef of the house would quietly sit down with me over coffee and biscuits and discuss my food. I didn’t expect to end up smoking in the corner near the kitchen’s back door.”
One was an accident during his earlier days as an ambitious chef.
He cut his knee with a kitchen knife. Terrified that his seniors might find out, he wrapped his bleeding wound with a bandage and kept on working until the lunch hour.
“I think of that moment as a cardinal point in my career,” he says. “I really want to keep that same spirit alive in me during my career.” ’
The second pivotal moment came much later. During a trip to Japan he was in a restaurant when he found a steamed Japanese egg custard, called chawanmushi, that had eel in it.
After working as a hotel chef in Korea for ten years, this came as a revelation.
Lee was used to making the dish using the usual ingredients of shitake mushroom, ginkgo nut, bamboo shoots and fish cake.
“The eel made me realize that chefs can mix it up a little,” he says.
At Namu, Lee ventures outside classical cooking.
His specialties include tuna tataki, a chunk of tuna lightly pan-seared with spicy seasonings, served with salmon roe and cream asparagus, and dobimushi, a pine-mushroom soup baked in the oven then boiled in a kettle.
Basics, however, stay the same.
As we traipse through the market, Lee grabs a codfish by its gills and sniffs. He lays it back on the ice bed, and tests the texture of the flesh, prodding it with his finger.
“When you’re looking for freshness, go for bright eyes and check the gills,” he says. “But the safest way is to go for seasonal items. The whole point is to serve nature on your plate.”