[Indepth interview]Master chef conquers mountainsEighteen years ago, a young man fresh out of high school was busy working at a restaurant, sweat trickling down his back. He was a kitchen assistant peeling onions, washing and cutting cabbage and radishes. He had sharp eyes and nimble fingers. Watching him, a chef said, “Not bad. You have talent.”
The young man, now 37, is Edward Kwon, the executive chef at the world’s only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He holds one of the most coveted jobs in the world for a chef.
The all-suite hotel is opulent, with prices to match: The lowest published rate for a one-night stay is about $2,000 (1.95 million won). A royal suite commands the kingly sum of 35 million won.
The hotel’s guests are mostly royals and celebrities, extremely wealthy people, presidents and prime ministers. Kwon is in charge of the food preparation for such guests in a hotel that bills itself as the world’s most luxurious.
On vacation for a month in Korea recently, he granted a rare interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.
Kwon supervises 400 chefs, including three top deputy chefs and 260 specialized chefs from around the world. They make more than 1,000 dishes for six restaurants serving French, Italian, contemporary European, seafood and Asian cuisines. They change menus every three months, an impossible feat without creativity. These chefs are considered magicians.
“I myself don’t cook these days, except in unusual circumstances,” he said. “I have already passed the point of knowing what kinds of ingredients or combinations create such-and-such tastes. It’s the same with color and mood. It’s as if I cook by speaking. Besides, the chefs are such well-trained professionals. They instantly know what they need to do and what’s going to happen.”
He said he doesn’t need recipes; his cuisine is a work of art itself. A menu course that he prepares himself costs at least 5 million won. He gets his hands dirty only for extravagant menus, and when he does, the meal is going to be expensive.
Kwon has become one of the rare Korean celebrities in the world of dining, but getting there was not easy. He was born in the remote mountainous town of Youngwol, Gangwon. When he was in high school, he dreamed of becoming a priest, influenced by his parents, who were devout Catholics. However, his grandmother strongly opposed the idea because he was the only son in his family.
After agonizing, he went to Seoul with 120,000 won in his pocket. After he ran out of money, he ended up working at a restaurant in Wangsimni to make money for tuition to study theology. After seven months, however, he became more and more unsure.
“I was totally lost. It wasn’t my grandmother but me who was the source of the problem. When I gave up the idea of becoming a priest, I thought of what the chef at the Wangsimni restaurant told me. He said I had talent. I did not know it was going to change my whole life. So I entered Youngdong University to study cooking for two years,” Kwon said.
In September 1995, he was hired by the Ritz-Carlton Seoul Hotel, the only one in his graduating class to be hired. It was partly because shortly before graduation, he went for some field practice at the hotel. A chef there was competing in the Seoul International Culinary Challenge and Kwon helped the chef, sleeping in the hotel’s locker room for two weeks. Impressed by his dedication, the hotel took him in.
He worked very hard. It is hard to get a chance to work at the hotel and Kwon put everything he had in his work.
In 2001, he was sent to the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, recommended by the Seoul branch’s executive chef. He was then a second cook. The following year, he was promoted four steps up to sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, also in California. In two years he got what others ordinarily took 10 years to achieve. In 2003, he was named one the best 10 young chefs by the American Culinary Federation.
“There’s no secret. I started two hours earlier than others and worked six hours longer,” Kwon said. “I tried to learn as many things as possible. Those I helped thought it praiseworthy. People thought I was tough.”
He had many loyal customers when he was at the hotel, such as the actors Pierce Brosnan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the singers Barbra Streisand and Madonna. Streisand asked him to become her personal cook. Madonna said of his cooking: “This food is better than sex.” The late President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush were among his customers.
In 2005, he returned to Korea as deputy executive chef of the newly opened W Seoul Walkerhill. It was the first time he’d come back in 10 years. He wanted to bring a fresh taste to Korea. One year later, he moved up to become executive chef of Sheraton Hotel in Tianjin, China, and later at the six-star Fairmount Hotel in Dubai.
“At that time, I felt like I was a world-class cook. But there was still one mountain to conquer, the Burj Al Arab,” he said.
So Kwon took up the challenge with five other competitors from France, Italy and the United States, all top-class cooks. Over three days of competitions, his rivals came up with 30 different dishes while he whipped up 50, including Korean-style ox-tail stew. Of course, he won.
“It was an honor for me and for my country as well,” he said.
Six months ago, he opened an Asian restaurant at the hotel and recruited 21 Korean cooks from around the world. Kwon still works from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. There is hardly any time for him to breathe. However, he always takes time to study. He always feels a need to create something new. He owns 850 cookbooks from various countries and reads a lot of magazines to keep up with dining trends. He even flies around to personally taste new things. So he invests about half of what he earns in studying. He keeps a very active e-mail correspondence with some 200 world-class cooks around the globe.
“Cooking is an integrated art including all the senses,” he said. “But there is no master in cooking. If you don’t study, you can easily fall behind.”
Cooks usually retire in their 50s, but Kwon plans to retire in three to four years. He wants to become the next Jamie Oliver, a hugely popular British cook with his own program on BBC, and spread Korean cuisine around the world. When he reaches the age of 50, he wants to open a world-class cooking school, to rival Le Cordon Bleu or the Culinary Institute of America.
By Lee Man-hoon JoongAng Ilbo [email@example.com]