Need a passport to put out perfect ethnic plates?
Lim Chang-hwan, an assistant Italian chef at Il Ponte at the Millennium Seoul Hilton, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in Seoul, knows all the useful tips to make great pasta.
When he sautes, he slightly tilts his saucepan to extract extra flavor out of his garlic in a pool of olive oil; when a Korean customer orders carbonara, originally a pasta dish with sauteed bacon mixed with fresh eggs, he knows that they are expecting cream sauce instead of fresh eggs and Parmesan cheese.
There’s just one thing that sets him apart from other Italian chefs in town: Lim has never been to Italy.
“I think I got a good sense of Italian food working with great chefs from Italy in the hotel,” says Lim, who has been with Hilton’s Western kitchen for 15 years.
“I follow their recipes, and I know what suits the versatile tastes of my customers. That’s my strength.”
Bidni, a chef from the town of Udine, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Venice, has mixed views about Korean chefs of Italian cuisine who have never worked or studied in Italy.
There are certain elements in traditional cuisine that chefs cannot randomly adjust to, she explains.
“But this man is very good,” she says of her assistant. “He understands the recipes well. He does it the proper way, the way it should taste.”
On the other hand, Bidni is weary about the ways many Italian foods are modified in restaurants around the world.
“Strictly, you should be born and raised in Italy and grow with the culture to be able to really understand Italian food,” says Bidni. “You could still be a good chef without the cultural exposure, but you can’t be a good traditional Italian chef.”
But a significantly growing number of ethnic food restaurants in Seoul with credible reputations are run by chefs trained locally. This could mean that the standard of world cuisine is getting higher for aspiring chefs here. Diners can sample a wide range of authentic food without having to travel abroad.
Or the trend may simply suggest an important lesson learned by many Korean chefs with experience in the restaurant business here: In Korea adapting to local taste is perhaps more important than an ability to maintain the authenticity of the food’s original flavor.
“It could be a huge plus, because on top of the ingredients you will be working with you’ll learn how to incorporate them into your food from the beginning,” says Jang Myeung-sik, a chef who runs L’amitie, a French restaurant in Seoul.
Jang has never studied or worked abroad. After graduating from a hotel school run by the government, he began working at Ninth Gate, a French restaurant in the Westin Chosun.
Then three years ago, he took over a restaurant in Sinsa-dong, a hangout for many local gourmands, run by his friend. He visits France once a year.
The reviews of L’amitie vary. Food connoisseurs and some blogs have raised harsh complaints about the restaurant’s high prices ? a set meal here starts at 150,000 won ($145) ? compared to the quality of its food. But some French patrons to the restaurant seem moderately pleased.
At a recent dinner, Jang had a Korean entrepreneur and his affiliate from France as customers. The group had an 11-course meal that included roast quail breast with caramelized pearl onions and lamb chops with potato gratin, seared foie gras with apple puree and dried fig paste and zucchini mint puree.
At the end of the meal, the French businessman told Jang that he would recommend L’amitie to a Michelin guide if the book series ever launched a Korean edition.
It wasn’t the first time that Jang received compliments from his French customers, but the incident left Jang with a warm memory.
“I have confidence in my food,” Jang says. “Many people still judge chefs by their resume. I learned French cuisine in Korea, but I never just imitate French chefs’ recipes when I develop new dishes. My pride won’t let me. I read constantly and think of what I can do well.”
Seo Hyun-min, an owner of Palais de Gaumont, one of the top French restaurants in Seoul, had locally trained Cha Beom-soo as the restaurant’s head chef for a long time.
Cha has left Gaumont, but gourmands fondly recall “the best French chef in town.”
“If he had gone abroad and worked in a Michelin-star restaurant, I think he would’ve become an exceptional chef,” says Susumu Yonaguni, a Japanese chef/food critic who wrote a rave review of the restaurant in Cook-and, a local food magazine, a few years ago. “It was the best French I had in Korea.”
On a broader scale, most workers at franchise restaurants of world cuisine are Koreans with little or no experience in ethnic cooking.
When Din Tai Fung, one of the few dim sum restaurants in Seoul serving traditional Taiwanese dumplings, launched in 2005, the company sent 15 Korean kitchen employees to Taiwan for six months of training. None had experience in Chinese cuisine.
The chef’s trick there was to learn the restaurant’s style of xiaolongbao, or steamed meat dumplings, which uses five grams of flour dough, 16 grams of meat stuffing and 18 wrinkles.
The company believes the formula creates the most appealing shape for a dumpling.
“A Chinese jury holds a tasting on a regular basis to maintain the same standard of food in Korea,” says Jeong Hye-seon, a publicist for Din Tai Fung in Korea, which is opening a third branch in Bundang in June. “But most chefs manage to get up to speed after three months of training.”
Critics, though, question the compromised authenticity when food leaves home and the chefs are not exposed to the culinary culture they are about to serve.
“A chef must be very confident to open a French restaurant without having lived or studied in France,” says Philippe Bachmann, an executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu-Sookmyung Academy. “I wouldn’t dare open a Korean restaurant in France. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t risk it.”
Most people find schools or chefs abroad to hone their skills, because often that’s the easiest way to become a great chef. But not all great chefs have followed this pattern, experts say.
Yonaguni explains that there are celebrity chefs like Mark Miller and Charlie Trotter who were almost entirely self-taught and managed to supersede the common level of expectation.
“It’s possible,” Yonaguni says. “I have high respect for chefs who are able to do this. But it’s not something just anyone can do.”
By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [email@example.com]