[Viewepoint] Improving Korea’s culinary culture

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[Viewepoint] Improving Korea’s culinary culture

A government-funded foundation recently announced a plan to invest 5 billion won ($4.3 million) of taxpayer money to open a Korean restaurant in Manhattan. While 5 billion won is no small amount for an individual, or even a small business, the sum is trivial when considering the state budget. Still, the point is not how large the fund is. If used properly and wisely, 5 billion won wouldn’t be too much.

But we cannot allow even 50,000 won of precious taxpayer money go to waste. While the foundation must have concluded that quite a large sum of money was needed when it planned the project, I would like to propose a rather different formula.

If previous cases are taken into account, the restaurant project is likely to be limited to a one-time event. Once the 5 billion won is approved, it will no longer exist as a public fund and will become unaccountable, and no one will accept responsibility even if it is wasted in a foreign land.

Should these one-time events be repeated, they will become a chronic problem for society. Please do not misunderstand my intention. As someone who has been working to help globalize Korean cuisine for over 20 years, I hope this project succeeds. However, there are obvious limitations that will lead to failure.

The Korean restaurant to be opened in Manhattan will probably target the upper class of New York City. It will have a tasteful interior and feature fine Korean dishes developed by top chefs, and it will not make the mistake of competing with low- and mid-priced local restaurants - a concern expressed by some critics. If the restaurant’s newly-developed menu receives favorable reviews, it will be a benchmark for other restaurants and lead to an overall improvement in overseas Korean restaurants.

However, the chances of that happening are slim. There is no example of a local dish becoming successful internationally if it has not first been popular at home. In other words, Korean cuisine can only be globalized once the domestic cultural level reaches international standards and expectations.

The typical sequence of doing business is messed up because bureaucrats think the globalization of Korean cuisine amounts to only running a restaurant business. The key to globalization is to first raise Korean culinary culture to an international level. It is certainly important to develop new ingredients and cater to Western tastes, but that alone cannot make Korean food an international favorite.

While “food” is a part of the cultural setting, “culinary culture” refers to the cultural products related to food. Therefore, improving culinary culture is reinventing the culture in general. It is a matter of reshaping the Korean identity and regaining our pride as a highly civilized culture. For the last century, the Korean soul has become lost in Western culture. It is time we retrieve Korea’s cultural sovereignty.

The globalization of Korean cuisine is a cultural movement. Throughout the history of civilization, culture flows from top to bottom. If those with influence and taste initiate the project, the globalization of Korean cuisine can be attained in little time.

Japanese carmaker Toyota had its research and development team travel the world for one year to design the best automobile in the world. The team members tested the best cars, stayed at the best hotels, dined at the best restaurants and experienced the most luxurious food and wine. Toyota’s innovative strategy gave birth to Lexus. It all began from the premise that a human cannot create more than he has experienced.

I insist that large corporations need to lead culinary culture because they have already experienced the finest things in the world. If the chairman of a corporation employs a dedicated team of 10 to work on the globalization of Korean culinary culture, and invests the financial, structural and cultural resources, it will cost about 10 billion won. It is a relatively small investment that will surely bring about revolutionary changes in the near future.

If they design and decorate a Korean restaurant tastefully, and offer new, high-end Korean fare, other Korean restaurateurs will compete to create something better. The pyramid-shaped structure of the food industry has stimulated the evolution of Korean cuisine through competition. The restaurant could be used for business receptions, and employees and executives will be able to experience high culinary culture.

The cultural experience will inspire the public, which will bring change to our perception of Korean food. The development of a food culture will help the domestic economy. Jobs will be created and farming and fishing villages will grow. We can also expect the growth of production and the export of traditional food items. But first, the globalization of Korean food has to come from Korea.

*The writer is the president of Kwangjuyo Group.

By Jo Tae-gwon
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