Chefs celebrate Korean cuisine at Jeolla contest

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Chefs celebrate Korean cuisine at Jeolla contest

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Jordan Bourke, a chef from Ireland, prepares galbijjim, a Korean beef short rib dish, at a kitchen in the Creative Culinary Institute of Korea in Jeonju, North Jeolla, for the K-Food World Festival. The cooking contest was sponsored by the Foreign Ministry. Provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In the gleaming professional kitchens of the Creative Culinary Institute of Korea in Jeonju, North Jeolla, 10 chefs from countries around the world whipped out their pans and knives, marinated beef, sliced vegetables and stirred a whirlpool of sauces.

These cooks ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s and came from 10 countries, including China, Mexico, France and United States. All were joined by their love of Korean food as they competed in the K-Food World Festival, sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the broadcaster MBC and the North Jeolla Provincial Government this month.

One contestant, David Ralph, a 29-year-old chef from Australia, is no stranger to Korean food because his wife, a pastry chef, is Korean. He too has been a chef for 13 years and he owns a chocolate shop with his wife in Sydney.

“It’s chocolate six days a week, and usually on a Sunday we try to make kimchi, namul (vegetables) and banchan (side dishes),” Ralph told the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview with several contestants at the Lotte Hotel in Seoul after the competition concluded.

“I’m not a fan of fusion,” he admitted. “I love traditional Korean cuisine, but what I really like is that Korea is promoting regional cuisines and made-from-scratch food.

“[Korean cuisine] will boom in Australia in a few years,” Ralph said, because the slow food movement is on the rise globally, and the fermentation process in Korean dishes is an example of slow food. “It’s about keeping traditions and not cutting corners. You can’t globalize Korean food if it doesn’t taste Korean.” That assertion drew a nod from the others at the table.

But chefs will be chefs, and for his galbijjim, he did bring in some Australian flavors, throwing in macadamia nuts along with more traditional Korean ingredients like pine nuts and ginseng. He also marinated the beef in soju and used a pressure cooker.

After national competitions in their own countries, the 10 finalists were selected and invited to Jeonju to show their talents. Ghada Wagih Yassin, 41, from Egypt, is a Korean food blogger and YouTube cook who shares her take on Korean food with the Arabic-speaking world.

“In Arab culture, what is most important is not healthy food; it’s delicious,” she said, adding that she wants to change the perception of Korean food back home.

“I mixed the idea with another dish called koshary in Egypt, which is very similar to bibimbap. The idea was to make a Korean bibimbap with an Egyptian touch. All Koreans like koshary,” she continued, explaining that it combines rice, lentils and other toppings such as beans, vegetables and chili sauce.

For the final round of competition, she mixed Egyptian flavors in her short ribs, using dried Egyptian apricots, hazelnuts and cinnamon.

“There are so many delicious pork dishes in Korea,” she said. Arab and Muslim countries do not eat pork. “And I want to share this with the Arabic community by replacing Korean pork dishes with halal meat such as lamb or duck. Duck meat is very similar to pork.”

On her first visit here, she said, “the greatest prize for me is being able to come to Korea.” She said she is writing a Korean cookbook in Arabic.

The chefs all admitted it’s difficult to cook under a time constraint in an unfamiliar kitchen with cameras in their faces.

Jordan Bourke, 28, from Ireland, worked with food shows as a TV producer and is currently a food writer. He said, “[Korean food] is getting more and more popular in London now, and it’s going to go completely crazy in a couple years time, as big cities go through changes.” He said Korean chain restaurants such as Bibigo, a bibimbap specialist, is spreading in popularity in the United Kingdom.

The contestants spent a week, beginning Aug. 11, preparing for the contest itself on Aug. 15. They also learned about traditional Korean food by traveling through North Jeolla. They watched, for example, the making of gochujang (hot red bean paste) and other fermented foods. Their experiences, and the contest itself, will be broadcast on the MBC network during the Chuseok holiday next month.

All 10 contestants were named Honorary Ambassadors for the Promotion of Korean Food after the contest. The Foreign Ministry said it hoped the ambassador-chefs would “spread the allure of Korea that they have tasted to each of their countries.”

Monique Le Blanche of Paris is an English instructor rather than a professional chef, and said she was proud of her new status as an honorary food ambassador.

“Korean food is a philosophy; it’s not just eating, and there are rules to eating,” she said.

She said her favorite experience was trying Korean temple food and learning about the fermentation of maesil, or sweet green prunes. Le Blanche’s interest in Korean cuisine stemmed from her interest in its culture, and she has studied traditional Korean pansori music and the Korean language.

The winner of the contest was Rosa Gabriela Lee from the United States, who left with $10,000 for her dishes inspired by her Korean husband. Runners-up were Yan Pengtao from China and Iskander Kalimullin from Uzbekistan, awarded $5,000 and $3,000 respectively.


BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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