From kitchen duty to graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, chef Yim Jungsik (above) has taken his unique interpretations of Korean cuisine from Gangnam-gu in Seoul to New York’s Harrison Street, where his two-Michelin-starred outpost is. Soon, the 39-year-old will take his creations to new heights – at 30,000ft.
When did you realise your passion for cooking?
It was during military service in 1999. I had an unexpected opportunity to work in the kitchen for the first time. The cook had gone on vacation for two weeks and I was brought on as a substitute. I had a lot of fun doing that and thought it was something I could go into.
What are the three hallmarks of well-prepared Korean cuisine?
Well-cooked rice, guk (soup) and banchan (side dishes).
What makes Korean food so special and how does it reflect the country’s culture?
Every country has its unique practices when it comes to food. What’s special about Korean cuisine is its sharing culture. We roast meat in a communal grill and share the rest of the dishes with others at the table, having only rice and guk individually.
How has the culinary scene in South Korea evolved according to people’s changing lifestyles and traditions?
Back in the day, it was important to satisfy your hunger. But as the country developed, so did its culture. Rather than simply filling our stomachs, people also wanted to enjoy food as a whole. This brought on a stream of restaurants that aimed to complement that trend.
For example, the usually neglected sea urchin has become a gourmet ingredient, and desserts (above) are now a must-have at the end of a meal just for the pleasure of eating. I pioneered the “New Korean cuisine” concept, where I transformed existing food according to whatever was trending at the moment.
How did you develop the “New Korean cuisine” concept and what was your inspiration?
Before opening my restaurant, I studied in New York and worked in kitchens there, before venturing to those in France and Spain.
When I went to Spain, I saw that some restaurants had earned a reputation for new interpretations of their culture’s traditional food. I wanted to do the same back in South Korea. With that, I started “New Korean cuisine”, also known as refined traditional Korean food. My ideas are newly modified versions of typical Korean dishes and they are quite diverse.
One of the most popular signature items at our restaurants in Seoul and New York is bibimbap topped with raw sea urchin (above). This dish is most representative of how “New Korean cuisine” works – that is, recreating traditional dishes such as bibimbap by modifying elements such as temperature and texture etc.
What are your favourite traditional meals back home and what occasions (celebratory or otherwise) do they bring to mind?
My favourite traditional Korean meal changes often. I’m recently into gomtang, a traditional Korean beef soup. It has been enjoyed by Koreans since the Joseon Dynasty and can be eaten any time, whether for breakfast or to cure a hangover.
What was it like collaborating with Singapore Airlines on the special Korean menu? What part did you play in creating the dishes?
It was an honour. Working on inflight meals is a great experience every chef wants to be a part of. It was also a good opportunity for me to promote Korean food and introduce slightly modified versions of traditional dishes for both Korean and international passengers.
I was tasked to develop the Korean menu and choose dishes that would be most appropriate onboard, given that food tastes blander at higher altitudes.
Tell us about your favourite dishes that will be served on Singapore Airlines flights from Incheon. What was your inspiration?
Among the dishes to be served on Singapore Airlines’ flights from Incheon is a slightly spicy but savoury steamed fish. It is an improved version of a traditional Korean braised fish. Passengers will be able to enjoy its meat without having to pick out cumbersome bones.
It’s a tasty dish and I just made it more convenient to eat. It also seems suitable for cooking onboard and represents Korea’s food culture well. For these reasons, I like this menu and I think passengers will like it a lot as well.
Can passengers look forward to modern interpretations of traditional Korean dishes on the menu?
Yes. Dishes served onboard will be reinterpretations of Korean food with the unique flavour of traditional Korean cuisine.
Food-wise, what would you say is the thing that would stand out most for a first-time visitor to South Korea?
As I mentioned earlier, the most prominent feature of Korean cuisine is the ability to create your own dish. Everyone has their own combination of rice, banchan and guk.
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.