09.25 Tue

Culture

Curious chef considers color and traditions

June 04,2018
Chef Moon Seung-zoo, above, of Sougetsu in Samseong-dong, in southern Seoul’s Gangnam District, serves his rendition of a Japanese course meal called Kaiseki. At left are some of the dishes available at his restaurant. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Tilting his head up to take a look at a park covered with trees and flowers is all that chef Moon Seung-zoo of Japanese restaurant Sougetsu in southern Seoul’s Gangnam District needs to feel refreshed. The restaurant serves a Kaiseki-style course menu of dishes in the Kansai style from the Osaka area. The restaurant is located right by Seolleung and Jeongneung, royal tombs from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that are surrounded by grass and act as a park that many local residents enjoy.

“I thought having a restaurant in the middle of a building forest may result in my losing sensitivity towards food,” said Moon, adding that not being able to put a garden inside the restaurant due its high cost also contributed in making him look for a space close to a park for inspiration. “There are many ideas that come to me while working at the restaurant and those ideas get organized while I walk around the park.”

Sometimes leaves or flowers from the park are brought into the restaurant and used to decorate small dishes served to diners.

Moon uses the time outdoors to narrow down his future plans and the cooking ideas that he has had since he was young. He loved to talk about the flavors of the food he ate when he was a kid, so his parents encouraged him to build a life in the culinary world. When he first realized that he wanted to become a chef in elementary school, he decided to take a more systemic approach to achieve his dream of making it in the culinary industry. Instead of going to cooking school right away, he set his mind on opening a restaurant at around the age of 30, and instead, focused on expanding his knowledge on culinary consulting and nutritional studies. After getting a degree in food nutrition and working at a consulting firm to develop the business savvy to run his own restaurant, he signed himself up for a cooking school in Japan to master how to cut, cook and plate ingredients.

He chose Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka as he could study not only Asian, but also Western-style cooking. It was there that he discovered that he was drawn to Kaiseki, especially after he saw a collection of small dishes served with colorful decorations called hassun, served as part of the course meal.

“It felt like I was a kid who went to Costco for the first time,” he said explaining the diversity of seasonal ingredients and different colors that impressed him.

After working at a renowned Kaiseki restaurant Kitcho in Osaka for three years, he decided to come back to Korea and spread word about this particular style of Japanese food, which was mostly available at hotel restaurants.

“The Kaiseki style is colorful and splendid, yet the taste is very balanced without being overwhelming” said Moon, “And I wanted others to experience what I felt back then.”

He also added that deeper flavors from what could taste very ordinary comes from years of working with the same ingredients, just as sushi chefs work to master putting fish on top of rice their entire career.

Since what he pursues is not the Korean rendition of Japanese Kaiseki but the essence of what’s been handed down for centuries in Japan, he made a promise to himself that he would go to Osaka every month and has kept it since the opening of Sougetsu about two years ago to keep himself up to date.

“Trying food and talking to chefs there keeps me inspired,” said Moon, adding that he is thinking about opening a restaurant in Osaka in about two years.

Although he is still brainstorming at the moment, the food he will do in Osaka will be Korean food served in a Kaiseki style. For hot soup, he will serve samgyetang, a clear chicken soup, instead of serving a miso-based soup.

“Some people have been asking me why I wouldn’t mix Korean elements with the food I do here, but I think I will train myself until I get better at presenting the Japanese style,” said the chef, adding that he could be on a hunt for classic brass containers to serve Korean food in a classic manner, just as he hunts for plates in Japan for his restaurant here.

“This is something I have been thinking about and saving since the opening of Sougetsu.”

Prior to making his dream to go international come true, he has taken on a more immediate challenge in Seoul recently. He opened a more casual restaurant in southern Seoul’s Cheongdam-dong called Shokudo Kai. While Kaiseki is more upscale and formal, Shokudo Kai offers food a la carte, in order to try out dishes he has not been able to serve at Sougetsu. Every dish here costs under 10,000 won ($9.28) and drinks are available by the glass, as he wants it to be a place where people come after work to relax and finish their day.

“There are times I have things I need to think about [in order to] to make a decision or to find a direction, and I think I try to find answers within myself,” the chef said.

“I will continue doing what I do until I am 40, and will think more about what I will do next.”

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]


Sougetsu

Executive chef

Moon Seung-zoo

Cuisine
Japanese

Address
55 Bongeunsa-ro 68-gil, Gangnam District

Phone number
(02) 555-9709

Hours of operation
Lunch: 12 to 2 p.m.
Dinner: 6 to 11:30 p.m.

Price range
Lunch is at 22,000 won ($20.40)
Dinner course starts from 88,000 won.

A la carte available
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