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Speaking through ingredients

Mar 15,2019
Chef Son Jong-won serving by a table in order to make more contact with customers [PARK SANG-MOON]
Left is a dish using fresh, raw vegetables that are picked by hand. At right shows cod garnished with a rape flower bouquet. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Sourdough bread alongside thin crackers and ice cream made with cut-off pieces of bread [PARK SANG-MOON]
Ever since he took on the role of executive chef at L’Amant Secret inside the less than a year old L’Escape hotel in central Seoul, Song Jong-won has been focused on surpassing the expectations of what a hotel restaurant can be.

A bag of puffy walnut bread, which is easily found at highway rest stops throughout Korea, is given to diners on their way out as something to remember the restaurant for, even back at home the next day. At first, many of the people he worked with were against the idea of handing out a paper bag similar to what someone would find on a long road trip, but he insisted.

“The people who come to the restaurant also drive on the highways and eat these walnut puffs from time to time,” said Son, who prepares the take-away walnut madeleines. “The prejudice that hotel restaurants should be rigid and have a serious ambience should be broken because eating should be something fun and comfortable.”

Pleasant surprises can be found during the meal as well. The chef, a passionate advocate of minimizing food waste, doesn’t let any vegetable parts or piece of bread get thrown away. The cut-off ends of sourdough bread served during lunch get turned into thin crackers and served together before the meal. Other times, the bread pieces become ice cream that is served as a dessert.

Some stems of rape flower, which could be easily abandoned after the petals are used to garnish the cod on the menu, are also used to make sauce to add the ultimate yellow flower flavor.

“If only 20 percent of an ingredient is used, then 80 percent is thrown away. But when you put the rest of the ingredient back into the food, I believe the dish really becomes fuller,” he said, adding that interacting with farmers helped him realize that he should make the most out of each ingredient that arrives in his kitchen.

His spring menu - which may change from day to day depending on what he finds at the market - makes diners feel like they are in the middle of a flower garden. Featuring carrots cut in the shape of flowers, the dishes will make you feel like spring will come any day now.

And then, fresh pieces of kohlrabi and carrot covering a bowl of ice follows. The bowl is garnished with leaves to make one feel like they are out in a garden looking at vegetables in soil.

The deep green watercress veloute is topped with green asparagus and other green herbs, followed by the cod garnished with a rape flower bouquet. After that, a pullet is served with local mushrooms. Spring Seolhyang strawberries end the meal on a sweet note.

“Of course, there are ways to use lots of fancy ingredients like caviar or truffles, but I wanted to make the most of what’s easily accessible to anyone,” said Son.

He thought a lot about how he would run a kitchen during his time at Benu, Coi, and Quince in San Francisco, as well as the brief time he spent at Noma in Copenhagen before he joined the hotel. He has knowledge of what went well together while making the contemporary-style dishes he served overseas, so now he tries to make that combination readily available here. For example, to make his watercress veloute, he puts in all kinds of fresh vegetables that he finds at a local market, including minari (water parsley) and chamnamul (short-fruit pimpinella).

The chef originally wanted to cook Korean food when he set his mind on becoming a chef, and he hopes that he will eventually end up serving Korean cuisine. In the meantime, he has mastered how to bring ideas to the plate at restaurants in the United States and in Europe and gets to practice what he learned at a restaurant that serves what he calls contemporary food in Seoul. The first step toward promoting Korean food is to use as many local ingredients as possible. That way, he can experiment and figure out which style of Korean cuisine he wants to make toward the end of his career.

“I think a lot about how doing what we call ‘Korean-style Western food’ can be a starting point for a different kind of Korean cuisine,” said Son. “I try to do ‘Western food’ that’s as Korean as possible because Western food is also part of Korea’s food culture these days.”

At the moment, since the concept of cooking “modern” Korean food is relatively new, there is no clear understanding of how “Korean” it needs to be in order for a restaurant to earn the identity of being a place where modern Korean food is served. Son said when a chef who gets enough international recognition publicly says that what they do in the kitchen is modern Korean food, then the concept will become clearer for everyone.

“[The Korean dining scene] is in the middle of finding its identity,” said the chef. “What I can do to help find that identity is to discover as many high-quality ingredients in Korea as possible.”

The spring menu at L’Amant Secret will be available until April 30.

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