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Michelin Seoul celebrates global perspectives: Five new restaurants given one star, while two climb in rankings

Oct 19,2018
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The chefs awarded with one, two or three stars in The Michelin Guide Seoul 2019, pose for a photo after the list of starred restaurants was announced at the Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [THE MICHELIN GUIDE SEOUL]
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Above left, a pack of tea flowers that are handed to diners at Mosu after their dinner to take home. Right, some signature dishes served at Mingles, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [LEE SUN-MIN]
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Above left, Muoki, which got one Michelin star, serves soup with galchi, a cutlass fish. Right, a burdock root chip, top right, served at Mosu, now a Michelin one-star restaurant in Yongsan Distirct, central Seoul. Alla Prima, now a two-star restaurant in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, serves dishes inspired by Japanese ingredients, and its pasta, above right, has uni with wasabi oil. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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The difference international experiences can make in the culinary scene in Korea is what The Michelin Guide has checked to honor new restaurants in Korea with its star-rating system, as well as chefs who have dedicated their lives to making traditional recipes more modern and appealing to all generations.

The French restaurant guide released its third edition Thursday and announced a list of chefs who were awarded stars at the Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. There were no additions to the list of local restaurants with three Michelin stars, but some newcomers were recognized elsewhere. Five restaurants were given two stars and 19 received one star.

Five restaurants earned one star for the first time, including Mosu in Yongsan District, central Seoul, Muoki in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, Lee Jong Kuk 104 in Seongbuk District, northern Seoul, Hansikgonggan in Jongno District, central Seoul, and Stay at Signiel Seoul hotel in Gangnam District, southern Seoul.

Chefs Ahn Sung-jae of Mosu and James Park (also known as Park Moo-hyun) of Muoki both bring experience from overseas to Korea, and have each run their respective restaurants for about a year. Ahn used to run a restaurant of the same name in San Francisco, where he earned one Michelin star before moving back to Korea. Park worked at The Test Kitchen in South Africa, where he became the No. 2 chef in the kitchen after having started out at the bottom of about 20 chefs.

At the ceremony, Michelin said it was honoring their overseas experience and their efforts to bring what they learned and practiced there to the local scene. Ahn said he tried to play with dishes that are common in Korea so that what’s familiar can become something new. One of the signature dishes at Mosu is burdock root, a popular ingredient that many locals cut into thin strips and braise in soy sauce to eat with rice. Ahn added his own touch by peeling the exterior of the root instead of cutting it into strips, then cooked and dried the ingredient to make it into a chip.

“It was nerve-racking for me to be recognized in a new city,” said Ahn. “There are many stereotypes [that people] simply follow so it’s not easy to introduce something new, but I will continue to try and bring in different cultures better [on the plate].”

While the French guide welcomes global influence, it also honored the work of some Korean food masters who are dedicated to making traditional Korean food more appealing to younger generations in Korea as well as foreign visitors. Alongside chef Lee Jong-kuk of Lee Jong Kuk 104, chef Cho Hee-suk of Hansikgonggan, who teaches classes from time to time for working chefs in Korea, was honored with a star for her contributions to Korean culinary tradition.

“What viewpoints you have when you work on making things ‘modern’ is what makes Korean food different on the plate,” said Cho. “There is no need to make a designated boundary to define hansik [Korean food] and it would be better to approach making Korean food modern in two different ways: mixing what’s local with what’s international and learning the roots of Korean culture and taking some parts of it and making it into something else.”

Stay, a casual brand set up by three-Michelin-starred French chef Yannick Alleno, at Signiel Seoul hotel, also got one star for bringing French expertise to the local market. The staff, led by executive chef Thierry Le Queau, said that they make adaptations with local ingredients while using all the French techniques they are used to in order to make what they serve more diverse.

While Korean restaurants Jungsik and Kwon Sook Soo, and Japanese sushi restaurant Kojima held onto their two stars, Mingles and Alla Prima each gained an additional star and have been added to the two-star list. Mingles, which was ranked No. 11 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant List run by William Reed, a media company that reviews restaurants around the world, has done a number of collaboration dinner events with internationally renowned chefs including chef Pascal Barbot of Paris restaurant L’Astrance. Chef Kang Min-goo of Mingles also traveled to Salzburg, Austria, to cook at restaurant Ikarus earlier this year.

Out of all the starred restaurants excluding sushi eatery Kojima, Alla Prima has the most Japanese touches on its menu. Having studied and worked in Japan, chef Kim Jin-hyuk incorporates Japanese ingredients into Western-style cuisine and the Michelin Guide recognized the food for being innovative.

“The word ‘fusion’ hasn’t been so warmly welcomed in Korea’s food world recently, so I tried to use my own subtle and detailed way to match different ingredients [that are rarely used outside of Japanese cuisine] to bring out something comfortable yet different,” said Kim.

Restaurant Gaon in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, and La Yeon at Hotel Shilla Seoul in Jung District, central Seoul, each maintained their three-star ratings.

“With the continuing rise of affordable air travel, diners have never had a better opportunity to taste dishes from anywhere their heart desires,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of The Michelin Guide, introducing Seoul as a rising food destination. “Gastronomy is a key resource in the value offer and differentiation of destinations and it is a very effective way to make destinations more attractive to visitors.”

While many chefs are congratulating each other for being honored, some are raising questions on the credibility of the guide. Chef Eo Yun-gwon of Ristorante Eo, whose restaurant had one star for the past two years, took to social media before the announcement of this year’s guide that he learned that he had lost his star and then raised questions whether the guide reviews restaurants fairly. After the release of the guide on Thursday, he posted on Facebook that he wants to do a cooking battle with other Michelin-starred chefs and asked local media to join and cover the event and review which chefs’ dishes are better.

“I’m asking The Michelin Guide, which was my goal for over 20 years as a chef, politely,” said Eo. “If there’s no reply, I will take this as Michelin admitting it’s corrupt.”

The Korea JoongAng Daily reached out to the chef, but the chef declined to make further comments.

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