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Teeming with creativity, chef makes dining a work of art

May 10,2017
Chef Lee Chan-oh, above, is plating at his restaurant Manu Terrace, in front of his artwork. Lee’s newest restaurant Chanou also features some of his artwork on the wall. Both restaurants serve French food. [PARK SANG-MOON, CHANOU]
Papers covered in letters and numbers never worked well in chef Lee Chan-oh’s mind. What drives him are scents that tickle his nose, colors that mesmerize his eyes, and textures that make him want to reach for a touch.

The chef, who rose to stardom after appearing on a number of TV cooking shows, says such stimuli to his senses made him discover his passion for food and art. He went to Australia to study sports marketing, but soon realized that he wanted to cook food.

“The starting point of everything in life for me is cooking,” said Lee Chan-oh, executive chef of two restaurants - Manu Terrace and Chanou, both of which serve French food. “Cooking inspires me to create other things, but what is located firmly in the center is cooking, and it takes up the majority of my time in life.”

His interest in color has inspired him to paint not only on dishes but also on canvas. Just as he never studied cooking, he picked up painting without any background in art. He developed both of his new interests during his time in Australia. He has made artwork for both of his restaurants to complete the experience for diners.

"I make what I wish to have in my life a part of my life," said Lee, adding that cooking is what makes his career and painting is what gives him time to rest. “I don’t need to go on a trip to stay by the beach or sing at karaoke to relieve stress as cooking and painting provides me with enough energy to keep creating.”

What allows Lee to explore the world without actually leaving Seoul is social media, which he turns to for inspiration. He goes to Instagram accounts run by small and big art galleries or individual artists to see their latest works. He finds new trends from the colors that artists use and the ideas they try to convey in their work.

In his free time, the chef tends to a small garden where he grows all kinds of herbs and constantly thinks of what new things he can create with the resources he has.

Not all artists are hands-on in making the smallest pieces of their large installations, and Lee runs his businesses similarly. While he still oversees cooking operations at his restaurants, he partnered with chef Mathieu Moles, who is from France and has years of experience cooking French cuisine at hotel restaurants in Seoul.

“I don’t want to define my profession,” said Lee. “I’m a creator with a passion for food, and food is the creative content I have [gained attention for,] but I don’t think my goal is to become the world’s best chef, or a Michelin-three-starred chef.”

He even dreams big. As he wants to spend time not only cooking, but also painting and managing restaurants, he is interested in partnering with other talent so that others can shine with him. He wants to be a restaurateur, artist, chef and anything else that allows him to create.

Some may question if pursuing art is his attempt at having his creations last longer than the food which quickly disappears after it is consumed. But, the chef shows that is not the case as he even paints over his existing paintings whenever he feels compelled. The large painting on a wall at Chanou changes almost weekly, as he paints over the existing one. Expressions are instant and the short life of art inspires him to keep going, he said, instead of holding on to what exists already.

Although he became known as a chef who cooks French food through TV, his celebrity brought unwanted attention from the media to his personal struggles in his marriage and divorce. Lee currently does not take any part in TV shows, but opened his new restaurant Chanou, steps away from his first restaurant in southern Seoul, while going through a divorce to evolve beyond the rumors and focus on cooking.

“I own all my struggles and it was all good experience,” said Lee. “The divorce, in the end of the road, may play a different role in making my reputation as free-spirit chef.”

Now with him away from TV, fans of his food have no other choice but to head to his restaurants. He is usually around to cook in the kitchen and greet visitors. He plans to make his restaurant Chanou more of a multi-purpose cultural spot by hosting themed events or parties. French winemaker Hugel and Fils recently had a winemaker’s dinner and after party there.

Debating which restaurant to try? Lee said Manu Terrace is representative of his true self whilst Chanou is a place where he dresses up.

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