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Chef’s creative spirit leads the way

June 21,2017
Chef Lee You-suk of Louis Cinq sharpens his knife in his kitchen. At left are a few of the most popular dishes at his restaurant - Boccheria, top, and Turben, a pasta dish with seafood inside of the noodles.[PARK SANG-MOON]

Not that many dining spots work for diners who have different agendas. But, singles going on a blind date, friends having a small birthday gathering, parents and their grown children meeting up for a family dinner, or workers stressed out from the day’s troubles and looking for a place to drink alone all surprisingly choose Louis Cinq in southern Seoul.

The restaurant, calling itself a French gastro pub, has been in business for almost seven years now and attracts a diverse clientele to its location in Sinsa-dong in Gangnam District. How has it been possible for chef Lee You-suk to build a place that is crowded almost everyday? He takes an approach that no one else has taken and set a goal not to target the top one percent of diners, but the remaining 99 percent.

When once-major shopping area Apgujeong Rodeo Street was slowly emptying out as people looked for other spots to shop, he moved in to the area. When many diners said that a restaurant should open for both lunch and dinner, he opened a dinner-only restaurant. When a Western-style bar was thought to be a place for wine and beer that only offered a menu of simple-to-make steaks and burgers, he set his goal to focus on an unexpected menu. He built an open kitchen, which was almost unheard of, and set up bar seats where diners can see every movement of the chefs’ hands.

“Why put yourself in a frame?” he always asks, adding that he wanted to do what can be defined as his style, which cannot be defined by what’s already available or known.

“When Joel Robuchon does French food influenced by some Spanish treats, we don’t call it Spanish French but call it Robuchon’s style of French cuisine.”

Lee introduced a dish combining pouched eggs, jamon, and mushrooms called Boccheria (inspired by the famous outdoor market La Boccheria in Barcelona) which has been one of the best sellers since the opening of the restaurant. While keeping the steady sellers, he takes on the challenge to introduce new ingredients or styles to his guests. He uses caviar collected from sturgeons farmed in Korea, which isn’t available at many restaurants, in a way to lead food aficionados to something they have not yet experienced and offer them the chance to learn more about the potentials of locally-grown ingredients.

His quest for new ideas starts after the kitchen closes late at night. He gets home, sits in front of the TV while eating his late dinner, and often brainstorms new dishes until the sun rises. His ability to predict what could sell well to local diners also seems to come from the many consulting sessions he does with other food professionals. He worked on a cookbook for infants and consulted a local company to develop a new canned tuna product. When the idea suggested is interesting, he steps up to help out in order to have a better understanding of the many facets of the food industry and to challenge himself creatively.

“People without creative ideas fall behind in the market,” said Lee, adding that he wants to do everything he can while he is in his 30s, believing that the things he tries now will plant a seed for a bigger inspiration and outcome in the future.

While Louis Cinq is widely loved by locals, the restaurant is not yet well known among international travelers to Seoul, as they are often looking for more traditional Korean eateries during their stay. But, travelers may soon be intrigued as the chef is in the middle of creating a new rice dish, a staple of Korean cuisine. Although the chef said he doesn’t plan on making a dish that screams Korean cuisine, he will show off the versatility of the ingredient in a French-style stew or sauce. That way, those with little knowledge on how to use rice while cooking Western-style food can see how different cooking styles can merge on a plate.

“When a dish is based with rice, I think the level of satisfaction comes off the highest,” said Lee based on his observation as a chef so far. “I’m on to making something people like eating every day, not the dish they like once in a while.”

But there are ways to get a sense of how Lee makes Korean-style rice dishes. Head out to Seoullo, the new walkaway overpass near Seoul Station where Lee’s version of bibimbap, rice mixed with vegetables, will be available at the Seoul Hwaban food court in July. The dish is one of the staff meals at his restaurant and is made with small pieces of pickled cucumber and dried radish for freshness and texture.

“Some may think chefs who do French cuisine don’t know how to do anything else except French food, but that’s a misunderstanding,” Lee said, hinting that his kitchen has a lot more to offer.

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